We all know the official home of the president is the White House, but what if you wanted to visit a beautiful corner of the U.S. outside of Washington D.C. where no less than nine presidents have lived, worked and vacationed?
For that you have to travel east of the Capitol. Not too far east. Take Route 66 or the Greenway past Dulles Airport and after about 30 miles, a strange thing happens. The urban sprawl suddenly clears and you find yourself in serene countryside.
The Blue Ridge Mountains shimmer in the distance and all around are lush fields dotted with cows and horses. If there’s a rough point marking this change it’s a narrow north-south black-top called Route 15, a stretch of which – 180 miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania down to Charlottesville, Virginia – was declared a National Heritage Area by Congress.
Known as “The Journey Through Hallowed Ground,” this section of Route 15 and the geography around it – villages, Civil War battlefields, plantation mansions, national parks – is more than a road. It's a journey into American history, the most eventful corner of the United States, aptly known as The Place Where America Happened. If presidents and their stories are your thing this Veterans Day, this is where to come.
Let’s start where it all began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal...” Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third president was already building his remarkable home, Monticello, on a hill overlooking Charlottesville, VA when he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The 43-room Italian Renaissance mansion, open to tours, is the highlight of the southern part of the Journey. The only private U.S. residence on the World Heritage List, you can walk through its grand halls, furnished rooms and kitchen. Not only did Jefferson design the house but he invented the weather vane at the portico entrance, and the dumb waiter in the north-wing dining room – ideal for ferrying the wines he so loved from his cellar.
Jefferson wasn't the only president on this hill. Five miles away lies Ash Lawn-Highland, the plantation home of his friend James Monroe, the fifth president – architect of the Monroe Doctrine. With its wooden floors, rustic outhouses and working farm-feel, it's a down-home shack in comparison with Monticello, but tour guides dressed in period dress speak as reverently of Monroe as those at Monticello speak of Jefferson.
But if Ash Lawn-Highland seems rustic, it’s a Four Seasons hotel in comparison to Pine Knot, the country cabin retreat of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and their children from 1905 to 1908. Located 14 miles south of Charlottesville, in the woods of Albermarle County, Pine Knot is the two-story, stone wall tin-roof cabin with rickety front porch where Roosevelt would come to take breaks from DC.
Today a president has every mod-con and appliance at hand in his holiday home; Pine Knot had no plumbing, heat or electricity in Roosevelt's day. Not that he minded. He came to hike, hunt ride and enjoy the wildlife in an area that is barely changed today. In 1996 the cabin was restored and is now open to tours by appointment.
Drive 20 miles north of Charlottesville, into the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and Barboursville, a rural community crossing Albemarle and Orange Counties, was the birthplace of military commander and 12th President, Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s house is privately owned and can’t be visited. What you should visit around here is the glorious Italian-owned Barboursville Vineyards, probably the finest winery in the eastern U.S. Vintages such as their Bordeaux blend, Octagon, are served at White House events, and the winery incorporates the stone ruins of an old house designed by Thomas Jefferson.
It’s a short drive from here to Montpelier, the glorious family home of Jefferson’s other pal, James Madison, the fourth President. Set in rolling grounds surrounded by pine forest, Montpelier is a stunning two-floor neoclassical mansion built by Madison's father in 1764. Tour the perfectly preserved home, and from the second-floor library you can look out on the same peerless Blue Ridge view Madison would have seen in 1786 while drafting the U.S. Constitution.
Drive north, back on Route 15, and the Journey moves from Founding Fathers into the Civil War territory, starting at Culpeper, in Orange County. No town saw more action in that war – 160 skirmishes – than this busy railroad stop off Route 15 in central Virginia. According to local lore, "Union and Confederate forces came through so many times you had to look at the courthouse to see which flag was flying to know how to act." Union General and future President Ulysses S. Grant regularly passed through, and General Custer had his horse shot out from him during the Battle of Culpeper Court House.
Today, the downtown area, with its restored Italianate and neoclassical brick buildings, is lined with boutiques and restaurants, is a fashionable weekend retreat for D.C. urbanites. What’s less well-known is that the downtown was laid out in 1749 by a young man named George Washington. Our first President was then a 17-year-old surveyor.
Keep driving north, past the haunting Manassas Battlefield Park (also called Bull Run) and you're heading into upscale Loudoun County.
Visible on the left of the road, a few miles before Leesburg, is another James Monroe home, Oak Hill, which he built with guidance of Jefferson. It’s famous for its unusual pentastyle portico, although, sadly, the building is now privately owned and can’t be toured. It was here that Monroe drafted the Monroe Doctrine.
Route 15 now crosses the Potomac into Maryland, and 15 miles past the stylish foodie town of Frederick, you come to Catoctin Mountain Park, setting for the presidential retreat of Camp David. Of course Camp David is not open to the public, but in the village of Thurmont you can visit the Camp David Museum at the Cozy, the oldest family-owned restaurant in Maryland, established in 1929. The Cozy was the originally used as housing for Secret Service agents assigned to protect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while he was in Thurmont.
The restaurant has since been visited by numerous presidents, as well as a certain Mr.Winston Churchill.
There are other remarkable sites to visit on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, including Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland. But our presidential tour ends at the greatest battlefield of all: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the northern most point of the route. And it is here that you can stand where President Abraham Lincoln, on November 19, 1863, gave one of the greatest speeches in human history. “Four score and seven years ago,” he began the Gettysburg Address, invoking the principles of equality espoused 87 years earlier by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
From Charlottesville to Gettysburg, the Journey has come full circle, and you may well feel that your passengers have been our Presidents.
For maps, suggested itineraries, and other travel resources on The Journey Through Hallowed Ground visit www.hallowedground.org.
Douglas Rogers was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He is the author of "The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa" (Broadway Books 2010).