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Poplar Forest celebrates parkway opening, bringing Thomas Jefferson's own centuries-old plans to life

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FOREST — After almost a year and a half of construction, and many years more of dreaming and planning, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest celebrated the grand opening of the Poplar Forest Parkway on Friday.

Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s Bedford County retreat home will now be able to directly access the site via the 2.2-mile drive connecting to Enterprise Drive. The route is intended to make the site more accessible and easier to find, and to greatly expand opportunities for site interpretation and education.

The completion of the parkway brings to fruition — more than two centuries later — the 2.2-mile carriage drive Jefferson himself designed and planned to construct. The Poplar Forest Parkway was built based on the plans the third U.S. president drew up, winding along the route he had chosen.

Donors, sponsors, and grant money paid for the $5.5 million project, allowing the organization to complete the parkway project debt-free, said Alyson Ramsey, CEO and president of Poplar Forest.

A trail system runs alongside the parkway that will provide expanded opportunities for site interpretation, education, and a way to be active outdoors. The trails already are in use by the community.

Kathryn Pumphrey, chair of Poplar Forest’s board of directors, read an excerpt from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to his friend and fellow former president John Adams one August.

“Jefferson stated that, ‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,’” Pumphrey said. “We are so happy today, with all of us joined here for this celebration, to be able to see the completion of one of Jefferson’s dreams for the future.”

In the ceremony following the ribbon-cutting, accompanied by a band, guests gathered under the shelter of a large tent. Donors, sponsors, engineers on the project, Poplar Forest staff and members of the organization’s board, as well as Bedford County and City of Lynchburg officials came to celebrate the achievement. Thomas Jefferson interpreter Bill Barker, who also participated in the parkway project’s groundbreaking, was in attendance and cut the ribbon.

The long-envisioned project was a massive, collaborative team effort.

“With the purchase of the land over two decades ago, through the leadership of several boards of directors, and the extraordinary generosity of many of you, this was an idea that has stood the test of time,” Ramsey said.

Lynchburg Mayor MaryJane Dolan said the parkway will help continue driving tourism in the area, with ease of access and visibility to Poplar Forest as a significant historic destination.

“This property has been an important part of our community’s history for over 200 years,” Dolan said. “It is a treasured jewel, and a tourism anchor for our city and our region, drawing thousands of visitors to our area to explore its architecture, archaeology, and living history.”

During the ceremony, Poplar Forest announced its forthcoming project: new exhibits and interpretive signage honoring the people who built Poplar Forest, and made its lands prosper — the enslaved residents.

Despite authoring the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a slaveowner. The independence he believed in was not extended to African Americans. It is a paradox many have discussed and explored over the years. The focus of Poplar Forest’s upcoming exhibits aims to educate others on the ones who built and maintained Poplar Forest, to tell their stories and restore their humanity. Their reach expanded far beyond the acres of Poplar Forest.

“Through a series of wayside exhibits and trailhead markers that will be installed later this year, visitors will learn about aspects of Poplar Forest not adequately addressed through our current exhibit offerings,” said Leslie King, co-founder of Poplar Forest’s African American Advisory Panel. “These new exhibits will uncover the stories of Jefferson, the plantation, and its enslaved residents through well-research texts and stunning original artwork.”

With watercolor illustrations commissioned from award-winning African American artist E. B. Lewis, the new signage about the enslaved population at Poplar Forest is expected to be installed later this year. A new, expanded exhibit at the slave quarters site will be set up in the coming months, Ramsey said.

Future wayside exhibits will include archaeological sites both newly discovered and well-documented, including Native American encampments on the land.

“With opportunity comes responsibility,” Ramsey said. “We as a corporation must be ready to dig deeper into an understanding of the enslaved people who built and maintained this plantation. We must be ready to tell their stories to the countless new guests that will drive this parkway in search of names, and answers. We must dig deeper and try harder to name their names, tell their stories, and convey their reality in the 21st century.”

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