Tag Archive | Virginia

Circus Trip 2018: Gadby’s Tavern, Alexandria, VA

Day 59, Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Gadby’s Tavern, Alexandria, Virginia

After I left the Boston area, I had plans to visit a friend of mine who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.  I was going to spend a few days there, and use that as my jumping off point for visiting Washington, D.C.  I had left Quincy, Massachusetts, and embarked on a long drive through multiple states to get to Alexandria.  I split it over two days, as it is a total of about eight hours driving, through a lot of traffic.  Heading from Massachusetts to Alexandria meant I had to skip some great locations, but you can’t possibly see everything on a trip, I suppose.  It was tough to drive through so many great places and just pass them by!  Connecticut, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Delaware, and more!  I so very much want to go back and see all these places!

All that said, I rolled into Alexandria about 4 in the afternoon, and headed to Jason’s house.  He had planned a surprise for my visit! He knows how much I love history, so he made reservations at Gadsby’s Tavern!

Gadsby’s Tavern was originally built in 1785 by Marylander John Wise, and opened the building next door as the Federal City Tavern in 1792.  There was another tavern on the site before the current building though, which reportedly was in business from around 1770.  An Englishman named Gadsby leased the tavern in 1796; the current name is a nod to him. 

Back in the late 1700s, several notable guests frequented the tavern, including Founding Fathers and Presidents!  George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette were all known visitors to the taverns here.  A banquet was even held in Washington’s honor here in 1801; how cool to be in the same place where these men talked politics. 

Gadsby operated the tavern until 1815, and then passed through various hands and it was various businesses, until it fell into disrepair and abandonment.  In 1917, in this sad state, some of the ballroom woodwork was sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, where it apparently remains today.  However, this was the catalyst for the historic preservation.  Gadsby’s Tavern was restored to the period of the late 1700s, and reopened as a restaurant in 1976.

There is a fine dining atmosphere, with delicious food and ambiance.  I had the herb encrusted grill salmon, finished with a balsamic glaze, and served with jasmine rice and sauteed spinach, and a glass of white wine.  To add to its charm, period actors make their way around the room, reciting the words of our Founding Fathers and engaging restaurant patrons in discussions on the governance of our young, budding country!

It was so much fun getting to see Jason and watch the actors engage with people!  An amazing experience for a history nerd like me!  

After dinner we wandered around Alexandria and got ice cream nearby, just chatting and catching up.  I certainly want to go back and see more of this fascinating and historic city!


Virginia 2015: Chincoteague NWR

Day 12: Thursday, October 15, 2015

After our boat tour and lunch, we made our way over to Assateague Island, to check out Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, it’s confusing that Chincoteague NWR is on Assateague Island – I don’t know why either…

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

I talked in my last post about the history of how the ponies got to the island, but Assateague Island and the refuge contain much more than ponies. In the 1800s, there was a small community on the island, clustered around the lighthouse.

The original lighthouse was built in 1833, to warn ships of the dangerous shoals offshore. Construction began in 1860 on a newer, taller lighthouse, but it was delayed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Construction was completed in 1867. It has a First Order Fresnel lens, the largest type of lens made.

The lighthouse is currently undergoing restoration work – it was repainted, and the gallery deck was repaired so visitors can climb to the top of the light. I was there in the off season, so it wasn’t open, but I can imagine how cool it would be to climb to the top and see the view!

A close-up of the Assateague Lighthouse

A close-up of the Assateague Lighthouse

The community that lived on the island began to move away after one man bought a large tract of land and began restricting overland access to Tom’s Cove. The villagers gradually barged their homes and buildings over to Chincoteague Island to continue there. In 1943, most of the Virginia side of the island was sold to the U.S. Government for the purpose of creating a National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge has several trails; some of them take you by the fenced area where the ponies are, so of course, that’s where I wanted to start. The path is level and paved, so it is more a walk than a hike. But, I found myself having to walk quickly to try to avoid all the mosquitoes! I wasn’t expecting them to still be so ravenous in the middle of October!

I think this was a Boat Tailed Grackle?

I think this was a Boat Tailed Grackle?

I was able to get some good photos of the ponies from the viewing station though, so I was willing to put up with some mosquito inconvenience. They looked so peaceful, just grazing on the grass and enjoying the sunshine.




This little pinto was so cute!

This little pinto was so cute!

I also took a detour from the trail out to the beach, where I found a lot of horseshoe crab shells. They look so prehistoric! Unfortunately, there were mosquitoes on the beach too, although not as many. Bothersome critters!

A unique driftwood "sculpture" with horseshoe shells.

A unique driftwood “sculpture” with horseshoe shells.

My last walk for the today was to see the lighthouse – this path is about ½ mile roundtrip. It was great to get a close up view of the lighthouse with its red and white candy striped exterior. It is a very tall structure!

