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Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (part 1)

Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (part 1)

By on Mar 30, 2014 in Presidents | 12 comments

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

While most people know Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (check your  nickels), fewer people know Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, his country villa in southwest Virginia. I think of it as a “mini Monticello,” because it looks so much like its more famous counterpart.

Poplar Forest gets its name from the amazing poplar trees that surround it (apparently there was once an actual forest). My Uncle Joe kept calling it “Popular” Forest, and my Aunt Viola and I finally had to give up correcting him.  We took a Nerd Trip to Poplar Forest in early April, when the trees were still bare and you could see their amazing architecture.  Take a look:

Amazing poplar trees at Poplar Forest

Amazing poplar trees at Poplar Forest

The front porch at Poplar Forest

The front porch at Poplar Forest

Poplar Forest is located in Forest, Virginia, which for Jefferson was about three days travel from Monticello. For you and me, it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive.  Jefferson inherited the property from his father-in-law in 1773. Jefferson apparently wanted to build his retreat at the highest point on the property, and I think he got it right, it was super windy the day we visited and there wasn’t much to block the wind.

Like Monticello, Jefferson designed Poplar Forest in an octagonal shape. I give him credit for being consistent in his tastes (or maybe it’s obsessive?). If I were building a second home, I’d want something a little different.  Honestly, you rode all that way, and it looks like a smaller version of the other house. Construction of the Poplar Forest house you see today began in 1806, when one of Jefferson’s other houses was actually the White House.

Poplar Forest grounds layout

Poplar Forest grounds layout

The infamous octagonal privy, discreetly hidden behind some trees at Jefferson's Poplar Forest

The infamous octagonal privy, discreetly hidden behind some trees at Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

The grounds of Poplar Forest also have a Monticello-like layout. The house sits in the middle of a circular road. The octagonal building has a wing off the side with kitchens and other facilities underneath – just like Monticello. And, just like at Monticello, Jefferson was very interested in plants and landscaping at Poplar Forest, although there wasn’t much in bloom when we visited.

On either side of the house, there are  strategically placed hills or “mounds,” ideal for surveying the property and gardens. They also  disguise the infamous octagonal privies, a polite way to describe the outhouse. Jefferson can’t let go of the classical design even when it comes to the outhouse; the privy design follows the rules of architectural proportion as the house. For some reason, the people at Poplar Forest kept talking about these octagonal privies. They are quite the attraction!

Here's the other octagonal privy

Here’s the other octagonal privy

Aunt Viola takes a peek at the privy

Aunt Viola takes a peek at the privy

Of course I took a picture inside the privy!

Of course I took a picture inside the privy!

Poplar Forest

Poplar Forest

In the next post, I will let you know what we saw inside the house. While I keep emphasizing the similarities with Monticello, there are plenty of different things to see and learn at Poplar Forest.  With all that, plus those octagonal privies, maybe someday  it will be known as “Popular” Forest, so check it out for yourself.

This is our first official post on the updated Nerd Trips site, and while I am nerd, I am not a tech geek. Thanks again to Lynne and Frank at Buzzquake Marketing for all their hard work and patience, my friend Tracy for the great banner designer and the “Happiness Engineers” at WordPress for helping with the final migration.

Here are some things to look for on the site. First of all, there is  “Search” bar at the top, so you can search for your favorite president, poet or location.

Map3.jpgSpeaking of locations, check out the  “On the Map” feature with “pinpoints”  to show where we have been. Click on those map pages and you’ll find the website and address for each historic site and a rating for overall experience, such as this one for Poplar Forest. You can also search the maps page with the filters at the bottom that organize posts by listing (presidential home, literary site, etc) or location (Virginia, Texas, London, etc) or rating (one to five stars). We think these new features will help make Nerd Trips more fun and interactive.

Thanks again to all of you for coming along on these nerdy adventures. You never know what you’ll learn or see. On this trip, we had some Nerd Trips paparazzi — Uncle Joe and his trusty video camera.

The Nerd Trips paparazzi? Aunt Viola and Uncle Joe with his video camera!

The Nerd Trips paparazzi? Aunt Viola and Uncle Joe with his ever-present video camera!

Another view of the shrubbery and poplar trees at Poplar Forest

Another view of the shrubbery and poplar trees at Poplar Forest




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  1. Hi Sharon, Thanks for the post on Poplar Forest. I thought about going there when I was in Virginia for my presidential historic site tours, but I just ran out of time, so it was nice to get a virtual tour from your well written and photographed nerd trip. Maybe next time I’m in Virginia I’ll make it there. All the best to you!

    • Thanks Mike. There’s just too much to see in Virginia. Hope you are doing well.

  2. This is high on my list of places to visit this summer! And honestly I’d never heard of it until I dove into my Thomas Jefferson biographies…

    • I had never heard of Poplar Forest either, except my aunt and uncle retired in the area. Don’t forget about Rapidan Camp, Herbert Hoover’s place off Shenandoah Drive.

  3. I like the new layout! And Poplar Forest looks like an awesome place to visit. I probably would have posed on the privy though – my mom says I have an obsession with historical toilets… Perhaps…

    • That’s funny. I didn’t even think to go in the privy. As you might expect, it’s a little tight in there. I will have to keep an eye out for other historical toilets!

  4. Great new layout. I want to go to Poplar Forest, but it’s not conveniently near anything. I guess I’ll just have to make a separate trip.

    • Thanks History Tourist. I did Poplar Forest on the same day as Booker T. Washington’s birthplace. I was visiting family who live nearby. On the way down, I picked up Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in Staunton. Also off I-81, you can get some Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson sites in Lexington. I haven’t been there, but some other “history tourists” suggested them.

  5. Love your new format! And enjoyed Poplar Forest, too! It’s about 45 minutes or so from Appomattox CH, so the combination trip is very worthwhile!!

    • Thanks Feather. I have never been to Appomattox CH, but I will add it to the list. We did Poplar Forest and Booker T. Washington’s birthplace on the same day.

  6. Love the map feature and the new layout. I grew up in DC and had never heard of Poplar forest! I bet it’s lovely when everything is blooming.

    • Thanks Melyssa! I think Poplar Forest would be better when it’s a little warmer.

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