Thursday, September 7, 2017

Travelling on Thursday - Presidential Sites

In our quest to visit all of the Presidential sites in Virginia, we set off last weekend to knock Zachary Taylor and James Madison off the list.  These were to be our sixth and seventh Presidential sites.

Zachary Taylor was easy.  He doesn't have a birthplace here in Virginia, just a sign.

The story is that although he is believed to have been born at the home of his maternal grandmother near Orange, Virginia, he was actually born during the time his family was migrating from Virginia to Kentucky.  Members of the family became sick during the journey and stopped at Montebello where Taylor was born.

It was a short drive from the Montebello sign (it's in Barboursville, by the way) to James Madison's Montpelier.  It was a dismal day with drizzling rain but that didn't dampen our spirits.

The property is beautiful, with the house, temple, formal garden, 8+ miles of trails, the Madison family cemetery, slave cemetery, field quarters, the archaeology lab, and a moving exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in the cellars of the house and in the household slave quarters, the South Yard.

Vic checks in with James, the Father of the Constitution and Architect of the Bill of Rights, and Dolley, America's first "First Lady" at the Visitor Center.  There is a short film which sets the stage for the tour and then it's off to the house.

This is the house formerly owned by Madison's parents and expanded three times to its current floor plan.  No photography was allowed inside but it was very impressive.  After the house was sold by Dolley Madison to pay the debts of the estate, many of the furnishings were sold as well.  Extensive work has been done to recover as many of them as possible.  Some of the furnishings are original to the Madisons, others are original to the era, and others are painstakingly-crafted reproductions.  Our tour guide was very thorough and gave a very detailed tour.  I had no idea that James Madison was a man of short stature compared to his peers, and it was very evident when there were cardboard effigies of a group of characters from history seated around the dining table. 

After our tour, we went down to the cellars to view The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit.  The cellars are divided into two parts, with one part exploring how the legacy of slavery impacts today's conversations about race, identity, and human rights and the other, Montpelier's connection to the national story of slavery.  It was very moving.  We then walked over to the South Yard which was the work space and living space for the slaves who worked in the Madison household and caught the tail end of the Enslaved Community tour which was excellent.  If you ever go to Montpelier, ask to take one of Russell's tours, he was fascinating.

Our final stop, after lunch at the Exchange Cafe and a quick browse in the gift shop, was Montpelier Station, the 1910 train depot which has been restored to the Jim Crow era with segregated waiting rooms.  Not sure if you can make it out in the photo but the door on the right says Colored and the door on the left White.  It was interesting that this was also the post office and since postal regulations forbade segregation, there were separate waiting rooms for the train but both groups had their postal slots side by side.

I highly recommend a visit to Montpelier if you're in the central Virginia area.


  1. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing this with us. I am a history buff and would love to make it to the East Coast to visit so many historical places. Maybe someday...

  2. Love this goal! Wish you would expand it to all states...LBJ's birthplace is very near me. :)

    Also I've been struggling with a category of my reading challenge (book you loved as a child), and this reminds me that I particularly loved a set of books for young readers about important American women...and Dolly Madison was my favorite. Since I still have the set, I will definitely be reading that one again soon.