After that, I called it quits in the woods, and went over to the beach. It was a gorgeous, sandy beach – I can understand why this area is such a vacation destination in the summer. I walked along for a little while, just taking it all in, watching the herons and egrets fish for their dinner in the nearby marshes, and listening to the birds.

A Great Egret at Chincoteague

A Great Egret at Chincoteague

A Snowy Egret at the refuge.

A Snowy Egret at the refuge.


Another Great Egret fishing.

Another Great Egret fishing.


Geese hanging out on the refuge.

Geese hanging out on the refuge.

And before we left, I was treated to a fantastic view of a mare and her foal – they were so peaceful.

A mama and her foal.

A mama and her foal.

Dinner that evening was a quick stop for a sandwich at Subway, followed by a front row view of a beautiful sunset. The end of a great day…

The sunset started out a brilliant orange...

The sunset started out a brilliant orange…


The sunset turned a gorgeous pink later on...

The sunset turned a gorgeous pink later on…

Driving Distance for Day 12: only a few miles – Chincoteague Island, VA

Entrance Fee:  $8 or free if you have a National Parks Pass.

Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn on Chincoteague Island again – excellent!

Virginia 2015: Yorktown

Day 11: Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Near Jamestowne is another site that is part of the Colonial National Historical Park, best known for being where the United States won her independence.  Yorktown was where the Revolutionary War ended!

Yorktown was a prosperous trading port during the 17th century; it shipped tobacco and other trade goods back to England.  Incoming freight included household goods, wine and liquor, firearms, and slaves.  The town has a lower section near the water, where warehouses and shops were built, and an upper portion at the top of the bluff where residents established fine homes.

A sailing ship at Yorktown

A sailing ship at Yorktown

It continued to prosper until 1781, when George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau with a combination of American and French troops, chose Yorktown as the site of their now famous siege of the British troops, led by General Charles Cornwallis.  Washington planned diversionary tactics to make it look like the Americans were planning their siege on New York, and then moved troops down to Virginia to get ready for the siege at Yorktown.  Meanwhile, Washington coordinated with Comte de Grasse of the French Army to provide a naval blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, to block Cornwallis’ escape.

A trench and cannon at Yorktown

A trench and cannon at Yorktown

The American and French troops began to surround Yorktown on September 28, 1781.  While they were establishing their positions, the British kept up a strong bombardment of the positions, trying to prevent the Americans from becoming entrenched.  The siege began on October 14, 1781, and the American and French troops built a series of trenches from which to bombard Yorktown, progressively moving their lines closer to the town.  The siege didn’t last long – on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis could see that he was out of options and surrendered to Washington.

Casualties numbered 88 killed and 301 wounded for the American and French forces; the British had 156 killed, 326 wounded and 70 missing.  Ultimately, Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 troops in Yorktown and another 804 British sailors.

Interestingly, the American government authorized a monument to be built commemorating the siege at Yorktown right after it ended, but the money to pay for the monument wasn’t appropriated for another 100 years.  This sounds familiar!

The monument at Yorktown - erected 1881.

The monument at Yorktown – erected 1881.


A pretty bird at Yorktown - I have no idea what kind.

A pretty bird at Yorktown – I have no idea what kind.

We wandered around the site and checked out the historic homes that remain from the period; there are some original homes and some that have been reconstructed.  There are typically signs outside that mark which are which.  We were able to tour the Nelson house, which was built around 1730.  Thomas Nelson, Jr., who owned the home during the Revolutionary War, was in the Continental Army and participated in the siege of Yorktown.  It is believed that he ordered the bombardment of his own house during the siege!  The Nelson House is mostly original, with period and reproduction furniture inside.

The Nelson House - built 1730 - Georgian Architectural Style

The Nelson House – built 1730 – Georgian Architectural Style

Yorktown was also the site of fighting during the Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War, and a National Cemetery was established there in 1866; there are a total of 2204 burials there, of which 1,436 are unknown.

The Medical Shop at Yorktown

The Medical Shop at Yorktown

We were getting tired though at that point, and still had a drive ahead of us, so we elected not visit the lower town area or the cemetery.  We crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – wow, that is an impressive structure!  For those of you who haven’t been on it, it is a 23 mile span of both bridge and tunnel that connects Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  It was long!  At the very end of the bridge, as we were getting close to the mainland of the Eastern Shore, I saw two dolphins playing in the water!  I didn’t get pics, but it was awesome to see!

We reached our next destination, Chincoteague Island, a little after sunset and checked into our hotel.  We were tired, and decided to only venture next door for dinner.  We went to the Jackspot restaurant, where we split a half dozen oysters on the half shell – four Salts and two Sewansecotts.  The Sewansecotts were my favorite!  I had the Rockfish with a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and Jon had the Swordfish with an El Guapo Virginia IPA.  Our meals were delicious, and the presentation was beautiful!

