Love stories from five Virginia presidents
With Valentine’s and Presidents’ Days approaching, curiosity turns to what U.S. presidents were like as sweethearts and husbands.
Readers and travelers can gain insight into five “romantics in chief” from Virginia — birthplace of eight U.S. presidents — by visiting the related presidential sites in the Commonwealth.
We’ve also listed some nearby romantic inns if you’d like to turn a daytrip into an overnight stay.
Picture the nation’s first president as an ardent, 17-year-old admirer of feminine charms. Although George Washington was very fond of his best friend’s bride, Sally Cary Fairfax, it was the wealthy widow Martha Custis who captured his heart (in a single evening, it is said).
Within a year, they were married and went off to live at Mount Vernon with her two young children, whom Washington raised as his own.
Once George assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775, Martha’s life changed forever. During long winter months, when the war for independence was at a standstill, he asked her to join him at his encampments. She made arduous journeys — to Cambridge, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Morristown, Newburgh — to join him, which historians say boosted troop morale as well as the general’s.
The address of the Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon is 3200 Mt. Vernon Ave., Mt. Vernon. Admission is $20; $17 if purchased online. Those 62 and older can save $1. www.mountvernon.org, (703) 780-2000.
Nearby is the 45-room Federalist style Morrison House hotel at 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria. Rooms start at $140 a night. www.MorrisonHouse.com, (703) 838-8000.
Rebecca Burwell of Williamsburg captured the heart of a lanky, red-haired law student named Thomas Jefferson, who affectionately called her “Belinda.” By the time he spoke his heart, at a dance in the Apollo Room of Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, his clumsy vows of love were what he later called “a few broken sentences uttered in great disorder.”
But it was the beautiful, 23-year-old, childless widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, who accepted his proposal of marriage. After their wedding, a few miles west of Williamsburg on Jan. 1, 1772, the couple made their way to Jefferson’s Monticello property outside the city of Charlottesville. As they traveled, a snowstorm raged, with the final eight miles being completed on horseback in the dark.
Reaching Monticello late into the night, the Jeffersons lit a cozy fire in a one-room, brick cottage, found a bottle of wine behind a stack of books, and celebrated their first night.
Here in this tiny cottage, 868 feet above sea level, with the rolling countryside below them, the Jeffersons spent the early months of their marriage. Travelers enjoy seeing the “honeymoon cottage,” now known as the South Pavilion. It is situated near the main house, which Jefferson designed and built over a period of 40 years.
Unfortunately, the Jeffersons’ marital happiness was short-lived. Upon Martha’s death 10 years after their marriage, Jefferson reportedly stayed in his room for three weeks, grieving and pacing the floor.
Never remarrying, he later wrote to an acquaintance of his “ten years of unchequered happiness” with his wife, who was “the cherished companion of my life.”
Monticello is located at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville. Tickets are $23 ($21 online) in February, and $29 ($26 online) from March through October. www.monticello.org, (434) 984-9800.
Just down the road from Monticello is the white pillared Clifton Inn overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains at 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., Charlottesville. www.Clifton-Inn.com, (434) 971-1800.
James Madison and his gregarious wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, honeymooned in 1793 at Belle Grove — a manor house built by James Madison’s sister and her husband.
Situated in Middletown, in the upper Shenandoah Valley, the property is now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and offers activities for visitors throughout the year.
When not serving the emerging nation as the United States’ third “first couple,” James and Dolley lived and entertained at Montpelier, another National Trust property in Orange County near Charlottesville. The 2,750-acre estate includes a recently restored manor house and museum, farmland, race courses, a two-acre formal garden and a National Landmark Forest.
There are few letters between James and Dolley because they were rarely apart, according to Hilarie Hicks, a member of Montpelier’s research team.
Admission to Montpelier is $22 ($20 online), $1 less for those 62 and over. It is located at 11350 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station. www.montpelier.org, (540) 672-2728, ext. 450.
The Holliday House B&B, built in 1830, is three miles down the road in nearby Orange. Rooms range from $169 to $249. www.HolladayHouseBandB.com, (540) 672-4893.
Following his term as 10th president, the 55-year-old John Tyler retired to his Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, more than 30 years his junior. A collection of Julia and John’s love letters and poetry is at The College of William and Mary’s Swem Library in Williamsburg.
John and his young, vivacious wife started their family at the home between Williamsburg and Richmond on State Route 5. The 301-foot-long house includes a 68-foot ballroom designed for dancing the Virginia Reel, the popular dance of the Tylers’ day.
Today, President Tyler’s grandson — born in 1924 when his father was 71 — lives at Sherwood Forest with his family. The house is open only by appointment, but the grounds are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on State Rt. 5, 14501 John Tyler Highway, Charles City, 30 minutes from Williamsburg and 45 minutes from Richmond. www.sherwoodforest.org, (804) 829-5377
Wilson was an ardent and passionate writer of love letters. He wrote hundreds while courting his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, and during their 29-year marriage, according to Jennie Cohen of history.com.
After Axson died in 1914, a year into his first term as president, he became smitten with a widow and fellow Virginian, Edith Bolling Galt. In their correspondence, he addressed her as “My sweet darling,” and signed his name “Tiger.”
The two wed on Dec. 15, 1918, boarded a train, and honeymooned at The Homestead, the renowned four-season resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, in Wytheville — the only birthplace of a U.S. first lady open to the public in Virginia — is one of only eight such homes nationwide dedicated to the interpretation of a first lady. A visit reveals how and why Edith Bolling Wilson, in a pivotal period during World War I, earned the epithets, “The First Woman President” and “The Secret President.”
Entrance to the museum at 145 E. Main St., Wytheville is free. There is a $5 fee for tours of the Bolling Family Home. www.edithbollingwilson.org, (276) 223-3484.
Across the street is the Edith Bolling Wilson Hotel, built in 1927. Rooms start at $109. www.bollingwilsonhotel.com, (276) 223-2333.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum is located in the President’s birthplace at 20 N. Coalter St., Staunton. Admission is $14 ($12 for those 60 and over). www.woodrowwilson.org, (540) 885-0897
As the slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” suggests, any time is a good time to discover the romance of Virginia and her presidents.