History comes alive on plantation tour Virginia: Furnishings and artifacts at Ash Lawn-Highlands reveal realities of life in James Monroe's era.

May 10, 1998|By Stephanie Davis Fletcher | Stephanie Davis Fletcher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On the day I visited Ash Lawn-Highlands, once the plantation home of the fifth president of the United States, my path to the front door was blocked by an iridescent blue peacock that sported a spectacular tail. The bird's opulent color and showy plumage stood out in stark contrast against the simple yellow and white frame house that is located in rolling hills a few miles south of Charlottesville, Va. James and Elizabeth Monroe called the unpretentious place their "cabin castle."

Eventually the magnificent fowl slowly and majestically vacated the porch, and I was free to enter the Plain Jane farmhouse. In retrospect, that bird was probably something of an omen, because once inside Highlands (as the plantation was called when the Monroes lived there), I discovered an array of fascinating stories every bit as splendid as a peacock's tail.

In the entry hall I was greeted warmly by a smiling volunteer - a retired clergyman and a natural storyteller - who conducts visitors through this historic site now owned by the College of William and Mary. Every now and then a traveler is lucky enough to come across a tour guide equipped with such an abundance of knowledge, humor and people skills that a seemingly bland subject takes on a life of its own and becomes suddenly and enthrallingly interesting. This proved to be one of those lucky occasions.

In each room he offered nuggets of information that gradually fleshed out the Founding Father who resided here, his family and his friends. The guide also provided insight into the time in which Monroe lived. Furnishings and decorations yielded clues to life on the plantation, and the tour became a time machine with the dial set on "Early America."

The Monroe Doctrine

A handsome, blond-mahogany, drop-leaf table stands against the back wall in the entry hall of Highlands. It was constructed from a huge slice of precious wood that was sent to Monroe as a gift from the grateful people of Santo Domingo (now called the Dominican Republic).

Not only North Americans, but Central Americans, South Americans and Caribbean islanders were elated and relieved when Monroe delivered a stern warning to the countries of Europe in his 1823 message to Congress. The admonition, which came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, forbade the colonial superpowers to encroach upon the territories of the Western Hemisphere.

Every volume of American history includes a page or two about this famous ultimatum, but the unadorned mahogany table bears witness and, therefore, possesses its own authority.

Natural beauties

A decorative item called a pole screen, which looks something like an all-day sucker on a broomstick with legs, stands in one corner of the parlor. The cultured American woman of the early 1800s owned one. The intricately embroidered canvas circle at the top of the pole gave the ladies an opportunity to display their skill with a needle. However, this article was no mere craft show: The portable screen functioned as a protective device, too.

In the early days, few Americans survived to adulthood without suffering a bout with smallpox and chickenpox, which left disfiguring scars. To smooth blemished complexions, ladies of Elizabeth Monroe's day applied coatings of melted beeswax to their faces. Then they dusted the surface with powder. The ladies also applied lard to their hair, rather like today's mousse or styling gel.

These natural cosmetics could not stand up to the heat that radiated from fireplaces; hence the development of decorative screens. No well-groomed female would tolerate transforming into an unsightly, dripping mess as an evening of socializing by the hearth progressed. A well-positioned, heat-deflecting pole screen kept her carefully designed face and hairdo from melting, while showcasing her stylish needlework.

Sweet teeth

The table in the dining room is always set for dinner. Silver, crystal and china gleam now just as they must have when the Founding Fathers and Mothers gathered for an evening meal at Highlands. The Monroes were great chums of Thomas Jefferson and James and Dolley Madison. Jefferson lived on the nearby plantation of Monticello, while the Madisons lived at Montpelier, about 20 miles northeast. House guests were frequently in residence at Highlands for weeks at a time.

All the Founding Friends loved sugary treats, and no dinner was complete without large servings of dessert. Although sugar was expensive (because it came from foreign countries like Florida and was, therefore, heavily taxed), that didn't stop the Monroes or their buddies from consuming it by the cupful. For example, a favorite dish to end an evening's repast might be a big heaping bowl of marmalade.

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