My Rockfish at Jackspot - so delicious!

My Rockfish at Jackspot – so delicious!

Before turning in for the night, we sat on the balcony of our hotel room listening to the crickets, waves and wind through the seagrass.  It was a great end to a good day.

Driving Distance for Day 11: 161 miles – Williamsburg, VA – Historic Jamestowne – Yorktown Battlefield – Chincoteague Island, VA

Entrance Fee:  Yorktown Battlefield is free with your receipt from Historic Jamestowne ($7), or free if you have a National Parks Pass.

Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn on Chincoteague Island – excellent!

Virginia 2015: Historic Jamestowne

Day 11: Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jamestowne was the first permanent English settlement in North America; it was established in 1607; a town was constructed around the fort in 1619.  It is located Jamestowne Island, on the James River, just off of the Coast of Virginia.  It was designated as a National Historic Site on December 18, 1940, and is a part of Colonial National Historical Park.

Jamestowne-Monument (479x640)

The monument at Jamestowne.

The first couple of years brought cooperation between the colonists and the Native Americans, who taught them how to plant crops and farm.  However, the relationship went south, and most of the Native Americans were wiped out by warfare.  The colonists had a difficult several years, and about 80% of them were wiped out by starvation and disease.

The second group of colonists included Polish and German artisans who set up a glass factory; glassware was one of the first export products from the colony.  There were also a couple of women – the first European women to join the settlement.

Jamestowne-Glassmaking (480x640)

One of the modern glassmakers at Jamestowne

Some of the “household” names associated with Jamestowne include Captain John Smith – a colorful character who went from murdering his master in England to mapping the river system near Jamestowne, learning the native language, and being elected the first Governor of colonial Virginia.  John Rolfe brought tobacco seeds from Bermuda, one of the first successful export crops, and married the daughter of a local Native American chief, Pocohontas.

The town was deliberately burned during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, but was rebuilt.  In 1699, when the capitol of the Virginia colony was moved from Jamestowne to Williamsburg, the settlement was abandoned, although there were some plantations on the island into the 1800s.

It was a beautiful sunny day when Jon and I visited; we arrived about 10 am and watched the orientation film in a cool theater with seats all around – the movie is projected on the wall above the seating.  We did a brief tour through the museum and then headed out to the site.

I was surprised at how swampy the site was – we walked across a raised walkway over the swamp, home to several turtles!  They were so cute!  Once we were on the island, we checked out the fort site first.  There are a few reconstructed buildings and some archaeological sites to check out, as well as the grave sites of several of the original colonists.


The swamp at Jamestowne



Jamestowne-Archaelogy (640x480)

An archaeological dig at Jamestowne

We also saw the ruin of the Jamestowne Church – it was built in 1639 (although I believe it was the fourth church on the site) – the nave was built to commemorate the 300th anniversary in Jamestowne in 1907.  The day we were there, there was a drone on site – we found out later that it was shooting footage down the chimney of the church to assess its stability.

Jamestowne-Church (640x537)

Jamestowne Church – the ruined tower was built in 1639.

Jamestowne-Drone (640x480)

A drone at Jamestowne! Not historic…

We wandered around the rest of the site and checked out the plantation house ruin, as well as the reconstructed foundations of various buildings at the site.  We also relaxed for a bit near the James River, enjoying the view and the float plane that was landing on the river.

Mud-Stud-House (640x480)

The frame of a Mud and Stud House – Jon couldn’t stop laughing at the architectural style name.


Float-Plane (640x480)

A float plane landed on the James River

Ambler-House (640x480)

The Ambler House – built in the 1750s. It was burned and rebuilt in two wars, and was abandoned in 1895 after a third fire.

We also toured the Voorhees Archaearium, the museum on the site that contains historical artifacts from the settlement.  They also have two skeletons from the site and the stories from how they died.  One died from a gunshot in the leg; the other skeleton was a captain at the fort.

Most interestingly, the museum had an exhibit on Jane; she was a fourteen year old girl who died and was cannibalized, most likely during the “starving time”.  There were a few of her bones on exhibit that showed evidence of the cut marks that indicate the cannibalization.  It was an interesting exhibit, and I appreciated their candid way of dealing with such a sensitive subject.

Jamestowne-Doe (640x480)

A doe at Jamestowne – she would never have survived the starving time.

Then we headed over to the cafe for a delicious lunch, probably the best museum cafe food we had on the trip.  I had the U.S. Grant wrap with dried cranberries, turkey, walnuts and blue cheese spread with a side of orzo pasta and a slice of wonderful key lime pie.  Jon had the Union – a hummus veggie wrap with cole slaw and a Legend Brown Ale from a Richmond, VA brewery.

