I’m not sure what Thomas Jefferson would have made of all the commotion taking place at his estate on a recent weekend in September. Vendors, gardeners, musicians, naturalists, historians, and agriculturalists were all taking part in the Tenth Annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Jefferson’s Monticello, just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson, our third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, was well known for being an eighteenth and early nineteenth century “Renaissance Man,” with interests in such varied topics as politics, music, architecture, natural history, and of course, agriculture. Some of his writings indicate that his vision for the United States was to be a nation of farmers, which he considered among the noblest and most virtuous professions.
So it’s fitting that nearly two centuries after his passing, a festival with the goal of promoting gardening and agriculture should take place on the grounds of his revered Monticello. Jefferson was constantly experimenting with different seeds and plants, keeping meticulous records of planting and harvest dates, day to day weather, rate of growth, etc. He was seeking to discover the heartiest fruits and vegetables that could be grown in his native Virginia, and so would have fit right in with the participants at this year’s festivities.
Nancy and I had the opportunity to participate this year. There were a multitude of workshops available, so we decided to split up. Not permanently, of course, but just for the day, so we could experience as much of the festival as possible. There were workshops on composting, growing mushrooms, raising chickens, pickling, seed saving, tomatoes, fall and winter vegetables, orchards, crop rotations, making cheese, brewing beer, … you get the idea. There was a seed swap tent and a chef demo tent. And a large tent full of vendors with food, crafts, gardening and farm related products.
Since Monticello is a National Historic Landmark, after all, there were also some programs which were more historically related. I tended to be drawn to these, while Nancy was more interested in the gardening topics. So, my first activity was to join a Natural History walk around the grounds. Our guide, Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s Curator of Plants, took us along some of the same paths that Jefferson used to travel when he would take his daily ride around the property. She would point out several of the more interesting plants and trees along the way, indicating which ones were native and which were introduced to the area by Jefferson.
I could tell by the group’s questions that I was in the company of some highly educated individuals – at least as far as botany is concerned. At one point a woman leaned over, pointed to a tree, and asked me “What did she say the Latin is for this species?” Undoubtedly a question that our founding father would have been able to answer. I just stared back at her. Normally, in these situations, I have a clever, witty comeback, but this time my gift failed me.
Regarding the introduction of new species, Jefferson once said that adding useful plants to the culture was a great service to the country (the concept of invasive species had not yet entered our thinking). He looked at many plants differently than we do today – for example, he considered poison ivy to be a beautiful ornamental plant. And indeed, we saw an abundance of it on our walk, including some rather large specimens.
I also attended an interesting talk by farmer and author Joel Salatin, who spoke about Jefferson’s farming techniques and how they compare with what we do today. He went into detail about the challenges Jefferson faced on his plantation – transportation, fertilization, fencing, etc. Farmers of the time did not have a grasp of the ecological issues we deal with currently, and while localization is emphasized today, exports were the main way to success then. And the idea of placing a plantation on top of a mountain was curious – the challenge of transporting goods and water uphill made things much more difficult than it needed to be. It’s interesting to consider what Jefferson would think of today’s modernized farming methods.
Jefferson also felt that the only means to profitability was cheap labor, which is evident when visiting Mulberry Row where the slaves lived and worked. These dwellings stand in stark contrast to the primary residence. While the author of the words “all men are created equal” professed he was in favor of doing away with slavery, he claimed he saw no way for his generation (himself included) to deal with the issue. Salatin, on the other hand, contends that successful farming requires good salaries.
For a glimpse into the life and mind of Mr. Jefferson, tours of his home are available every day. He said that “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” The 40-year design and building of the plantation was one of his proudest accomplishments and rightfully so. In 1987, Monticello was named to the UNESCO World Heritage List, a United Nations compilation of international treasures that must be protected at all cost. The neoclassical influenced architecture, as well as his many inventions and gadgets inside make it a must-see.
So what would Thomas have thought about all the excitement around his home? Well, I’m not sure how he felt about crowds, but I like to believe that as a forward thinker, he would be eager to participate in a forum about a subject so close to his heart. And maybe pick up a tip or two.