Virginia: One Giant History Lesson by Amanda & Justin

We spent several weeks of November enjoying the state of Virginia. Our trip to Virginia was focused around a lot of early American history. Our first stop was in the town of Charlottesville where we spent a day and a half hiking in Shenandoah National Park and explored Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home. We also visited George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, just outside Washington DC as well as Williamsburg and the Jamestown settlement.

Shenandoah is a long and skinny National Park with a highway that connects the north and south ends of the park. I would take over four hours to drive the legnth of the park and we spent much of our time in the southern section of the park. Skyline Drive winds you through beautiful mountains and the views can be increbible. The Appaclachian Trail winds through the park as well, and you can see hikers with their large packs crossing Skyline Drive. We were extremely excited to hike in the park and started our first hike around 4pm on the Firestone road path. We were not one minute on the trail when Justin heard a large snapping noise overhead. A mid-sized black bear came slidding down the tree and scurried off down the path. We thought it would not be the best idea to follow behind him, so we quickly turned around and hiked about an hours worth of the Appalachian Trail instead. Our second day proved to be much less exciting, but the trails we hiked were far more scenic and spectacular. We enjoyed the Dark Hollows Falls trail and Justin and Micah were able to climb up the side of the falls for some really memorable views. One of the trails we took felt more like a rock climbing expedition. The trail took you climbing through rough boulders and tall rock formations with excellent views of the Shenandoah Valley below. We came at a perfect time when the weather was in the mid-60s but the leaves were already changing into their fall colors, so the views were filled with the reds, oranges and yellows of fall. A day and a half was not enough time at Shenandoah and we will definately need to make a return visit. One of my favorite Presidents is Thomas Jefferson, so I made the family stop for the day and tour his home, Monticello. He built his plantation home on top of a hillside, so the home and the views are both spectacular. It was nice to see such a unique piece of history preserved so well, and they did a great job not just teaching you about the home or the man, but also about the enslaved peoples who lived and worked there too. The tour lasted about an hour and we were then able to tour the outbuilding and grounds at our own pace. It was cool to see one of the first refrigerators and single stove systems in his french style kitchen. He built a hidden dumbwaiter in his dining room that connected to his wine cellar. We also enjoyed looking at the Native American artifacts sent to him by Lewis & Clark and some of the first maps of the United States that his father created. The preservation of the slave homesteads helped you to understand the complexities of running such a large plantation, and we enjoyed looking at the gardens, bakery, blacksmith, carpenter, etc. It was really a small town within the plantation.

Just down the way is Mitchie’s Tavern where we stopped for a typyical Virginian lunch of the colonial time period. The Tavern dates from 1757 and they have preserved and moved other building from the colonial period onto the grounds. We enjoyed the southern home cooking of fried chicken, beets, succotash, mashed potatoes, and stewed tomatoes, all made from scratch. Just around the corner you can tour President James Monroe’s house too. We did but I wouldn’t recommend it. Turns out they recently discovered that his house burned to the ground after he was president and all that remains is part of the guest house. If anything, the visit only helps reinforce how large and beautiful Monticello really is!!

Another spectacular Presidential home is Mount Vernon. About an hour south of DC, Mount Vernon sits on a peaceful spot overlooking the Potomac River. George Washington inherited the home from his father and spent his life adding onto and improving the home. Far less opulent than Thomas Jefferson’s home, it is still very regal in style and feels almost like a quaint, old, historic inn. The Marquis de Layafette gave George Washingon the key to the Bastille Prison in France, and it’s still hanging in the exact spot in the hallway that he hung it over 250 some years ago. The kids got a kick out of seeing his false teeth which are displayed in the museum.

Amanda’s mother and brother joined us for about a week in the Williamsburg and Jamestown area. Williamsburg is like Colonial Disneyworld, with tons of activities, shops and historical outbuildings and helps you understand how life in a colonial town would have felt. Micah was obsessed with the armory, where all the guns and ammunition were stored, and was able to see them fire the large cannon. Other highlights included the wig shop, cabinet maker and book binder. We had dinner one night in one of the historic taverns and then participated in an evening “show”, where we learned how to dance in the colonial style amid costumed actors. We also had the opporunity to watch a play in the old capital building which explained Virginia’s role in our countries fight for independance.

The history continued with a visit to the original Jamestown settlement site. It was a cold and rainy day but we braved the weather to listen to a archelogist describe the importance of the Jamestown site and what recent discoveries they have made since starting to excavate the area in the past ten years. In the early 1900s they erected a monument on the site and re-created the old church, but nothing of the time period was reflected there. But over the course of the past ten years, they have done major excavation of the site and found where the fort walls would have been, where the original church would have sat, and several other buildings and graves. Our guide did a great job bringing to life the historic figures of the time and hardships and persecution the settlers faced. He also debunked a great many legends about John Smith, Pocohantas and the other colorful characters of early colonial history. We’ll be eager to see what new discoveries are made as they continue the excavation efforts. If you get a chance, spend a few minutes at the Jamestown Glass Works where the artisans are blowing glass just as they did back in the late 1600s. We spent a good hour watching and talking with the glassblowers and their apprentices and learned a great deal about this unique skill.

There was a little of everything to entertain the family in Virginia. For a history geek like Amanda, there was so many colonial and Civil War sites to visit. For a nature lover like Justin, Shenandoah and the Appalachian Trail are a must and will be visited again in the future. And the kids really enjoyed the hands on experience at Williamsburg.