Category Archives: Virginia

Cumberland Gap National Historic Site

When I was planning our visit to Kentucky, Mark mentioned to me a few times how he hoped we would be visiting Cumberland Gap.   During our travels Mark has had few requests for places he is hoping to see.   He usually leaves that up to me and my “wisdom,” but the Cumberland Gap was different.   I think I missed learning about it in history classes or it didn’t make an impression on me, so it was here that I learned the significance of this place in the Appalachian Mountains.   The Park is situated in three states, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, with the National Park Visitor Center located in Kentucky.   We started there to get the passport book stamped, see the exhibits and watch an interesting film on Daniel Boone.   The mural in photo above is of Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.

At one time in the history of our country, the rugged Appalachian Mountains (photo above) were seen by easterners as a barrier to exploring and settling the country out west.   In the 1700’s this area was considered the frontier with abundant fertile land that was a draw for pioneers.   The Cumberland Gap was first used by buffalo and other game animals to cross the Appalachians followed by Native Americans who used the route for hunting and trading with other tribes.   It was subsequently discovered by hunters and traders with explorers like Daniel Boone developing the Wilderness Road to pass through the Gap.    Today, you can still walk the Wilderness Road and follow the footsteps of many former pioneers.    But before heading over to the trailhead, we drove up to the Pinnacle Overlook, one of the most popular places to visit in the Park.   From this lofty point, we had views of the Appalachian Mountains as well as views into three states.

From this point we were not only able to see the beautiful, wide vistas but also boundaries of the three states of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky in relation to the Gap.   In the photo below is a rough circle around the Gap.   While standing here it took us a long time to figure out exactly where the Gap was, LOL.

Leaving the overlook, we drove down, passing through a mountain tunnel from Kentucky to Tennessee and the starting point for our trek to the Cumberland Gap.

Between 1775 and 1810, 200,000 to 300,000 people crossed the mountains here on the Wilderness Road into an area they called “Kaintuck,” which became Kentucky.   We learned that they often made the journey during winter time so they could arrive to their new land in time for spring planting.    Below are photos of our walk including a creek crossing on a log bridge.

I liked arriving to find this sign that we had made it to the Gap and who had passed here before.

We found a monument erected here commemorating Daniel Boone as a trail blazer.   Due to his efforts the first settlements in Kentucky were made including the town of Boonesboro where Boone established a fort in 1775.   Kentucky became the 15th state in 1792.

From here I continued on up the Tri-State Peak trail to the top where a monument has been erected for Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.   At this point all three states meet which is kind of cool to find at the end of a trail.   There is a view looking out into Kentucky but not as good or expansive as the ones we saw at the Pinnacle Overlook.   Below is a photo of the three state markers.

I thought I would close this post with some pictures from Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park in the town of London, Kentucky about 56 miles north from Cumberland Gap.   At this park you can also walk a portion of the historic Wilderness Road.    We didn’t spend any time walking the trails here, but we did stop to look at one of the more unusual collections I have seen – several dozen historic millstones once used to grind corn and grain.   They are lined up along both sides of the walkways leading to McHargue’s Mill.    We have seen a number of millstones throughout our travels, but never a collection like this, said to be the largest in the U.S.

A sign explained how the millstones were “dressed” and kept in working order.   Another explained where they came from (many from Europe).   As heavy as they look and weigh, it must have been a feat to get them placed and lined up here.   Besides the historic Wilderness Road and millstones, this park has another claim to fame.   In 1786 one of the most tragic events occurred in Kentucky’s history when 14 families traveling through stopped to camp and failed to post a guard for the night.   They were attacked by Indians with twenty-four people killed and only three survivors.

In the next blog I plan a post in real time on where we are now!

That Old Time Mountain Music

Mountain and Bluegrass music is in the heart of the people in the Blue Ridge Mountains.   It is easy to find music venues as jams, shows and festivals are often held throughout the week.   We spent several days enjoying some of that old time music.   On the Blue Ridge Parkway south of where we were staying is the Blue Ridge Music Center operated by the National Park Service.   It has an informative museum dedicated to understanding the roots of American music.   You can learn how the fiddle brought by immigrants from Europe and the banjo brought by enslaved Africans created old time mountain, gospel and bluegrass sounds that influenced American popular music.   What is so neat about the exhibits is how interactive they are with examples of music playing and videos of well known musicians who were the founders of country and bluegrass.   Further exhibits show the importance of radio in bringing mountain music to the homes of many listeners.

The Music Center hosts different musicians each afternoon from 12:00 – 4:00 in the “breezeway” next to the museum.   Seats and even rockers are provided and Mark and I spent a few hours listening to the two guys above.   They are both excellent musicians and singers of old time mountain and bluegrass music.   The older gentleman to the right, Mr. Gayheart who grew up in Kentucky had written several songs that he sang about his younger years living in a small Appalachian community.   He is also an incredible pencil artist who displayed some of his prints of life in Appalachia.   We had a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon at the Music Center.