Jamestowne-Bird (640x480)

An unidentified bird at Jamestowne

Although there is very little of the original site visible, it was fascinating to see the site where colonial history in North American really began.






Virginia 2015: Menokin

Day 10: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Our last stop for the day was further down the Northern Neck, at a historic home called Menokin. Home is kind of a misnomer, as it is actually a historic ruin. But Menokin is a very unusual ruin, with an intriguing story of historic preservation.


The sign at Menokin

Menokin was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife Rebecca Tayloe Lee. Rebecca grew up on a plantation nearby called Mount Airy; her father, John Tayloe II, gave the Lee’s the plantation and had the home built as a wedding gift (ahhh, to be rich, and get a house and land for your wedding…).

At any rate, Menokin was built in 1769, with Georgian architectural styling and a lot of Neo Palladian influence. The Lees lived there until their deaths in 1797, and then the home fell to a couple of relatives, before being sold out of the family. It changed hands numerous times between 1820 and 1935, when it was in serious decline and vacant.


The side of Menokin

Here’s where it gets interesting. In 1940, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), thoroughly documented the vacant home in drawings and photographs. They also issued reports on the home, and its status as an endangered historic landmark. Unfortunately, the owners at the time were unwilling to sell it to a preservation society, so it continued its decline.

By the 1960s, the home had fallen further into ruin and the owners took the drastic step of removing as much of the original wood building material as they could, to put it into storage where it could be protected from the elements. Woodwork was removed and catalogued, including mantels, doorways, windows, flooring, molding and staircases. About 80% of the building materials have been saved.


The fireplace mantle of Menokin

In 1995, the last private owner of Menokin gifted it to the Menokin Foundation, along with all of the original woodwork that had been in storage since 1968. The home at that time was a complete ruin, and a tree had fallen into one corner of the house.


The door of Menokin, in storage

The Menokin Foundation is not planning to restore the house to its former glory. Their plan is far more interesting. They are going to preserve the home in its current state of decay, with glass walls and floors that will allow a visitor to travel through the home and envision what it would have been like it its day. Once the home is stabilized and protected, select woodwork will be returned to the home, to give visitors a sense of its former grandeur. Imagine walking through a glass historic house!

Our visit to Menokin was at the very end of the day – we got there just ten minutes before the Visitor’s Center closed for the day. The Visitor’s Center is really the office for the Foundation, nothing fancy at all, but the staff there were warm and friendly and insisted on having us watch the video of their dream, and they also took us on a tour of the wood room, where all the original wood from the home is catalogued and stored. It was remarkable, and I love that they are trying to do something radically different than the traditional restored historic home concept. They stayed way past their closing time, and were genuinely interested in how we had heard of Menokin and the fact that we had come from so far away to visit.

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed over to the site, to see the home. As it is not stabilized, you cannot enter, but you can walk all around for good views of the home. It was neat to imagine in person their vision of what it will be when it is completed.


The front of Menokin

Menokin was truly one of the outstanding gems of this trip – a little out of the way, but truly a fabulous place. If you are in the Northern Neck, and can visit, do! Here’s their website for more information on the unique vision for Menokin.


One of the fireplaces at Menokin

Our last task for the day was to finish our drive to Williamsburg, Virginia.  We checked into our hotel and walked down to the grocery store and liquor store for some wine and hotel room dinner. Jon wanted to try a Trump wine (I believe the winery is owned by Donald Trump’s son), just to say he had – it was actually pretty decent.  I got a bottle of the Barboursville Riesling; it was ok – fine, but not really memorable for me.  It was a long day, but we got to see some really great things!


Driving Distance for Day 10: 134 miles – Fredericksburg, VA – George Washington Birthplace NM – Stratford Hall – Menokin – Williamsburg, VA

Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn in Williamsburg – excellent!

Virginia 2015: Stratford Hall

Day 10: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Our next place was Stratford Hall. Moving up about 100 years for the George Washington Birthplace, we were going to see the birthplace of Robert E. Lee!


Stratford Hall was the plantation home of Colonel Thomas Lee, who purchased the land for the plantation in 1717 – it was then known as “The Clifts.” He renamed it Stratford Hall, after his grandfather’s home in England. Thomas Lee was kind of a big deal; he was a founder of the Ohio Company, a member of the Virginia colony’s governing council. At the time of his death, he was the President of the governing council and acting Governor of Virginia. The home was not constructed until 1737 (it was finished in 1738).

The landside of Stratford Hall, with original outbuildings

The landside of Stratford Hall, with original outbuildings

Thomas left the home to his son, Philip Ludwell Lee, who left the home to his daughter, Matilda Lee. Matilda married her cousin, Revolutionary War Hero “Lighthorse” Harry Lee – he was Robert E. Lee’s father – but Matilda was not his mother. Upon her death in 1790, she left Lighthorse Harry Lee a life interest in the property – he could live there until his death, but she willed it to their son together .

