WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Monticello, Virginia

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Thomas Jefferson is one of our most interesting, brilliant, and complicated historical figures. A polymath who authored the Declaration of Independence and founded the University of Virginia, a philosopher and political scientist of the highest quality, a naturalist, an inventor, an architect, a sparkling writer on many varied subjects, a diplomat, a wine connoisseur and a convivial host—he did it all. He was a talented President who believed the slave trade was unjust, but he was also a slave owner, and thus he left behind a complicated legacy.

The WPA Virginia State Guide, ” Virginia: The Old Dominion State,” has plenty to say about Jefferson:

“Thomas Jefferson was born near by at Shadwell, the farm of his father, Peter Jefferson, on April 13, 1743. His mother was Jane Randolph, daughter of Isham Randolph. In 1760, after attending school in several places, Jefferson entered an advanced class at the College of William and Mary. He was admitted to the bar in 1767. Entering the house of burgesses in 1769, he became almost at once the author of the first American antislavery bill, which failed, however, of passage. His marriage in 1772 to Mrs. Martha Wayles Skelton doubled his fortune. The next year he helped devise the intercolonial activities of the Committees of Correspondence and was a member of the Virginia Committee. He was only 32 when sent to the Continental Congress in 1775 and only 33 when he phrased the Declaration of Independence. 

In 1779 Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor of Virginia and while in office wrote the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. He served his country as minister to France during the years 1785-89 and was thus abroad at the time of the Constitutional Convention. His known aversion to strengthening the Federal Government caused considerable concern to Washington and Madison, who kept him apprised of what was going on and endeavored to disarm the objection they knew he would raise. On his return he reluctantly agreed to argue out his objections privately provided the sponsors would move immediately after adoption for inclusion of a bill of rights. 

Washington appointed him the first Secretary of State. It was as antagonist of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, that he drew to his side the agrarian, democratic, antifederal elements throughout the States, enabling him to found the Democratic (then Republican) party, to become Vice President in 1797, and third President in 1801. The most important acts during his two terms in office were the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the promotion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and his advocacy of the Embargo Act of 1807. After his retirement from public life in 1809, Jefferson devoted much of his time to promoting education. In 1819 he founded the University of Virginia. America’s ‘great commoner’ died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.”

A visit to Jefferson’s home at Monticello certainly gives you a good idea of the breadth of his talents. The guide describes Monticello in detail:

“MONTICELLO (Open 8-5 daily; adm. $0.50)  is approached by a private road that winds up through woods from a brick lodge. The notable mansion, on the leveled top of a ‘little mountain,’ looks across a wide lawn shaded by scattered trees to far horizons, embracing the crest of the Blue Ridge and many miles of the Piedmont. 

The red brick house with snow-white trim, roughly oval in plan and in a green frame of trees, is an example of Classical Revival design. To the southwest it presents a fine Roman Doric portico before the projecting end of a salon designed in the French manner. The room is topped by a large white-domed octagonal clerestory with circular windows. Behind a similar portico, the eastern and newer side has a low second story with half windows immediately above the lintels of the first floor windows, and a half story set back inconspicuously. The whole, tied together by a balustraded parapet and by a continuous Doric entablature, seems much smaller than it is. The house is at the center of a formal plan that embraces sunken and terrace-covered passages leading away from it on both sides to small templelike pavilions at the far ends of service quarters set in the hillside. 

The interior is distinguished by beauty of woodwork and many evidences of Jefferson’s ingenuity. The large entrance hall opens, beneath a balcony, into the salon. Lateral halls lead to four chambers, to the dining room with monumentally proportioned arches over alcove, and to Jefferson’s study. Two steep staircases, hidden in closetlike alcoves because the builder regarded stairs as unattractive architectural features, lead to low bedrooms above the high first floor and to a ‘ballroom’ in the cupola.”

“Jefferson loved a gadget and invented many clever devices still in use. At Monticello are dumb-waiters, disappearing beds, unusual lighting and ventilating arrangements, one of his duplicate-writing machines, the forerunner of the one-arm lunch chair, folding doors of the type now used in streetcars-all devised by the builder of Monticello, who attached a contrivance to a wheel of his carriage to record the revolutions. Over the entrance is an extraordinary clock with a series of weights and pulleys that are incongruous in the formal room. 

Assimilating the Graeco-Roman designs of Palladio and using materials—even nails—made by his slaves on the spot, Jefferson began building with painstaking care from his own design in 1770 and by 1775 had completed the western part, including a two-tiered portico. In 1771 after Shadwell burned, he moved into the first completed pavilion and a year later he brought his bride to it on horseback through a blizzard. Stimulated by what he saw on his European travels, he enlarged the house between 1796 and 1809 in a style even more Roman, making it an example of classical design adapted to its environment and uses. Jefferson was the leader in as purifying a movement in architecture as in government. He had a far-reaching influence in developing the style of architecture now called Early Republican or Federal. The Marquis de Chastellux, visiting here as early as 1782, wrote later: ‘We may safely aver that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.’ Though the house has great interest it is less satisfactory from an architectural point of view than others Jefferson designed. 

During Jefferson’s last years Monticello was a mecca for all distinguished travelers, European and American. He often received 40 or 50 guests a day in spite of his love of quiet for study and contemplation […]

Soon after Jefferson’s death in 1826 the house and estate were sold for his only surviving child, Mrs. Martha Jefferson Randolph […] In 1923, [Montcello was purchased by] the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.”

Several important details have changed since 1941. Admission now costs $33 and there is a recently-built visitors center and museum. Most important, the role of slaves at Monticello and in Jefferson’s personal life has been well-researched and documented. The history of slavery at Monticello, and specifically Jefferson’s Black family, is now fully presented  in the form of a video and museum exhibits in the Visitors’ Center and on its website. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/   

Today, the house, gardens, forests and farm fields are beautifully tended and the grounds are pristine. Truly, the visit is worth the high cost of admission!  

As the guide points out, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In one of most interesting and moving stories in our history, Jefferson and John Adams, who had long been political rivals, were among the last last Revolutionary heroes who were still alive 50 years later.

Toward the end of their lives, they formed a close friendship, maintained by regular correspondence. Both were ill and dying on July 4. Adams’s last words to his wife before he died were “Jefferson still lives.”  But he was wrong.  Jefferson had died just a few hours prior.

For me, the most moving part of my visit to Monticello was a visit to Jefferson’s graveyard. It is in a forest glade, a short walk from the more manicured grounds. Jefferson’s grave is maked by a simple granite shaft engraved with an epitaph that he composed.

“Here was buried 

Thomas Jefferson 

Author of the Declaration of American Independence 

Author  of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom 

Father of the University of Virginia.”

Much to be proud of in that short statement.