After an afternoon at the Blue Ridge Music Center we headed to the nearby town of Mt. Airy, North Carolina for a Thursday night jam of local musicians at the Earle Theater.   Since the 1930’s the Earle has hosted performances, shows, jams and films.   The theater was not even half full when we visited and I thought it was too bad more didn’t turn out as it was free and so organized, it seemed more like a show than a jam.   One of the musicians told me later that there is so much free music happening around the area that a group can’t get a paid gig.   Many of the musicians on stage had been playing for years and also played at other jam venues in various small towns during the week.   It would have been interesting to know their combined ages and years of experience!    They enjoyed playing so much that when they were done at the Earle, some continued jamming at a square down the street.

We returned to Mt. Airy and the Earle Theater on Saturday morning for the WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round which is the country’s second longest running live radio show since February 1948 behind only Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.   Over the years quite a few music legends have performed here.   The radio show hosted a young bluegrass group first and then the couple called “Davis Bradley” pictured below who were my favorite.   They come from Virginia with an active touring schedule and each played a variety of instruments including the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, ukulele and harmonica.

Prior to the Earle Merry-Go-Round show we hung around the square listening to musicians jamming.   Some of them were the same ones we heard on Thursday night and they like to gather each Saturday morning to visit and play.   What a great way to keep mountain music alive in Mt. Airy!   Locals and tourists shopping on the Main Street would stop for awhile to listen.

The Floyd Country Store near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia is a general store and eatery, but best known as a popular music venue several days a week.   Ongoing events are a show on Friday nights, Americana music on Saturday afternoons and on Sunday afternoons two different jam sessions.  In addition, they have a radio show.

Not only is the music wonderful, but the first rate Southern comfort food is worth coming for too.   The store itself is delightful with lots of things for sale such as musical instruments, books, cards, artwork, toys, clothes, souvenirs and big barrels full of candy.

And if candy is not exotic enough, then how about a can of creamed possum, a true mountain treat in these parts.

We came for the Sunday afternoon jam and everyone there, including musicians and visitors seemed to be having a great time.   Floyd’s isn’t really all that big, but they manage to squeeze everyone in.   The music happens in the back of the store where chairs are set up in a circle for the musicians and a few rows of chairs placed on the outside for listeners.   There are also some tables in the back of the room as well so those listening can eat their lunch or snacks like Mark and I did.   I think when you listen to old time music you just have to eat beans and cornbread, collard greens and chow chow.

When the music started with about 28 musicians playing, so did the flat foot dancing in the center.   It was fun to see people out there doing this traditional Appalachian dance and you don’t need a partner to do it.   Sometimes the dance floor would be full of people including families with kids, but these guys were the mainstay during the session.   I think the guy wearing the “I’m Confused” black shirt was out there for most of the two hour old time music jam.

When the old time jam ends then the Bluegrass jam started with a different group of musicians.   We stayed for some of it and then headed back to our “home” in Fancy Gap.   What a great afternoon of music, food and fun!

In the next blog we head back to Mt. Airy, North Carolina to further explore Andy Griffith’s home town.

Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia

As I write this from North Carolina, I am thinking back to our stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.   Our campground was right on the Parkway, “America’s Favorite Drive,” making it easy to get on and explore this famous road.   The main reason I wanted to camp again in Virginia was to be able to drive the Parkway which travels over the Appalachian Highlands with scenic views of rugged mountains and valleys.   I thought the name Fancy Gap, for the town and campground where we stayed was cute, but there really isn’t much of a town.   There are only a few businesses and not even a Main Street or business district.   In this part of the country I noticed other towns and areas using the word “Gap.”   I was curious what a “Gap” was and found in Appalachia it is similar to what we in the West would call a “pass.”    When we googled this we found gap vs. pass vs. notch vs. saddle and discovered they all mean about the same thing depending on where you are in the U.S.   We learn something new every day traveling.

This was our first time exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway.   An amazing road, the Parkway runs 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia all the way to Cherokee, North Carolina at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.    Along the way are many scenic overlooks, picnic spots, hiking trails, historic sites and visitor/information centers.   Periodically other roads intersect the Parkway so you can get on or off.   The above photo is a view from one of the overlooks close to our campground explaining the agricultural lease program.   This program began in the 1930’s to preserve traditional Appalachian farm scenes adjacent to the Parkway.   More than 4,000 acres of land is leased to farmers for crops and pasture.   This type of scene was a common sight along the way.

Heading north of Fancy Gap for a day of exploration we relied on a map from the National Park Service (NPS) that was helpful in identifying our route with mileposts and main points of interest along the way.   One of the first things I noticed was how well the Parkway is cared for.   Managed by the NPS, this road is pristine with grass and weeds kept cut along the sides and no unsightly objects or debris.

Our first stop was the Orlena Puckett cabin where we read about the unusual life of Orlena who lived to be 102 years old and lived in this cabin during the latter part of her life.   Orlena is a testament to how the later years of one’s life can be among the most productive.   She began a career as a midwife after age 50 and assisted in the births of more than 1,000 babies,  delivering her last one in 1939 the year she died.   It is tragic though that she gave birth to 24 children of her own and none of them lived past infancy.   I bought a book on Orlena’s life written by a journalist/author who spent several years doing extensive research and interviews.   Most of the people she spoke to were in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s at the time and had been delivered by Orlena.   I am looking forward to learning more about this amazing Appalachian woman.  Below is a photo of her on a signboard near the cabin holding the last child that she delivered.