Harry Lee married a second time, to Robert E. Lee’s mother Ann Hill Carter. Unfortunately, Robert E. Lee’s father was better at war than he was at finances, and after spending a couple of years in debtor’s prison, he moved the family to Alexandria and his son from his first marriage took over the property, and soon had to sell it due to a lawsuit over an unrelated scandal. After having been home to the Lees for four generations, the sale took Stratford Hall out of the Lee family for good.

The cliffside of Stratford Hall

The cliffside of Stratford Hall

Although Robert E. Lee only lived at Stratford until he was four, he had fond memories of the home and estate his entire life, and wrote about wishing he could once again consider it home.

The architecture is Georgian, with a Central Hall and wings on either side. It has beautiful central staircases; one on either side of the home. The home has four outbuildings, one on each corner of the house, and they are all still standing. I loved the symmetry of the home.

An artsy shot of Stratford Hall

An artsy shot of Stratford Hall

The stables are also original I believe, and there are reconstructed slave quarters at the site.

Slave Cabins at Stratford Hall

Slave Cabins at Stratford Hall

When we got there, we headed over first to have lunch at the restaurant on site before they closed for the day. We split some baked potato soup and crab cakes, which were both fine but not spectacular. Then we headed back over for the tour – Jon chose not to go (I guess he was “historic homed” out at that point).

My crabcakes at the Stratford Hall restaurant

My crabcakes at the Stratford Hall restaurant

I found the tour interesting, but slightly odd. There wasn’t really much formal information; the docent pointed out some interesting artifacts and then left everybody to peek around the rooms on our own. I did appreciate that she didn’t bug me about the fact that I was sucking on cough drops; better than coughing violently throughout the whole tour, as I was still getting over the cold.

At one point there was a machine in one of the rooms; I imagine it was used as a part of the historic restoration. I asked her to tell me about the machine; but she misunderstood and launched into a lengthy explanation of the particular green in the room (the paint). She went on for several minutes on the paint and its history, at which time I didn’t have the energy to explain that it wasn’t at all what I was asking about. SIGH…

After the tour, I checked out the outbuildings, and made friends with a chicken in the stable. Oddly, there was only one… I also took a little time to look at the exhibits in the Visitor’s Center, which detailed the restoration of the home (but don’t explain that funny machine).

My chicken friend

My chicken friend

Stratford Hall’s architecture was probably my favorite historic home of the trip. I loved the brick and the symmetry, and the clean lines and simple styling of the home. The grounds are beautiful, and I’m sure would have been a lovely place to live.

Sadly, the staff were odd. The lady selling the tickets was kind of rude… The docent was nice, but not as well informed as she should have been, and the gift shop clerk… Let’s just say that while I was waiting to make my purchase, she was talking on the phone because she was having some trouble with the credit card machine. No worry, because I was going to pay cash! But she actually asked me if I could “come back later.” Umm… No… So, yeah, the service part of the experience at Stratford Hall could use some work…

Virginia 2015: Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland

Day 7: Saturday, October 10, 2015

James Monroe, despite being one of the founding fathers, isn’t one of our better known Presidents. I’m not sure why that is, but he certainly never resonated as one of the more important historical figures I’ve learned about. That said, when the opportunity came up to visit his home, I still wanted to see it. I figured it would be a chance to learn more about him, and compare and contrast his home and estate with the others that we would see on the trip!

A statue of James Monroe - originally destined for South America

A statue of James Monroe – originally destined for South America

With Thomas Jefferson being the Renaissance man that he was, he set out to surround himself with friends with whom he could have lively discussions. Travel in the day took a long time, so it was easier if your friends lived nearby. To that end, when the property next door to Monticello came up for sale, he let his friend James Monroe know. Monroe purchased the property of about 1,200 acres, and moved there in 1799. Eventually, he expanded the estate to about 3,500 acres, although later in life he sold off large parcels of land to pay his debts.

Me with the James Monroe house - the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Me with the James Monroe house – the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Monroe’s home is the most modest of the four Presidential homes we saw. It was originally a one story frame home with a couple of rooms on each side of a hallway. Monroe expanded the home later on, adding a few more rooms, and building some basement rooms (a kitchen, and store rooms) underneath the house.  Even later, he added a parlor on one side of the home. He called his house Highland.  I liked seeing a house that felt more like a common man – after Monticello and Mount Vernon, I was starting to wonder if there have ever been politicians who came from the middle class.  Not that Monroe wasn’t rich – his was just a less ostentatious kind of rich…

Our tour included the portion of the home that existed during Monroe’s time. Later owners added on, essentially attaching an entire, new, larger house to the home Monroe lived in.  Those owners are also responsible for the name Ash Lawn-Highland, as they added the Ash trees that are now planted on the property.  That new portion of the home is not included in the tour, but it does contain a small exhibit of Monroe artifacts and memorabilia on the first floor.

