The next morning we decided to head out towards Charlottesville and James Madison’s Montpelier. We decided to take a long ride through the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. This is a 105 mile ridge drive through the Shenandoah National Park with 75 overlooks that give you a view of not only the Blue Ridge Mountains but woods and farmlands. The highest peak is Hawksbill at 4051 feet. The official ground breaking for the construction of this drive was July 18, 1931. The final construction was completed in 1939.
The views are just breath-taking. We stopped a few times to take pictures, but mostly to marvel at what a beautiful land this really is. As we drove up into the mountains, the air became cooler, getting down to 71 degrees. Wild flowers were abundant and birds were flying over and around our car. There is a place towards the top center of this drive called “Big Meadow”. To our surprise, you come over the hill and all of a sudden you are in a huge meadow on top of this mountain. There is a lodge there for the public to stay in. They also have camping and cabins along the route. You can hike and picnic as well. There are several waterfalls that you have to hike to and you do have to be cautious of the wildlife. This is black bear country. As we were driving along, we came across two rangers who seemed to have been tracking something. One of them was carrying a rifle. But we didn’t see what they were looking for.
We jumped off onto Route 33 at the 65 mile marker so we didn’t take the whole 105 mile drive. One thing, there is a cost to take this drive. At this time, it is $15.00 for a car. I am not sure about other transportation. It is also closed after the first of November until the following spring as they get snow in this area.
As we headed towards Montpelier, we passed through a couple small towns. I was taking notes of their location as there were a lot of antique stores along the way. I see a future trip to go antique shopping! We drove to Gordonsville, Virginia, just a few miles from Montpelier. We have been here many times and know of a great BBQ place to eat called “The BBQ Exchange”. We stopped for a quick bite and started towards Montpelier.
As we drove in, we realized that we only had a couple hours before they closed for the day, but I wanted to go back to get recharged. When we came in, they had a tour group around in the video introduction, so we asked if we could forego the video, since we have seen it before, and jump into the group when they were ready to move to the house. While we waited, we were treated to costumes from a PBS production about Dolley Madison. What style she had!
In the Gallery, I walked around and looked at personal items from the Madisons and was surprised by a picture of Nelly Conway Madison. It was a 3D relief of her that I had not seen before. As I stepped back into the lobby, Brett pointed out on a timeline covering Madison’s life, the part about Nelly Conway Madison going back to Port Conway to give birth to James.
We jumped into the group and headed towards the house. Once on the grand porch, we were greeted by a docent who would lead us through the house. Brett and I have been here so often that I think I could get a position as a docent to lead tours! But the best part is that each docent brings a different take on the history. Our docent, Joann, was warm and would quiz us on the history. Does it surprise you that I got all but one question right? I missed the one on how many grandchildren Nelly had. She had 48 grandchildren.
We started in the sitting room on Nelly’s side of the mansion as we always do, but this time, they had added a different twist. They spoke about a relationship between James and a young slave boy. As we walked into the parlor, I got to see the beautiful wallpaper that I have come to love about this room. It was added after our second visit. I had thought that it would be a beautiful covering for the walls in Belle Grove, but at $360 per 11 foot roll, I don’t think we will be able to do it.
From there it was on to the dining room and then the library where they had added some curtains and other items to the rooms. As we walked into the side room just behind the dining room, we got the best surprise! This room was used by James Madison during the last years of his life. Unable to go upstairs, he had slept here and received guests here and worked on his final papers here. When we were last here, it had been empty with the exception of a bust of Madison. Not wallpaper or curtains were in the room. This time, it had wallpaper, curtains and furniture! And the best part was the bed! It was a white French canopy with burgundy curtains. Joann explained that this was similar to the bed that James Madison had in the room. Brett and I were floored! It looked so regal, so presidential. It must have been suddenly very bright in the room as both Brett and I had the same idea. We had always thought of placing a bed similar to the dark walnut Tester bed that had been the Madison’s bed upstairs. But this bed made a statement and Brett and I heard it so clear!
We followed the group upstairs to the upstairs library located just above the front door. This is the room that James Madison spent his time in working out the Constitution. It is such an awe inspiring thought to know that we are in the room that the majority of this documented was created. To see out of the windows the view that James would have had and to wonder what he was thinking as he crafted one of the most important documents of our history. I still get chills thinking about it.
We then moved to the balcony that is on top of the Nelly’s rooms. There you can see the front lawns, the slave quarters which are being rebuilt and the backyard with the statue of the Madison and walking garden just beyond. As I started taking pictures of the front lawn, a large bird appeared and flew over and above the trees beside the Temple. I then turned to the slave quarters only to see a single deer quietly eating grass under a tree. It was just a “wow” moment.
Brett pointed out to me that the railing of this balcony had the same style railing as Belle Grove’s riverside portico had. It was like a small connection to Montpelier in a way. Then as we finished the tour we talked with a couple of other tourist and two of the docents. It was funny that one docent looked at our picture of Belle Grove and made an observation that if you removed the porches and portico from both Montpelier and Belle Grove; the structures would look very similar. When Brett and I had drove in earlier we had made that same observation.
But Brett and I couldn’t get that bed out of our thoughts. So we asked if one of the docents could take us back to see it again. Standing there, we tried to memorize each aspect of it. Now we are on a conquest to see if we can find one just like it for the Madison room at Belle Grove.
After seeing the bed again, we thanked Joann for her time and headed to the walking garden. This garden was put in during the DuPont’s time at Montpelier. It was in full bloom and just stunning. I found points that I want to add to Belle Grove’s walking garden from this garden.
Afterwards we headed back to the car. We had one last stop to make before headed out. I wanted to stop at the Madison Cemetery. Nelly Conway Madison is buried here, but there is no tombstone marking her place. She is just to the right of Madison’s large tombstone. I just wished I had had flowers to place there for her. The cemetery was empty and as I walked in you could hear the birds. But it was strange, just as I got to the spot where Nelly is, I softly started talking to her. I was telling her that I hoped she would have been pleased with what we were doing with Belle Grove and that I hoped we were doing what was right in her eyes. It was then that I realized that it was perfectly silent. The birds that had been singing when I arrived had stopped. It was perfect still. I then walked around a moment to observe the other tombstone and made one last stop at Madison’s tombstone. There on the stone were rocks, a penny and a note left by others.
As I headed back to the car, my thoughts turned back to our Belle Grove. There is so much history, so many memories there. I just hope we are doing right by it all. What an honor and awesome responsibility to have. My hope is that future generations will come to understand the lives of these people and the struggles and hardships that they went through to build our great nation. We have so much yet to do and much more farther to go.
As we started to drive out, I asked Brett if he wanted to stay in Orange, Virginia one more night or if he wanted to head back. He felt the need to get home. I could have stayed another month and it would have not been enough. But we headed home. But it was a good thing that we did. Because the best surprise was yet to come….
The Story Continues Tomorrow…
The Best Surprise is the one you don’t see coming!