Mabry Mill is reported to be the most photographed spot on the Parkway and you can go inside and see how the Mill operated.   Built in 1903 by Ed Mabry, he ground corn, sawed lumber and did blacksmithing here for decades.  Mr. Mabry created an extensive flume system to bring water from several creeks to the Mill.   While no longer used, it is still in great shape and a very picturesque place to visit.   On the property is a restaurant where we had breakfast.    The specialty here are pancakes made from stoneground cornmeal and buckwheat flour and I was looking forward to trying them having read they were made from meal ground on the premises.   But I misread as the meal is not ground from here but “for here” at another mill in nearby North Carolina.   We were told that the EPA has not allowed grains to be ground here for some years, although I couldn’t really get a clear answer as to why.   Mark and I visited a mill in Arkansas that I wrote about in an earlier blog and you could watch them grind the grain and buy different kinds of flour there as well.   Perhaps it’s the difference between a private business and one run by the National Park system.

There are a few other buildings on the property including this blacksmith shop.   I had to laugh at the sign inside the shop:  “Rarely seen today, the blacksmith shop was a vital home industry….”.    Mark and I often joke that there seems to be a blacksmith at most of the historical sites we have visited this past year.   If there is a single demonstration it is usually a blacksmith and I don’t need to see another, although we found this shop closed for the day.   I realize there is a difference between true blacksmiths offering a service to the community and the ones demonstrating at living history sites, but it still amused me as this is the trade I have most often seen during our travels.

Along the Parkway are overlooks or stops giving interesting information on the history or geography of the area.   Since I like seeing all the old time fences and there are many of them maintained along the drive, I found this stop with information on rail fences interesting.   It explained there are three general types including the one in the photo below, the “Buck Rail” which I don’t recall seeing before.   It was a good fence to put up on rugged, uneven terrain.   Here at Groundhog Mountain is a wooden observation tower with great views from the top surrounded by those different kinds of fences.

At another stop, I loved seeing this historic Appalachian cabin perched on the ridge.   What an awesome view from this very rustic home built by the Trail family in the 1890’s.   The sign noted that cabins such as this one were once common along the Blue Ridge, but now only a few remain.

I took the photo below of the parkway across from a small visitor center while Mark got Blue Ridge Parkway stamps for his NPS notebook.   Getting the book stamped at sites we have visited across the U.S. has been a fun endeavor.   When Mark first bought the book I thought we wouldn’t find that many NPS sites that carried the stamps.   But there are so many more historic sites than I could have imagined we have plenty of stamps filling his book.

A sky full of huge, puffy white clouds is one of the best sights I can imagine and we had the perfect sky on this outing.   We were treated to a wondrous sky throughout miles of driving and stops at overlooks.   While gazing at expansive views I was often exclaiming, “Wow, I can’t believe the sky today!”   I am often amazed at how beautiful the clouds can be in much of the Eastern U.S. where weather change is a constant.   I might complain about the abundance of grey clouds, storm threats and rain, but the sky is certainly magical at times.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway.   In the next post I will write about old time mountain music that is so much a part of the area.

A Visit to Appomattox and Camping at Misty Mountain

Visiting Appomattox Court House is a bittersweet experience.  This is now a beautiful and peaceful place in the Virginia countryside where the Civil War finally ended.  But it is also a place to remember the awful bloodshed this country suffered for four years.   When I heard that the Civil War officially ended at Appomattox Court House, I assumed that it was an actual court house where surrender of the Confederate Army occurred.  But Appomattox Court House is actually a village where these events happened.  The village has been maintained much the same as it was during the final days of the Civil War and is managed by the National Park Service.  The settlement was first called Clover Hill but when it was named the county seat with the court house built in 1846, it became a larger community with new homes, stores and offices.  The name was then changed to Appomattox Court House.   Several homes, a tavern, store and law office still survive from the 1800’s.   The courthouse has been reconstructed and is now the National Park Visitor Center which has information, a film and museum.   Above is a picture of the town with the visitor center to the right.

At this park we were able to see sites where the last fighting occurred, meeting locations of Generals Lee and Grant negotiating terms of surrender and the field where Confederates laid down their arms.   We walked along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, an important road to General Robert E. Lee in April 1865.    Along this road he planned to escape west and then turn South towards North Carolina to join another Confederate Army.  But when the Federals  blocked this route at Appomattox, he had no choice but to surrender.  Above is a picture of the road leading to the village.

It was here on April 9, 1865 that after four years of battle, Lee surrendered 9,000 men, the remnant of the Confederate Army to General Grant.   Grant and Lee met on two occasions to work out the terms of the surrender.  We learned that their meetings were cordial and without conflict.  The War was to be officially over and both generals wanted to resolve the details in a cooperative spirit.  Grant acted generously towards the Confederate Army by providing the soldiers with much needed food rations.  When Lee requested that the soldiers be allowed to keep their horses, Grant was in agreement with this.  In the picture above, a marker commemorates the surrender.

The Confederate soldiers were allowed parole to return to their homes without being detained.  They could also use railroad, ship or any other public transportation that was available to reach their homes.   The only stipulation was that they would not raise up arms against the United States again.  Above is a picture of the Clover Hill Tavern, built in 1819 and the oldest structure in the village.  Printing presses were set up in the Tavern to print out 30,000 paroles or passes for the soldiers in two days.    Below is a picture of the printing room with “passes” drying on the line.