Ash-Lawn Highland - the small white house is what Monroe purchased - the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Ash-Lawn Highland – the small white house is what Monroe purchased – the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Things I learned about Monroe:

  • He is probably most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States would not tolerate intervention by European powers in the Americas (including Central and South America). South Americans were pleased by this – one country even commissioned a statue of him. Due to the fact that it was never delivered there, it now sits at Ash Lawn-Highland.
  • He was the last of the Founding Father Presidents to have served in combat in the Revolutionary War.  He was badly wounded at the Battle of Trenton.
  • Monroe was the only one of the Founding Father Presidents to have settled his debt before he died. Apparently, living beyond one’s means has been a hallmark of the American tradition for as long as there have been Americans.
  • Monroe also helped to found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, along with Jefferson (and James Madison), but he gets none of the credit. It was actually built on land that he owned and sold for the purpose.
  • Monroe was tall – 6 feet – and had a very distinctive butt chin.  It is apparent in all his portraits.
  • He, like Jefferson and Madison, liked busts. All three of them had busts decorating their home. I guess it was trendy.  I find it creepy.  I mean, imagine walking out into the living room in the middle of the night, and finding a glowing alabaster head staring back at you?  Creepy.
Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland

Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland


The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer's house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.

The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer’s house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.


Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland

Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland


Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.

Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.


A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

Monroe’s estate took a couple of hours to feel like you saw it all – we left there about noon. I had wanted to go check out the Michie Tavern, a historic tavern from the 1700s that still offers lunch (and tours). However, it was packed! It was a Saturday, but the place was absolutely crawling with people. We decided to skip it and went and found lunch just down the road at Salt.

Salt is a small sandwich shop in a former service station that sources local ingredients. My panini and Jon’s veggie wrap were both delicious, and we arrived at just the right time, because it really started to fill up after we ordered!

After lunch, there was much debate about whether we would use the afternoon to go to a winery or two and sample a few of the Virginia wines. In the end, we petered out. Jon was still sick, and I was now sick, so we ultimately decided on heading back to the Super 8 for a 3 hour midday nap… Glorious, it was…

Dinner that night was equally low key – we got a rotisserie chicken, pasta salad, and fruit at the grocery store, and some beer and wine to wash down our doses of cold medicine (in moderation of course!). An evening spent relaxing in front of the TV was just what we needed.

Driving Distance for Day 7: 65 miles – Waynesboro, VA – Ash Lawn-Highland – Waynesboro, VA

Hotel for the Night: Super 8, Waynesboro for another night.

Travel Tips: Even though James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland is literally right next door to Monticello, and we were there on a Saturday, it wasn’t busy at all.  Monroe is apparently not one of the cool Presidents…

Tickets – Ash-Lawn Highland: $14 per person; $1 off with our AAA Membership.  Discounts if you work at William and Mary College (they own the estate) or live in the nearby area.  Sadly, they did not have a decent guidebook, or very good postcards…

Shenandoah National Park History

Shenandoah National Park provided a challenge for the National Park Service.  Unlike many of the parks they had created in the west in vast, open spaces of largely uninhabited land, Shenandoah National Park had thousands of people already occupying its boundaries.  Hundreds of small farms dotted the landscape, their residents making a living from the land with crops, orchards and animals.  The park was authorized in 1926, but it wasn’t until December 26, 1935 before it was established.  Between those two dates, the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased some of the land from residents, and condemned other parcels of land through the process of eminent domain.  Over 500 families were ultimately relocated out of the park, and a few other residents were allowed to remain until they died. 

Looking down at the Shenandoah Valley from Skyline Drive

Looking down at the Shenandoah Valley from Skyline Drive

Unfortunately, as was all too common during that era, the Park Service relied on some flawed information to make its decision to displace residents.  They hired a woman named Miriam M. Sizer to conduct a study of the resident population.  Her assessment was that the area residents lived in basically squalid conditions, unable to care for themselves, and were completely devoid of education or culture.  In her opinion, the government would be doing these folks a favor by removing them from their homes and relocating them where they would be better off. 

The reality was somewhat different.  Although the region had not been adequately served by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s education system, residents had banded together to create community schools.  There was poverty, but many families enjoyed a rich, cultural existence.  Ms. Sizer’s study has contributed to continuing stereotypes and sweeping generalizations of the residents of Appalachia as a completely backwoods, uneducated population.  The Park Service features an exhibit in the Big Meadows Visitor’s Center addresses this “study” and its impact on the people who once lived here. 

