Eight U.S. Presidents were born in Virginia – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor and Wilson. Of those, four had significant ties to the Shenandoah Valley, and February 18th—Presidents Day— is the perfect time to take a look at presidential historic sites–some well-known, some off the beaten track.
George Washington’s Military Office
George Washington spent quite a bit of time in Winchester. He arrived at age 16 and spent four years as a surveyor. Then, from late 1775 to December 1776, he used a small, log and stone building as a military office, while Fort Loudoun (which he was planning) was being constructed at the north end of town. He was a colonel in the Virginia Militia at the time. Today, visitors can see the building, which houses personal effects, survey equipment and other memorabilia from our first President’s life, at the corner of Cork and Braddock streets in historic downtown Winchester. Also on display is scale model of the town of Winchester circa 1755 which shows the fort prominently. The site is open daily, April 1 to October 31.
Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest
Located about 18 miles east of Bedford, Poplar Forest is one of just two homes Thomas Jefferson designed for his own personal use. He began construction in 1806 on what may have been the first octagonal house in the country. Modern restoration efforts are driven by an absolute commitment to use early 19-century construction techniques whenever possible, and materials are exhaustively researched for authenticity to the era and the site. Visitor programs include “Parlor Talks,” held Sundays until March 10, allowing ticket holders to hear expert presentations on various aspects of Jefferson’s life and times. Upcoming topics include Poplar Forest’s neighbors, craftsmen and even Jefferson’s indebtedness. In a 2018 Reader’s Choice survey conducted by USA Today, Poplar Forest was voted the “Third Best Tourist Attraction in Virginia.”
Herbert Hoover’s Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah National Park
In a 1990 New York Times article about fishing in Shenandoah National Park, Robert M. Poole wrote, “Herbert Hoover was a keen angler, and the Rapidan was his favorite stream.” This was so true that he and Mrs. Hoover established a summer home on the stream, now restored to approximate its 1929 appearance. Three of the original 13 buildings still stand. The Hoovers were very social and normally brought guests—among them: Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Mrs. Thomas A. Edison, the Edsel Fords, Henry Luce, and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Shenandoah National Park offers a 2.5 hour ranger-guided tour of Rapidan Camp late spring through fall. Reservations are required and can be made online at Recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777. Request the “Special Tours” category and specify Rapidan Camp.
Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Library and Museum
Located in Staunton, this site combines the 1856 birthplace home of our 28th President, a one-of-kind research library and a museum offering a glimpse of Wilson’s life, career and era. The museum is housed in a renovated chateau style mansion adjacent to his birthplace. It contains seven exhibit galleries exploring Wilson’s early years, his eventful presidency, suffrage, prohibition and World War I. Many historic photographs, documents and objects are on display. The President’s restored 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine is a highlight, as is a state-of–the-art World War I trench exhibit, complete with lights and sound to experience what battle life was like. Every Sunday through February, visitors can “Pay What You Will” for any general tour.
Belle Grove Plantation
Belle Grove Plantation is an authentic 1797 Manor House, built by Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, sister of President James Madison. Major Hite, grandson of Shenandoah Valley pioneer Jost Hite, expanded his original 483 acres to a prosperous 7500-acre plantation, growing wheat, raising cattle and Merino sheep, and operating a large distillery and several mills. Today, Belle Grove is a centerpiece of historical study and events. The Plantation typically commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek on the third weekend in October each year. Archaeological research and presentations on enslaved individuals at the Plantation are underway as well. Guided Tours of the Manor House are conducted Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sunday, 1 – 5 p.m. Closed for the winter, Belle Grove re-opens March 22.
Washington surveyed it. Jefferson bought it, calling it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” Located about 14 miles south of Lexington, Natural Bridge became Virginia’s 37th State Park on September 24, 2016. The bridge is 215 feet high and spans 90 feet across Cedar Creek, which carved the formation from adjacent limestone. Start your trip at the Visitor Center and take the long series of steps down to the path along the creek and onto the Natural Bridge. The 1,500-acre park includes several other attractions, such as six miles of hiking trails with classic Blue Ridge vistas, the 30-foot Lace Falls, a gift shop, and a re-created Monacan Indian village. Stay next door at the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel and Conference Center.
Washington and Jefferson – Early Cave Explorers
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both explored/mapped caves in the Shenandoah Valley. Signatures of both men are still visible on the walls of privately owned Madison Cave, adjacent to Grand Caverns in Grottoes, VA. Jefferson’s map of Madison Cave appears in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson was also known to have visited Grand Caverns (then called Weyer’s Cave) and drew what was probably the first map of that cave. Grand Caverns is the oldest, continuously operating show cave in the United States, conducting tours since 1806. Last year they opened a “sister cave,” Fountain Cave—for the first time in about 100 years. Guided Adventure Tours are conducted here, which take about two hours to complete. There are no lights in this cave and some crawling and squirming is necessary. Helmets, knee pads, and gloves are provided. Call ahead to schedule.
Photo courtesy Poplar Forest.