The details of the surrender took place at the McLean House in the parlor.  The McLean family volunteered their home for the meeting.   The house was originally built in 1848 and survived until 1893 when it was dismantled.  In the 1940’s, using plans, specifications and archaeological evidence, the National Park Service rebuilt the house on the original foundation.

We were able to tour inside and see the small parlor where Lee, Grant and a number of officers all gathered for their meeting.  The two tables are reproductions of the tables used by Lee and Grant as they worked here outlining the documents of surrender.

In the visitor center’s museum, is displayed the original table where the final documents of surrender were signed with Lee and Grant’s generals present.  The meeting of the six generals occurred in the same room (above) as Lee and Grant had met in the previous day.  For some reason there was little furniture in the room the day they met, so Union Officer Gibbon provided his folding camp table and in doing so created his own souvenir.  After the meeting he had it inscribed with the names of all those who had signed the terms.

One of the most touching moments for me in visiting this historic site was the place on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road where on April 12, 1865, Union General Chamberlain ordered the Union soldiers to salute the downtrodden Confederates as they made their way up the road to surrender their arms.  Chamberlain was my favorite officer from the Gettysburg battlefield, a fair minded person that I can imagine doing this.  The fact that Union soldiers were willing to salute their Southern brethren went a long way to heal the rift between the states.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of visiting Appomattox was learning about the men from both sides that were killed just hours before the surrender.  Fighting was still going on as the details to end the War were being worked out with some soldiers unlucky enough to not live through those final days.  How sad to come so close.  At the Confederate Cemetary at Appomattox we read about one soldier from Alabama who enlisted from the beginning of the War and after surviving 1,454 days of service, died in the War’s last 24 hours.  He was killed battling Union cavalry just a few yards from the courthouse on April 8, 1865.

I would like to close my last post on Virginia with a few pictures of our camping site at Misty Mountain RV park in the Blue Ridge foothills above Charlottesville.  We stayed here for two weeks and it was a really nice and fairly large campground.  The best part was the fast moving stream that ran through the park and next to our site.  This was our first camping spot next to a stream.  I took the picture above looking out from our trailer door towards the water.

Misty Mountain hosts regular events for campers and one Saturday we were there for Earth Day celebration.  A great band played, there were games of cornhole (a popular game in Virginia I was told) and a big bonfire with wood stacked to look like Jenga blocks.

Thanks for following along with us.  In the next post we move on to the state of Maryland!

A Day in Staunton, Virginia

The day we spent in the small town of Staunton stands out.  It wasn’t remarkable in any particular way, it was just a really pleasant day with a nice mix of activities.  I have noticed in traveling, that some places just hit me with a particular fondness and it is not because they have outstanding attractions.  They just strike the right chord, like Staunton did.  I am starting off with a picture of dogwood flowers, the state flower of Virginia.  While traveling around we found them blooming all over.

We started out at the birthplace and presidential museum of Woodrow Wilson.  I am certainly increasing my knowledge of the presidents on this trip which was woefully lacking before I left.   One exception is Teddy Roosevelt.  One year I read a couple of books on him before visiting his former homes in North Dakota and New York City.   The picture above is the gate to the garden in back of the birth place and our entrance from the parking area.

Wilson was born December 28, 1856 in Staunton but did not live here very long.   When he was a year old, his father, a minister of the local Presbyterian church took a job at a church in Augusta Georgia.  The furnished home which can be toured gives a good look at life at the turn of the century in a small Virginia town.  Next door to the house is a gift shop and small museum regarding the life and works of President Wilson.  It was actually nice to be able to look at a museum fairly quickly and not have many displays to concentrate on.  Sometimes my brain gets tired from all the history we are seeing and learning about!

Wilson is considered the most educated American president.  He is the only president to complete a PhD (history and political science) and after teaching, became the president of Princeton University.  Other than Teddy Roosevelt, he has written the most books, some have been used as college text books.  Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey and served as President of the U.S. for two terms.  During his first term, he tried to keep the country neutral when World War I broke out in Europe.  After the U.S. had to enter the war, he worked to bring about peace with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.  He always hoped the U.S. would enter the League but was unable to gather support from American citizens.   For his efforts, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.  He suffered a stroke during his second term and it is believed that Wilson’s wife worked in the background taking over some of his duties.  After leaving office he lived in Washington D.C. and died several years later.  He is the only U.S. president buried in D.C.

Perhaps the best display here is the Pierce Arrow car, a favorite of Wilson’s.  He first rode in the car made in 1919 when returning from France after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.  The car had been a gift to Washington D.C.   After Wilson left office, five of his former Princeton classmates bought the car for him.  It is kind of amusing though, that Wilson never had a driver’s license.  The car is still driven each year in special Staunton parades including July 4th.