Also interesting is that unlike parks in the West, Shenandoah has a history that began with segregation.  In the 1930s the park had multiple areas that were “whites only.”  Only one campground and picnic area within the park was designated for African Americans.  World War II changed all that – concessions closed and park usage went way down.  After the war, the Park Service mandated that facilities be integrated; the mandate was fully accomplished in 1950.   

Me posing with the Shenandoah National Park Sign

Me posing with the Shenandoah National Park Sign

Today the park is long and narrow, with its most prominent feature being the 105 mile Skyline Drive, that traverses the entire length of the park.  The park encompasses 79,579 acres (124.34 sq. miles), and spans eight Virginia counties.  The rocks making up the mountains of Shenandoah are some of the oldest in Virginia, over a billion years old.  Over 40% of the park is designated wilderness, and 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park.  It is home to white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, opossum, groundhog, red fox, gray fox, coyote and eastern cottontail rabbit.  The park also provides habitat for over 200 species of birds and thirty-two species of fish. 

Due to its location so close to major population centers, 1,209,883 visited the park in 2011, making it one of the more popular parks in terms of numbers.  And when you visit, it is easy to see why.  I’ll share our visit with you next! 

Have you been to Shenandoah National Park?  What were your favorite parts? 



Virginia 2015: Arlington House

Day 3: Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Have you ever thought about how Arlington National Cemetery, that hallowed ground overlooking Washington, D.C. from the other side of the river, came to be?

Arlington House, the home on the site, was built by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s adopted grandson, beginning in 1802. It was designed by George Hadfield, who had also designed the U.S. Capitol, and it was built in stages in the Greek Revival architectural style. The north wing (1802) and south wing (1804) were built first. Family members at the time would have had to cross outside in order to reach the other half of the house. The center section of the home wasn’t filled in until 1818. The estate was 1,100 acres, with many slaves.

A view of Arlington House in the distance at Arlington National Cemetery.

A view of Arlington House in the distance at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington was passed down through the Custis family, and became the home of Robert E. Lee between 1857 and 1861, when he departed to serve in the Civil War – Lee had married into the Custis family. Interestingly, Lee didn’t own it himself; his father-in-law left it to the Lee’s eldest son George Washington Custis Lee when he died in 1857, with stipulations that Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, be permitted to reside there for the remainder of her life.

Before Robert E. Lee took control of Arlington as executor of the estate, the property was not-profitable. His father-in-law had been more committed to leisure pursuits like painting – he was actually a quite accomplished amateur artist – than running a plantation. Lee was able to turn it around without selling off any of the slaves living on the estate; he believed that the sale of slaves would not be in keeping with the wishes of his father-in-law, who stipulated that the slaves there be emancipated within five years of his death. Lee executed that portion of the will, and even taught the slaves to read and write, in violation of the law, because he believed that it would better prepare them for freedom.

By all accounts, Robert E. Lee was a more disciplined master than his father-in-law had been, and the slaves resented it. Several of them attempted (unsuccessfully) to run away. Accounts differ on the severity of the punishment when they were recaptured.

After Lee departed for the war and his family for safer ground further south, the estate was used by Union General Irvin McDowell as his headquarters as he oversaw the troops protecting Washington. The grounds were used as a training ground and encampments for Union soldiers. In 1863, a Freedman’s Village was established there, in order to provide a place where emancipated and escaped slaves could establish themselves.

The North wanted to do more than just use the property. They wanted to punish Lee for his sin of taking up arms against them. So, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed burying the fallen on the edges of Mrs. Lee’s rose garden – 22 graves in all. They wanted to make sure that Arlington was not a comfortable place to return.  In fact, Lee never did return to Arlington after the war. He was offered an appointment at what is now Washington and Lee University, and he is buried there. In 1874, George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government for improper seizure of the home, and the Supreme Court agreed; he was awarded Arlington, and then sold it back to the government for $150,000.

Graves around the edge of Mary Lee's rose garden.

Graves around the edge of Mary Lee’s rose garden.

Arlington House was restored beginning in 1925, although in direct violation of the legislation that was passed, it was restored to the earlier time period of George Washington Custis, completely ignoring the contributions or legacy of Robert E. Lee. It wasn’t until 1955 that it was designated as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee, and the interpretation changed to the time when Lee lived in the house.

Visitation to Arlington House – the Robert E. Lee Memorial in 2011 was about 576,816; visitors can take a self-guided tour of the first floor of the house. The second floor of the house is currently closed, having suffered earthquake damage in 2011. The Park Service anticipates that the house will be closed for several months in 2016 while the damage is repaired.

I enjoyed our visit, although there were quite a few people roaming around. The home had guides in several of the rooms who pointed out interesting artifacts and answered questions. There were several paintings by Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law and his daughter (Robert E. Lee’s wife). There were several things original to the Lee family, including Robert E. Lee’s red upholstered settee and chairs.

