By Brian Jewell
For centuries, Lynchburg has been an ideal getaway destination in the middle of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. For proof, look to Thomas Jefferson, who built a vacation home there in the early 1800s.
The beauty of the area and its central location in Virginia have brought many more people in Jefferson’s footsteps.
“Lynchburg is the most central location in Virginia,” said Courtney Hunter, group manager for Discover Lynchburg. “You’re surrounded by so much — you’re minutes off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is here, and the national D-Day Memorial is about 10 minutes away. And Lynchburg is surrounded by 17 wineries, orchards and you-pick farms.”
Groups that visit Lynchburg today can find plenty of ways to enjoy the area’s location, history and abundance. In addition to the attractions mentioned by Hunter, visitors can check out a number of Civil War sites in the region. And Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian university, offers a broad variety of activities for visiting groups of all ages.
Home for History
Lynchburg’s location and centrality in Virginia have put it in the crossroads of history numerous times, and groups can explore that history at various sites around the region. The marquee attraction is Poplar Forest, the retreat home Jefferson built near Lynchburg after his presidency.
“Thomas Jefferson once called Lynchburg the most interesting spot in the state,” Hunter said. “His main home in Charlottesville is about an hour’s drive away. But at Poplar Forest, you get to see a private side of the life of Jefferson.”
The site began as a 4,819-acre plantation that Jefferson managed from afar. Eventually, he designed an octagonal house to be built at the plantation, where he could retreat to study, read and enjoy a quieter pace than his busy public life. Jefferson began building Poplar Forest in 1806 and retreated to the mountain home often during the last 20 years of his life. Once he began visiting the retreat, Jefferson oversaw the home’s decoration and the onsite garden.
After Jefferson died, the home stayed in private hands but fell into disrepair. In 1983, a private nonprofit group purchased the landmark and began an extensive restoration program, which is still under way.
“The home has been under restoration for 20 years now,” Hunter said. “Groups can take a tour of the home, go into the kitchen and see the grounds. There are archaeological digs going on all of the time, and they’re constantly adding new programs for visitors.”
Part of the Lynchburg area’s historic appeal comes from its role in various military engagements. Civil War buffs in particular will find plenty of interesting sites around town.
“Lynchburg is known as a hub-and-spoke for Civil War tours,” Hunter said. “We have 13 Civil War sites in Lynchburg alone. The best known is Historic Sandusky.”
Built in 1808, Historic Sandusky is a Federal-style home that was the centerpiece of a 1,200-acre plantation. In the summer of 1864, the home became involved in the Battle of Lynchburg. During this two-day encounter, Union Gen. David Hunter and his entourage used the building as a headquarters in their quest to capture Lynchburg from Confederate forces. The Yankees retreated after failing in their attempt.
Today, groups can tour the restored home, where they learn about the battle and see architectural elements the Union forces used to their advantage during the fighting. The staff has also put together an audio driving tour of Lynchburg that highlights other sites related to the battle.
Many Civil War tours also stop at Old City Cemetery.
“There are 2,200 Confederates and one lone Yankee buried there,” Hunter said. “It’s not your average city cemetery — it’s a 26-acre garden. They have rosebushes that date back to the late 1600s. Guests love it because they get a costumed tour guide. You go into the museum and hear the stories of the different people who were buried there.”
The cemetery also offers evening candlelight tours in October. During these tours, costumed interpreters stationed around the cemetery re-create the personalities and tell the stories of some of the notable people buried there.
In nearby Bedford, the National D-Day Memorial honors the soldiers who died during the invasion of Normandy in World War II.
“The memorial is in Bedford because that town lost more men per capita on D-Day than anywhere else,” Hunter said. “The memorial is the only place in the world where the names of all the people who lost their lives on D-Day are compiled. It’s surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, so it’s a beautiful setting.”