December 02, 2003

Outside Monticello

While in Washington, DC doing some work at the National Science Foundation, I visited Cary Raditz and his family south of Charlottesville, VA. Every year Cary's family presses apples at a historic estate called Morrisenia, where Cary's grandmother lived, baking pies and having nice Thanksgiving dinners.

The cabin where she lived is of interest to historians because it's almost entirely unchanged since the 1700s--it has no interior walls covering the original wooden walls, no bathroom indoors, and apparently one wire bringing electricity to a single lightbulb. The current resident, in his 90's, offered us milk, which he lives on in healthy fashion. The family has lived on this property since the original land grant. It's rare for a cabin this old to be standing at all, so researchers can see how the nails are pounded, and every other detail about how a 200+ year old cabin was built.

We used a very old wooden press and metal grinder to press the crisp, local apples into sweet juice. My mouth waters thinking of how that juice tasted. As dusk fell, I was glad that Cary and his family had put up a 3-room tent where we all stayed for the night. Waking up to fields of soybeans and old farm equipment suited the occasion. Later I rode a hand-poled ferry across the river, a raft large enough to transport cars attached to wires.

I wanted to spend several days at Monticello, so between NSF gigs, camped nearby (no not on the lawn of the Washinton Monument) at the KOA Campground where a pine cabin kept me warm at night. The campground had trees with wavering yellow leaves, fresh air and friendly people. I ate lunch at the Michie Tavern, a store and restaurant dating from 1784, a themed restaurant by the entry drive to Jefferson's home. After filling a metal plate with food, women dressed in historic garb bring huge platters of fried chicken, stewed tomatoes, cornbread and other period food to the rough-hewn tables. This bounty brought me back each day for a main meal. Michie Tavern also offers a tour.

Did you know that on the floor of old fireplaces in Jefferson's time, there was a wire device where they placed a slice of bread near the fire, and when it was toasty on one side, used their toes to kick the wire bread-holder around so the other side would cook--giving us TOAST?

One of the more awesome experiences of my life was seeing the places Thomas Jefferson read, wrote, planted, designed and managed the many affairs of Monticello. The site on the flattened top of a mountain is spectacular, with a full view of the surrounding land and University of Virginia. You can imagine Thomas Jefferson reading in one of the small, square glass rooms he built out by the garden at the edge of the high land, because the museum has placed chairs where we can do the same. Monticello has an inviting beauty, with it's human scale and almost over-familiarity from school days.

At the same time, the eyes of the slave-overseer from the estate, photographed in a portrait for posterity, haunted me. They were very sad eyes, and I learned that Jefferson's own slave-children were not freed until he died. Such refined beauty, such great ugliness, all entwined with words that shaped the nation.

As Thomas Jefferson says in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

I appreciated the people who keep up Monticello, especially after seeing a photo of the mansion in serious disrepair, probably during the Great Depression in the 30s.

The tour gives details that help you imagine life at Monticello. For example, Jefferson had chairs near the fireplace in the dining room, and he sat there reading until everyone was seated for dinner so he wouldn't waste a minute. I got a fresh sense of what it meant for Jefferson to send Lewis and Clark out to explore the West, when Jefferson himself could not go. The entry to Monticello is full of artifacts from that trip.

I brought home a portrait of Jefferson to place by my great-great-great grandfather Benjamin Long's clock, built in Marietta, Pennsylvania in 1801, while Jefferson was President. Benjamin took a covered wagon to the Niagara Falls area, and fortunately brought the clock, which passed down through six generations of "eldest girls" of each generation, including many teachers. Still ticks and bongs, thanks to a de Young Museum clock repair person.

Thomas Jefferson's clock, located above his door with faces inside and out, has weights that hang through holes in the floor! I learned at Monticello that most people had no time piece in their home. Benjamin Long's clock, built in Amish country in Lancaster County, PA has cleaner lines and a more beautiful face than any other clocks I've seen. Of course, I grew up listening to it call the hours, and learned about moons with its revolving face, so I am a bit partial.

Posted by ann at December 2, 2003 02:20 AM | TrackBack

So nice to see that you have a blog now! It's also neat to see a picture of you as a nun. I think there's also just something special about seeing what people looked like when they were around your own age.

p.s. Comments on the posts above seem to not be working . . .

Posted by: Chuck at December 9, 2003 10:48 AM