Staunton is known as the “Queen City” of the Shenandoah Valley, located near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We found it to be a great place to walk around and we headed to the Main Street for lunch and exploring.  There are a number of historic buildings here as Staunton was founded in the mid 1700’s.  We dropped in to a few stores and the owner of the game/model shop told us that we needed to see the inside of the bank building down the street.  When I asked him where it was, he said he would show us and left the store unattended and walked down with us to the National Valley Bank building built in 1903.  He pointed out the stained glass ceiling and ornate molding – indeed it is a beautiful building.

I am like a magnet to historical churches and fell for the Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1855.  This is the third church building on the spot as the church was founded in 1746 and the oldest congregation in Staunton.

Inside are a number of Tiffany stained glass windows that I spent time looking at.   A lady working at the church showed me that Tiffany himself put his signature in the bottom corner of the  window below.

I was happy to catch a picture of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church with a hillside of puffy dandelions in front.  The church has a very dramatic and prominent steeple.

I really like how the churches in Virginia decorate their doors with wreaths.  This has been a common theme as we have traveled this state so I got a picture of one Staunton church we walked by that also had wreaths on the doors.

We ended our afternoon in Staunton with pupusas at a very small Salvadoran Restaurant called Gloria’s Pupseria.  It was a little hard finding the place but eventually our walk got us there.  When I found out there were pupusas to be had in Staunton I was determined to find the place as we really like them.  For those that don’t know, pupusas are a thick corn tortilla made with masa dough and stuffed with a filling.  The filling choices are usually pork, chicken, beans, cheese, vegetables or a combination of those items.  They are then cooked on a griddle till browned and served with a marinated cabbage slaw and hot sauce.  We planned to get them to go for dinner that night, but we couldn’t resist sitting down and eating one before we left.  Mark and I joked that we had a multi ethnic day with Pho soup for lunch and pupusas for dinner.

I’ll finish this post with a picture from a viewpoint on our drive back to our RV park through the Blue Ridge foothills.   A beautiful view of the valley and hills below.

Thanks for stopping in!  One more post of Virginia to come as I write about the famous Civil War site of Appomattox before moving on to Maryland.   Hopefully you are not too tired of reading about Virginia, but it has been a state with much to offer!

James Madison’s Montpelier

Located in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the home of former president James Madison.  Virginia is the state with the most former presidents, eight including Madison.  Most of them have homes you can visit with a number of them lavish estates.  Montpelier is no exception.   Just the drive here from Charlottesville was an eyeful of beautiful countryside with green rolling hills, white fences around pastures, horse farms and large mansions.   It is spring in Virginia and there were fresh green leaves on the many trees and dark pink buds on the redbud trees like in the picture above.   I thought to myself that Virginia must be the most beautiful state we have driven through so far.

Madison’s grandfather first acquired this property and developed a tobacco farm.  When he mysteriously died after being poisoned, Madison’s father, James Sr. took over the estate.  He  eventually became the leading planter in the area after buying 5,000 acres and more slaves.   When James Jr. was a boy, the Montpelier home was built.   After being gone for some years he returned in 1797 to live here with his wife Dolley.   He inherited Montpelier and continued adding on to the house, including wings on both sides.  The picture below is the view of the property from the house.  The home is surrounded both front and back with huge lawns.

Madison had an extensive political career and is one of the founding fathers of our country.  He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”  While serving as a delegate from Virginia for the Continental Congress, he wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the framework for our system of government.   In addition, he and Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party.  Madison served as Secretary of State while Jefferson was president and was elected as president for two terms during the years 1809 to 1817.   At the end of his presidency, he retired to Montpelier, just as Jefferson and Washington retired to their homes in Virginia.  His financial situation after retirement was as bleak as Washington and Jefferson.  Neither of these early presidents had pensions after serving in political office and they had many expenses maintaining their estates and way of life.

Dolley Madison was considered the “First Lady” of the White House as she defined the role.  Her support of her husband in office and her skill at social engagements and as a hostess at Montpelier greatly contributed to her husband’s popularity.   I had forgotten how charmed the public was with Dolley.   Her name and image began appearing on different products in the 1880’s and continued for many years.   Some of you might remember the Dolly Madison Snack Cakes that were popular for a long time.

In the picture below, I sit with a life size sculptor of James and Dolley, who actually spelled her name with an “e.”  James was the smallest U.S. president at 5’4” tall and slight in build.   He was also sickly throughout his life.

We enjoyed seeing his home with many original furnishings and belongings.  Mark and I were surprised at how small some of the rooms were.  The Madisons frequently entertained in the dining room, which seemed small for a group of 30 or more.  Madison spent his last ailing years in a very small sitting room/bedroom where he would visit with family and friends.  While looking around the narrow room, I marveled that here was the room where an ex president and successful landowner spent his last years.  I probably most enjoyed seeing his collection of books, some of them original to the 1700’s.  There is something so neat about seeing books that are hundreds of years old.

Montpelier has a formal walled and terraced garden that is open to visitors.  Madison used to enjoy strolling through this garden and it has been restored to the way it was when he was president.  Above is a picture of the entrance to the garden and below some of the garden beds.

I finished up my tour of the property with a walk through the “Landmark Forest” of old growth trees.  This 200 acre forest property has trees that are hundreds of years old with eight miles of trails that can be walked here.

I will close with a view from one of the barns on the property, looking out at the Virginia countryside.   Thanks for checking in and stay tuned for more posts on our Virginia travels.

Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

Having driven many times over the passes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California with high points between 8,000 – 9,500 feet elevation, the Skyline Drive over the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains seems so much lower.  But when we rode this narrow spine above the Shenandoah Valley below, it seemed like we were higher up than 3,500 feet.  I was looking forward to this drive and exploration for several reasons – seeing the awesome views I had been hearing so much about, visiting Shenandoah National Park and finally seeing part of the Appalachian Trail.  Pictured above is a map showing the length of the drive at 105 miles.  Shenandoah National Park which encompasses this drive is a long and narrow park.

While staying in the Charlottesville Virginia area I waited until toward the end of our two week stay to visit Skyline Drive, hoping we would find some spring green on the trees.  When we took to this road on April 26, the trees had still not leafed out.  In fact, it looked like winter up there, as if spring was reluctant to come forth.  I enjoyed the drive, the views and learning about this famous road, but I was also disappointed to see so many bare trees at every turn of the road and as I looked out over the viewpoints.  The East Coast has had a cold winter this year which probably explains the lack of leaves.   When I asked a park ranger at one of the Visitor Centers when the trees normally leafed out, he noted the timing really varied and that Spring was late this year with even no wildflowers for the upcoming wildflower festival that weekend.

Skyline Drive has 75 overlooks, more overlooks than I have ever seen in any National or State Park I have visited.  It is too difficult to stop at every one on a day trip.  Plus some of the overlooks have similar expansive views.  There are stops on either side of the Drive, so we got to see the hills and valleys on both sides.   A few stops are at trailheads or picnic areas.  Besides overlooks, there are two visitor centers and several lodges with Skyland Resort one of the places we stopped.  Besides rooms, it has a dining area with wonderful views and a gift shop worth checking out.

We also stopped at a large picnic area for lunch and to see the famous Appalachian Trail which follows along the crest of the Blue Ridge and passes near Skyline Drive at a number of points.  We even walked a bit of the rocky trail to get a taste of it.   The trail is marked on the trees with white rectangles and there are concrete posts at certain points with the Appalachian Trail symbol as pictured below.

Construction started for Skyline Drive in 1931, before Shenandoah National Park was established.  It was opened in 1934 and finished in 1939.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt built most of the facilities including picnic grounds, bathrooms, overlooks, roads and walls.   Between the years 1933 and 1942, more than 10,000 young men worked and lived here in camps.  They were recruited from poor families and paid $30.00 per month with $25.00 sent directly to their families.  They were provided with meals, uniforms and housing.   The statue below symbolizes the work of the CCC.

There are many stone “guardrails” all along the road way that were built by the CCC.  It is a wonder to think about all the manpower that went into creating this drive and park for others to enjoy.  Below a picture of a stone guardrail at one of our overlook stops.

Shenandoah National Park was formed due to a desire for a National Park in the Eastern United States like the parks in the West.   In the early 1920’s when the search was on, cars were mass produced and affordable, people had leisure time and wanted to hit the road.   When the park opened in 1935 it was a huge success with more than a half million visitors the first year and the number doubling to over a million in 1937.  The Visitor Center we stopped in was very informative on historical information and displays.  The photograph below shows the popularity of the park with an overlook crowded with classic cars.

You can access Skyline Drive at four different entrance stations.   Since it is a slow and winding route, we decided to not drive the entire way.   We started close to the top at Thornton Gap Entrance after driving through the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge.   Since we stopped multiple times at overlooks, it took us the whole afternoon and was dusk when we reached the bottom entrance.

This wasn’t one of the more scenic drives I have taken, but I enjoyed seeing the Blue Ridge mountains and learning about all the history in the area.  I bet the scenery would be spectacular here during fall color season.  During stops I liked looking down at the green “hollows” where people live amongst the foothills of the Blue Ridge, as in the picture below.

Thanks for stopping in!  In the next post we explore more of the beautiful state of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Monticello is one of the most famous homes in America.   It is a place I certainly did not want to miss on our travels.   One of the reasons I wanted to stay in the Charlottesville, Virginia area was to be able to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home.  Of course, there are many other things of interest to see in this area including the homes of other former presidents.   Monticello though stands out, as well as Thomas Jefferson and his many accomplishments for our country.

Thomas Jefferson spent many of his years in public life – he wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and Congress, was governor of Virginia, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and President for two terms.  During his presidency he arranged the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the United States and he also authorized the Lewis and Clark Expedition which explored a passage to the northwest.   Just thinking about all his achievements is mind boggling!  He was also an author, scientist, architect, horticulturist and inventor, to name some of his passions.   He also founded and designed the University of Virginia.  The saying of Jefferson below, sums up to me how he felt about learning and exploring.

Monticello became Jefferson’s “experiment” – a place where he could try new ideas.   He was never so happy as when he was at his home.  When his two presidential terms ended in 1809, he retired to Monticello, a 5,000 acre plantation and lived there until his death.  Jefferson was the architect for his home and he worked to improve the house and grounds for 40 years.   Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Located on a high hill there are wondrous views all around of the countryside that he loved.   During our tour of his home, one of the visitors asked the docent if Jefferson was bothered by the public trying to come see him uninvited after he retired from the presidency.    At the time, Monticello was accessed by a long winding dirt road uphill and our docent replied that not too many people were interested in trying to make the long trek up the mountain.  Today there is a shuttle that takes visitors from the visitor center to the top of the hill.

