What better way to close out the year than with a family road trip? My mom, my boys and I piled into the car on the last day of 2014 and headed to James Madison’s Montpelier, the home of America’s 4th President, who is considered to be both the father of the Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights.
We stopped for lunch in the Town of Orange, where we ate Italian buffet specialties at Mario’s Pizzeria. I have to admit, I was expecting something similar to the Pizza Hut lunch buffet, but man was I pleasantly surprised. The buffet had a seafood section, with mussels and clams steamed with garlic, fried shrimp and fish, shrimp in homemade marinara and a seafood medley. Other Italian entrees on the menu were chicken parmigiana, chicken lasagna, steak pizziola and the best pizza and stromboli I’ve tasted outside of New York City.
From downtown Orange, it’s only a ten minute drive to Montpelier. The house, originally owned by President Madison’s father, ultimately was bought by the DuPont family, who left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon the death of the last owner. Since 2000, the Trust, along with the Montpelier Foundation, has been renovating and restoring the home and grounds back to their footprint at the time of Madison’s retirement from Washington in 1817.
The home is laid out as a duplex, as Madison’s aging mother lived with him until her death in 1829 at the age of 98. She had her own wing of the house, while James Madison, his wife Dolley and their children lived in the other half of the house. The Madisons entertained many of the important figures of the day, including Thomas Jefferson, who lived right up the road at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, and Andrew Jackson.
Especially touching was the story of Madison’s slave, Paul Jennings, who served Mr. Madison until his death in 1836. Jennings, who was with Madison the day he died, and who later published his “Reminiscences,” including an account of Madison’s last day, was sold by Dolley Madison to Daniel Webster in 1846. Webster allowed Jennings to work off the cost of his purchase, and freed him in 1847. In 1848, Jennings helped to organize the largest attempted slave escape in U.S. history, which failed. Thinking of Jennings’ days at Montpelier, serving James and Dolley Madison as they entertained the greatest political thinkers of the time, it is not difficult to understand Jennings’ desire to put the principles of liberty into practice on behalf of enslaved African-Americans.
The tour of the house and grounds was informative and interesting. The exterior renovation is complete, but the interior work continues. The downstairs is filled with period accents and furnishings, some authentic to the time, and others that were actually present in the house at the time Madison lived there. The Montpelier Foundation is involved in researching and tracking other furnishings and artifacts from the home through the various sales and auctions since Dolley was forced to sell the estate in 1844. Consequently, the upstairs of the house is sparsely furnished, with most of the attention having gone to Madison’s famous library, where he researched the political systems of the past two thousand years in order to formulate the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
On the grounds of Montpelier, the buildings of the slave quarters are undergoing excavation. Several homes, a smokehouse and a kitchen have been placed in their historical setting, and interpretive panels explain how the enslaved peoples of Montpelier would have lived during Madison’s time. Unfortunately, the location of Paul Jennings’ grave is not known, but in 2009, his descendants held a reunion at Montpelier to honor their ancestor’s life and service to one of the greatest of our nation’s founding fathers.
After a fun, relaxing New Year’s Eve celebration at home, my whole family gathered, as they do each year, at my Granny and PawPaw’s house to chow down on black-eyed peas with stewed tomatoes and my aunt’s delicious spoonbread. You know the old tradition: If you eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, you’ll have good luck all year. From Food History Crossroads to you – have a wonderful 2015!