By Ann Hattes
Photos by Neil Hattes (except where noted)
September 17, 2008, Constitution Day, marked a “Restoration Celebration” for Montpelier, the lifelong home of James Madison, Father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights, and fourth president of the United States. At Montpelier Madison exhaustively read, researched and analyzed past democracies, devising in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains an innovative plan to unite thirteen distinct states into one union.
Since 2003 dedicated restoration experts from across the country have worked to ensure that Madison’s home be restored to the highest level of authenticity. Old-growth cypress shingles were each hand-scalloped, for example, and 56 pounds of horsehair was combined with dry-mixed plaster to apply to the home’s interior walls. More than 30 craftsmen specializing in fine carpentry, masonry and stone cutting worked on the project. One workman had the Constitution affixed to the inside of his toolbox, an inspiration as he began each day’s labor. $24 million dollars have been spent with the major portion from the Mellon Foundation. Though the mansion has been open since 1987, it was a challenge to convey the life of Madison and the home he and Dolley, (known as the “first” First Lady) shared due to the extensive alterations made to the estate since its sale in 1844.
“Now visitors will be able to witness, for the first time in over 150 years, the exact home that James and Dolley Madison created and loved,” said Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation whose mission is to make Montpelier a place of learning, exploration and celebration of the Constitution and James Madison.
Montpelier is to be a national monument to this important Founding Father, and a place where people can learn about the man who, by the force of his intellect, perseverance, character, humility, and political skill laid the foundation for our republic. Montpelier, one of the last of the founding father’s homes to be restored, is owned by The National Trust for Historic Preservation with the non-profit Montpelier Foundation managing the day-to-day operations.
Visitors can witness the home’s transformation through daily guided tours, and by a leisurely stroll of the gardens and forests on the property’s 2,650 acres. Stand in the Temple which had an ice house beneath it, packed each winter with ice for preserving food and for Dolley’s famous ice cream. Stop by the Hands-on Restoration Tent to make a brick or saw a log, or observe and ask questions of archaeologists at the active dig. Glimpse what life was like for former Montpelier slave and freedman George Gilmore, his wife and children at the Gilmore Cabin and Freedman’s Farm.
Montpelier holds a Fall Fiber Festival with sheep dog trials, plus steeplechase and hunt races the first weekend in November including Jack Russell Terrier races. The last weekend in April there’s a Montpelier Wine Festival with Revolutionary War encampment.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montpelier is located in the heart of Virginia’s wine country. There are many B & Bs in the Orange area, including Mayhurst Inn, an 1859 Italianate plantation mansion offering history, Victorian splendor and southern charm on 37 acres, 10 minutes from Montpelier. Stonewall Jackson stayed the night and General Robert E. Lee and General Ambrose Powell Hill both visited. The area between Orange and Fredericksburg was the most fought over in the Civil War being situated about mid-way between the Union capital in D. C. and the Confederate capital in Richmond.
Mayhurst Inn’s Jack and Pat North offer many suggestions about visiting the area, including recommendations of fine dining restaurants and locally popular eateries which they have personally experienced. Jack is an avid gardener and amateur cook, Pat a welcoming hostess, decorator and fantastic cook. Wine and cheese is served each evening and a full gourmet breakfast each morning, with Eggs Benedict their signature dish.
One morning you might start off with tiny pastries, orange juice, coffee or tea, followed by fresh berries with yogurt and then French toast croissants topped off with a fresh peach puree. Another day a scrumptious baked apple might precede Eggs Benedict, a recipe Pat gladly shares with her guests.
Mayhurst Inn is perfect for travelers seeking history, located as it is amidst three Presidential mansions (Montpelier, Monticello and Ashlawn) and multiple Civil War battlefields, yet only 90 minutes from northern Virginia. In addition to history, visitors find an array of fine restaurants, golf courses and wineries to visit. Mayhurst Inn makes the perfect setting from which to start exploring the nearby countryside.
* Montpelier Foundation
* Mayhurst Inn
* Orange, VA
* Culpepper, VA
* Virginia State Tourism