We spend a large portion of our time focusing on major battlefields and large museums that offer the spectacular history that we remember from our school-aged history classes. I remember visiting Gettysburg battlefield as a high school freshman, (as was typical for most students in Pennsylvania) and looking at the fields and monuments had been erected. Thanks to Ronald Maxwell’s documentary, Gettysburg, I could literally picture the battle which had taken place on the field, and there felt the surreal experience that I will simply call hearing the whispers of history. I was able to feel a connection to the shared past of our country, and in on that day, history became present to me, if only softly.
But history is all around us, and we need do is learn about it, and go to one of hundreds of historic sites are in our immediate vicinity in order to experience the same. One such place is a little-referenced site in Bedford County which is connected to Thomas Jefferson known as “Poplar Forest.” Poplar Forest was originally the property of Francis Callaway, who simply called it “the forests.”[i] Callaway’s son was a famous colonel who fought in the French and Indian War and the American War for Independence.[ii] He successfully defended a fort in Boonsboro, Kentucky during the War for Independence against the Indian chief Blackfish and 11 Frenchmen (who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that the French and Indian War was over and France was now an ally of the American colonists).[iii] At another time, Col. Callaway and Daniel Boone had led two successful parties to recover their daughters from Indian capture, presumably becoming the inspiration for James Cooper’s The Last of the Mohican’s.[iv] History whispers to remind us that ordinary men become giants, simply by acts of courage.
The Callaway family sold the land to Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law who, upon his passing, transferred the property to Jefferson’s wife.[v] The Jefferson’s operated Poplar Forest as a plantation, which was a significant source of income to the family throughout Jefferson’s life.[vi] During the War for Independence, Jefferson briefly fled to the retreat during 1781, because Monticello was being threatened by the British army.[vii] I had always known that certain state leaders had needed to evacuate in order to be spared from the British during the War, and most people would easily connect Jefferson’s precious Monticello to certain memories, but if you are like me, then you never gave a second thought to where Jefferson went at that time. You would if you stopped to learn the history of Poplar Forest. History whispers to tell us that it surrounds us everywhere, and we don’t have to travel to the most expected places to find it.
Jefferson spent a significant amount of time at Poplar Forest. He left Washington in 1806 to oversee the laying of the foundations of the octagonal structure which is still on the property today.[viii] It is inconceivable to us that a president would leave Washington, DC where he is literally unable to be reached for hours or days in order to oversee something so menial. Family, and family affairs were equally important as public obligations, and in fact our Founders knew that it was self-defeating to the purpose of our new republic if we sacrificed family for country. History whispers to remind us that we’re ignoring something precious in our new age of globalization, technology, gadgets, and distraction.
Jefferson had the house built to exacting specifications. Like Monticello, Poplar Forest’s primary architectural feature was a perfectly octagonal main home, although unlike Monticello which featured the octagon only as a central feature, Poplar Forest was originally built as a perfect octagon with no additional geometric shapes added to the structure.[ix] The house was built to exactingly specific rules, following the classical order for most everything. Jefferson commissioned a sculptor to do the architectural frieze in the classical style.[x] Yet Jefferson wished to explore his own personal taste in the space, so he broke classical rules by adding ox skulls to the frieze and sacrificed formality and practicality by having the staircases enter into bedrooms on the upper level.[xi] History whispers to remind us that sometimes personalization is a worthy investment, even when doing so diminishes the value in the eyes of others.
"I can indulge in my own case, although in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly."
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.