Pop quiz: What state was birthplace to the greatest number of U.S. presidents? If you said Virginia, you’re right. Bonus points if you can name all eight presidents and their Old Dominion homes.
As a recent transplant, I was intrigued to come across this bit of trivia a few months ago. We had already visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, so why not make a whole unit study of Virginia presidents? It seemed like a good way to spend a summer (or winter) break. We grabbed some kid-friendly biographies and hit the road.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, home of our first president, is located on the Potomac River south of the Washington, D.C. metro area. We went there during their Revolutionary War Weekend in early May and had so much fun talking to re-enactors and watching battles that we never actually made it on the house tour!
Mount Vernon offers a variety of thematic tours, demonstrations and children’s activities throughout the year. Next time we plan to go on their National Treasure Tour that takes visitors behind-the-scenes and to some of the locations that were in the 2007 Disney movie of the same name. The museum also offers discounted homeschool days in the spring and fall.
The Mount Vernon website has a nice virtual tour of the estate, background information on Washington, lesson plans and thematic homeschool guides.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence called Charlottesville home. We paired our visit to Monticello with lunch at the nearby Mitchie Tavern, which serves a buffet-style lunch in an 18th century tavern, complete with period-costumed wait staff. If the weather is warm, you could also pack a picnic and have lunch on the grounds of the Jefferson-designed Rotunda at the University of Virginia, just a short drive away.
Monticello offers a number of tours, including those focused on the lives of the enslaved residents of the estate. We took the Family Friendly Tour, which is offered during late December and select other times throughout the year. The tour guide began by giving each child an object related to Jefferson to hold (an oversized nickel, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a quill pen), then asked the children to share their object with the rest of the group at a relevant point in the tour. This ingenious tactic served the dual purpose of keeping little hands busy and engaging the kids in the tour.
Monticello also hosts a Home Educators’ Day in the fall and their website has background information and lesson plans on Jefferson.
James Madison’s Montpelier
Thirty miles northeast of Charlottesville, near the town of Orange, is the home of our fourth president, James Madison. Best remembered as architect and promoter of the US Constitution, Madison also served in our first Congress prior to being elected president in 1808.
Montpelier offers a variety of thematic tours, and we chose their family tour: Discovering Montpelier. This tour was our absolute favorite of all the presidential home tours. Rather than marching through the details of Madison’s biography, this tour focused instead on how historians know the things they do about the past. In each room, the tour guide shared an artifact from Madison’s life (a letter, a painting, a scrap of wallpaper) and talked about how it was discovered and how it shed light on something about him, his family or the house. The guide ended the tour by reminding us that archaeologists continue to make discoveries about the house, and sent us to their Archaeological Lab to see how newly discovered artifacts are cleaned, labeled and stored.
My 10-year-old was absolutely enthralled by that idea that he, too, could make an archaeological discovery. When he found a bit of metal half-buried near the Montpelier parking lot, he was ready to launch a full-scale dig to uncover more artifacts. I told him to start saving his allowance: Montpelier offers week-long “expeditions” where kids (ages 12+ and accompanied by a parent) can work alongside professional archaeologists on an actual dig on the grounds of Montpelier. The Montpelier website has information about this and other educational programs at the estate, as well as several articles relating to Madison and the US Constitution.
James Monroe’s Highland
It’s one thing for a kid to uncover a previously-overlooked metal artifact, but what happens when the discovery is a whole new building? The staff at James Monroe’s Highland faced just this dilemma in 2016, when an archaeological dig uncovered the foundation of a 1799 building under the front garden. It turns out that the building they had been interpreting as our fifth president’s home was not his original home, but instead a smaller guest house on the estate. (The original home burned down after Monroe sold the property.)
The tour of Highland focused on the varied accomplishments of our fifth president: Revolutionary War veteran, Virginia governor, ambassador, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. Staff explained that they are hoping to undertake a larger archaeological dig to learn more about Monroe’s original home and have recently rolled-out a “augmented reality” tour to give visitors an idea of how the estate may have looked during Monroe’s life.
Highland is located in Charlottesville, just a short drive from Monticello. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours, but can do a discounted school group tour for ten or more people.
William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation
William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, is notorious for serving the shortest term in office (a mere 31 days) and being the first US president to die in office (of what was then believed to be pneumonia). I was eager to see how interpreters at his Charles City birthplace would tell the story of his brief presidency.
The 45-minute tour of Berkeley Plantation actually made only cursory mention of Harrison and, instead, focused on telling the fascinating history of the colonial-era estate, which was also the birthplace of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served as a Union encampment during the Civil War. The museum, located on the James River between Richmond and Williamsburg, offers a kids scavenger hunt and discounted homeschool events twice a year.
John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest
The home of our 10th president, John Tyler, is located just a few miles down a winding Rte. 5 from Berkeley Plantation. Sherwood Forest was purchased by Tyler in 1842 and is currently owned by his grandson. (A great mathematical exercise would be to figure out how that is possible. Hint: it involves second marriages!) The house is only open for tours by appointment, but visitors can take a self-guided tour of the grounds. The highlight of our walk around Sherwood Forest, according to my kids, was their encounter with the Tyler family cat: “We met the grand-cat of a president!”
Zachary Taylor’s Montebello
Our 12th president was born in Orange County, but just barely. His father was in the process of moving the family to Kentucky when some of their traveling companions contracted measles. The whole group was quarantined, and took up temporary residence on an estate named Montebello, near Gordonsville, where Taylor was born. The actual house is no longer standing, but is marked by a historical marker.
Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace
The most recent president born in Virginia was Woodrow Wilson. Born in Staunton, he served as our 28th president from 1913-1921. My kids toured his Staunton home through a one-day class offered by the Staunton Recreation Department. The highlights of the tour, according to my kids, were seeing Wilson’s “cool car” (a 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine) and the guns in the museum’s World War I exhibition.
Visits to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum include a guided tour of the house where he was born and self-guided explorations of the adjacent museum exhibits about Wilson’s life and presidency. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours or homeschool programs, but does have several kid-friendly museum scavenger hunts.
Heather Cole is based in Staunton and homeschools her boys all over Virginia. She is the new editor of the “Roads Scholars” column and wants to hear from you about the best field trip destinations in Virginia. What are your favorite places to visit? What are the “hidden secrets” in your hometown? Do you have a favorite museum, beach or historic site that you’d like to share? Email your tips to: VoiceEditor@VaHomeschoolers.org.