The tour inside the home was interesting with many original furnishings and belongings of Jefferson as well as impressive architectural details.  We were able to see a few of the things he invented, for example, his “copy machine.”   As he wrote, a second pen moved the same way on another page, copying the writing.  Another invention was his revolving book stand, a turntable with five adjustable stands that could be swiveled so the books would face the reader.  The stand could also be folded down into a cube.  Jefferson was an avid reader and had many books.  Since he had such a large collection, he offered to sell his over 6,000 books to Congress in 1815, after the British burned the Capitol and Library of Congress during the War of 1812.  Many of his books were destroyed after a fire in 1851 but some still remain.  Mark and I were able to see his books at a Library of Congress temporary exhibit in Washington D.C. some years ago and we were very impressed.

After living in France, Jefferson developed a love for French cooking.  He brought back copper cookware, French recipes and fine wines.  He made sure his enslaved cooks learned how to make French foods and helped to introduce French cooking to the American diet.   Near the home is a reconstructed kitchen with period cookware, hearth and stove.

Jefferson was an avid gardener or farmer and had a huge garden maintained today in the same area with similar plants.   Jefferson used to like to sit in the Garden Pavilion building and read.  In addition, he had many fruit trees and attempted a vineyard for wine production.  Above is a picture of part of his 1,000 foot long terrace garden where he experimented with 70 different species of vegetables.  His favorite vegetable was reported to be peas.   Jefferson was a thorough record keeper and on our guided walk we were shown laminated copies of a few of the records he kept.  He wrote down what he planted and whether or not the plants succeeded or were a fail.  Below is a picture of one of his lists.  It was interesting to see what plants were a failure, such as carrots, cabbage and okra.

The lawn area in front of the house was ringed with tulip beds of many different colors and varieties.   There are 7,000 tulip bulbs planted here each year for spring bloom.  I learned that during Jefferson’s time, bulbs were expensive so he did not have the lavish displays as are seen now.   In addition, the tulip plants and flowers were much smaller.   Among the beds were tulips of the same variety he would have planted and they looked stunted in size.

Jefferson had a number of slaves that lived on the property.  When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he declared that all men were created equal and had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   Yet he owned 600 people throughout his lifetime and at the time of his death, willed that only five should be freed.  This is a paradox that can be difficult to understand and appeared to be something he was unable to rise above or do anything about.  Slavery was an issue he believed would have to be solved by a future generation.

Jefferson was buried at Monticello and his gravesite along with other family members can be viewed at the bottom of the hill from his home.  He only wanted to be remembered for three things and these are inscribed on his tomb stone:  1) Author of the Declaration of Independence, 2) Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and 3) Father of the University of Virginia.  It was amazing to me that serving as president for two terms was not something he wanted to be remembered for.

Another amazing discovery for me was that three of the founding fathers died on July 4, Independence Day:  Jefferson and  John Adams both died on the same day.  They died 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.   James Monroe, another founding father and fifth president also passed on this date five years later.

Thanks for reading!  In the next post we explore Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Yorktown – Freedom Begins

In 1781, General George Washington moved his Continental Army from the New York City area to Yorktown, Virginia where the British Army under General Cornwallis had chosen the port of Yorktown for their base of operations.  This movement by Washington with help from French forces under General Rochambeau set the stage for the beginning of freedom from British rule – American independence was on its way.  Yorktown proved to be the last major battle of the Revolution.  Pictured below is the Victory Monument.  Although Congress authorized it right away in 1781, it was one hundred years before the monument was actually built in 1881.

Located here is a National Historic Park with a Visitor Center of exhibits as well as a driving tour of battlefield sites.  Since we have been traveling, I have become aware of how many National Park historic sites there are which is many more than I ever thought would exist.  This Visitor Center had a number of interesting artifacts, but I would not have thought I would see an original tent of George Washington, used when he was the General of the Continental Army.  We were able to see two of Washington’s tents, one of them for meetings and another used for sleeping.  Washington’s tents are the only surviving 18th century Army officer tents.   They look in pretty good shape for almost 250 years old although the room was dimly lit and the sleeping tent pictured below was behind glass.  I wish the photo would have turned out better.

We bought a CD detailing the battle sites for our driving tour.  During the drive we stopped at sites where the American (Continental) Army laid siege lines against the British, like in the picture below.  The National Park Service has reconstructed some of the earthworks to give an idea of what the siege lines looked like.  From the top of the lines was a great view of the battlefield.

Oops, I got him!  Unfortunately, it looks like Mark got in the line of fire!

The French Army provided enormous help to the Americans in winning the battle at Yorktown.  The French fleet blockaded the British fleet at the Harbor on the York River and one night at the redoubts (enclosed defensive positions of the British), French troops assisted in capturing two crucial positions.  Three days later Cornwallis asked for a cease fire.  In photo below, Mark walks around one of the reconstructed redoubts.

It was here at the Moore House on October 18, 1781, that officers from both American and British sides met to negotiate the surrender terms for the army of General Cornwallis.