Robert E. and Mary Lee's furniture in the parlor at Arlington House

Robert E. and Mary Lee’s furniture in the parlor at Arlington House


Lee's office, where he wrote the letter resigning his commission in the U.S. Army.

Lee’s office, where he wrote the letter resigning his commission in the U.S. Army.


The cradle were Lee was born - although not in this house.

The cradle where Lee was born – although not in this house.

We toured the garden to see the graves of the Union dead and the Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier (that’s different than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).  I checked out the slave quarters, and an interesting display about Selina Gray, one of the slaves who served the Lee family. She helped to safeguard the various George Washington artifacts that had been passed down in the family, by complaining to the Union General stationed at Arlington when soldiers were stealing the valuables.

The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier - the remains of 2.111 Civil War unknown soldiers are buried here.

The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier – the remains of 2.111 Civil War unknown soldiers are buried here.

However, it is less known that Selina Gray and several of her children were instrumental in guiding the restoration process of Arlington House, due to her knowledge of the home and furnishings. They assisted with matching paint colors and obtaining period furniture, as well as determining where items should be placed in the home. Despite all this, the Park Service did not have a photograph of Selina Gray until a few years ago, when they were finally able to put a face to this important name in history.

The front of the house was covered in scaffolding during our visit, which didn’t make for great photos, but we were treated to a beautiful clear day so we could easily see the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. No wonder Lee loved it here; it is truly a spectacular view of Washington, D.C.

A view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol from Arlington House

A view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol from Arlington House

While we were at the cemetery, we also saw the tomb of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, the only one of his children to live long into adulthood. And no visit would be complete without a visit to John F. Kennedy’s grave. It is poignant in its simplicity – with the eternal flame and the four simple markers – JFK, Jackie, and the two children who died before him.

John F. Kennedy's grave - with the Eternal Flame.

John F. Kennedy’s grave – with the Eternal Flame.

I would have enjoyed wandering around more, but we needed to get to our next destination! George Washington’s Mount Vernon!

Have you been to Arlington National Cemetery? What was your favorite place there? 

Virginia 2015: A Trip is Born…

A trip to Virginia had been brewing for awhile. The historic sites!  The Presidential homes!  The Civil War connection.  It was my turn to choose a vacation in 2013 (yes, 2013, you read that correctly), and I wanted to go to Virginia. Jon and I trade off on choosing our big vacation each year; at least that is the intent.  So… In 2013, I had dates in March scheduled, and we were researching Virginia airfares, but something was nagging at me.

That something was a little 6 pound kitty named Martini, who had lymphoma. I couldn’t bring myself to fly cross country and leave her at home, knowing that she could decline or die without me by her side.  So, I kept procrastinating.  The same night, Jon and I came up with the idea to do a road trip to California instead – that way we could be home in a day if we needed to. As it turned out, we said our final goodbyes to our sweet girl before we left for that California trip…

Virginia was again on the docket for 2014 – until Jon’s cousin announced his wedding in Los Angeles. We wanted to make the best use of the flight to California, so we decided to forego Virginia again and do a scenic loop of the Southwest before the wedding. A fabulous choice that I don’t regret, but not Virginia.

I was determined to do Virginia in 2015 – I had been dreaming for three years about all the Presidential mansions and historic homes, about Appomattox Courthouse and other Civil War Battlefields.  I started a new job in January – which could have put a wrench in our plans, but fortunately a generous vacation package and some front loaded time meant that I could still do the trip.  Finally we were able to make it happen! After we got back from Colorado in August, I set to work planning the trip. We had almost two weeks; our longest vacation to date (by one day)!

I mapped and researched and connected the dots between our various wish list sites, finding the most convenient stopping points, and booking flights, a car, hotel rooms, and a boat tour! I wanted a more leisurely pace than we’d had in Colorado, with two night stays at several of our destination towns. Slowly it began to come together.

We would fly into Baltimore (that was the least expensive) and visit Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Arlington House, Mount Vernon, Shenandoah National Park, Appomattox Courthouse, Monticello, Ash Lawn Highland, Montpelier, the Fredericksburg Battlefield, the Hugh Mercer Apothecary, Mary Ball Washington House, George Washington Birthplace, Stratford Hall, Menokin, Jamestown, Yorktown, and finish off at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Still ambitious, but workable.

Our route would look something like this - darn you Google Maps for only allowing 10 places!

Our route would look something like this – darn you Google Maps for only allowing 10 places!

Jon decided at the last minute that he wanted to see Gettysburg, so we traded that for Antietam. And oh, by the way, could we possibly fit in some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway?

The next series of vacation posts will be our Virginia Road Trip – October 4 – 16, 2015.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!