Surrender Field was my favorite stop of the drive.  It is now a beautiful and peaceful place in the country, but on October 19, 1781, 7,000 British soldiers had to march onto this field and lay down their arms to the American and French armies.  A walkway takes you up to an enclosed observation deck overlooking the expansive field.  An audio recording summarizes the events of that day and thoughts of the soldiers.

I next wandered out into Surrender Field imagining what it must have been like to witness such a spectacle.   Below is a picture near the field of part of the driving tour road with blossoming trees.

Next to the observation deck is a great collection of British cannons from the Yorktown battlefields, engraved with the British Crown and date of surrender.  I was surprised at how many there were remaining!

We really enjoyed our tour of Yorktown, a significant part of American history that I was glad to be able to experience.

Thanks for reading!  In my next blog we head to another site with significant history, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home.

Colonial Williamsburg – Where the Past and Present Meet

Colonial Williamsburg can be seen in several different ways:  A village that was founded in 1638;  former capital of Virginia and an 18th century living history museum with people dressed up in period costumes.   A place where the sound of horse and carriage on the streets is common, along with the occasional sound of musket and cannon fire from the Armory grounds.  It is also a popular tourist attraction, which some might find a bit of a tourist trap.  There is so much here to experience you need a couple days and it is impossible to write in this blog about all that we saw.  The village has one long main street called “Duke of Gloucester” and several side streets with many restored buildings that house shops of tradespeople and taverns.  Managed by a foundation, there are 20+ tradespeople to visit as well as other attractions and it takes planning to decide where to go and what to see.  Due to popularity and Easter breaks, there were lines in front of some of the shops so I had to decide did I really want to wait to see the wig maker, the silversmith, the tailor, the gunsmith, the printer or the hat maker.   One shop I was not going to wait to see was the blacksmith.  Although they are interesting, I have seen blacksmiths at so many historical sites I believe I have had my fill for a long time to come.  I took the picture below while waiting in front of the jewelry shop.

I enjoyed a visit to the shoemaker’s shop as it was fun to photograph all the shoes laying and hanging about.  The trades people not only dress the part but also create their specialty items as they were made in the 18th century with the same tools and materials.  Although most of the shops that I visited were not selling items, some of them do make things to sell elsewhere or to be used for certain events.  For example, at the shoe shop the shoes are made for the reenactors to wear.

Below is a picture from the cabinetmaker’s shop.  This shop was reconstructed on the site of a previous cabinetmaker from 1751 that produced furniture for the village.  Besides furniture, this shop also made harpsichords which are still made today as pictured below.

The tin smith was another interesting stop.  Tin ware was popular with soldiers because it was light weight, low cost and durable.  Shops like this one supplied the army during the Revolutionary War making kettles, cups, plates and other items.  I had my eye on the hot chocolate pot, pictured below in front.  The pot has a wooden stirring rod in the middle commonly called a chocolate mill that is whirled between the hands to mix the chocolate well in the liquid and cause it to froth.  Drinking chocolate was popular and was considered to have medicinal or healthful values.  Since I really enjoy very dark chocolate, I heartily agree with the early colonists!

The Bruton Parish Church was completed in 1715 and still holds services today.  Inside are high box pews with doors that were typical of the time period.  Former U.S. presidents Washington, Jefferson and Monroe worshipped here.   A previous minister of this church feared that many of Colonial Williamsburg buildings would disappear and their history lost.  In 1926, he was able to recruit John D. Rockefeller Jr. who joined him in preserving Colonial Williamsburg.  The Rockefeller family provided much of the funding to preserve or reconstruct buildings, which is why Colonial Williamsburg survives and prospers today.

One of the centerpieces for Colonial Williamsburg is the Governor’s Palace.  The original building burned down in 1781 and was reconstructed in the 1930’s on the original spot.  The original palace was the home of seven royal British governors and two Virginia governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.  The building both inside and out is quite ornate.

One of the largest buildings in the village is the Capitol building.  Williamsburg became the capitol of Virginia in 1705 after it was relocated from Jamestown.  Like the palace, this building was also reconstructed in the 1930’s.  I took a tour of the inside with an excellent guide who talked about the struggle of the colonists against Britain and the loyalties that many of them had with Britain which made separating so difficult.  It was one of my favorite stops.

Since I love gardens, one of my favorite parts of the village were the flower gardens hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets.  I found a number of them in my wanderings and it was nice to discover and photograph them, like the one below.  There was also a large vegetable garden which showed plants that were used in colonial times.

Next to Colonial Williamsburg is the College of William and Mary, one of the oldest colleges in America.  The Wren building built in the late 1600’s, is actually the oldest building on a college campus still in use today.  The building is open for the public to visit and still holds classes for students.   Former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler attended here.  I ate my lunch in front of the Wren building (below) admiring its age.  I then wandered around the campus checking out many of the other old brick buildings and student gathering places.

I ended my second day by watching and listening to the fife and drum corp as they marched around a field and then down Duke of Gloucester Street.  Fifers and drummers once served with enlisted men in colonial times and now they perform at 5:00 each day for admiring visitors.   A special way to end a visit at a remarkable historic place.

Thanks for reading!  I hope you will stay with us as we continue exploring Virginia.