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Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum

How to Celebrate Presidents’ Day in Staunton & Beyond

Nicknamed the Mother of Presidents, Virginia is the birthplace of eight presidents, more than any other state. They include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. Presidents’ Day isn’t just about big sales and days off from work. Here’s how to learn more about our country’s leaders, their time in the Staunton area, and how they helped found and safeguard our democracy.

Woodrow Wilson

The first stop on your presidential itinerary should be the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, which is located in historic, walkable downtown Staunton. Wilson was born in Staunton on December 28, 1856, and only lived here for a year. Still, the museum offers a comprehensive examination of the life and times of our 28th president. Important issues during Wilson’s time included World War I, the League of Nations, as well as a number of progressive reforms. Exhibits also examine Staunton history, prohibition, suffrage, the lives of enslaved persons who lived in the manse, as well as Wilson’s own complex position on race relations. Explore gallery spaces in the Presbyterian manse where Wilson was born, and which display artifacts from his life and presidency. Examine materials in the research library, explore the surrounding gardens, photograph Wilson’s Pierce Arrow, and visit the gift shop for a meaningful souvenir. Check the calendar for a wide variety of educational programs and events.

Staunton’s American Hotel

In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant stopped overnight in Staunton on a trip to White Sulphur Springs. He stayed at the elegant American Hotel in Staunton’s Wharf District. Stonewall Jackson’s former band played for him as he stood on his balcony. Grant bowed and raised his hat. This public demonstration earned praise as an early post-Civil War act of reconciliation.

Thomas Jefferson

Next, travel to Charlottesville to visit Monticello, the home and masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson. A visit is a wonderful way to explore the life and legacy of America’s third president. Jefferson designed the house, combining new and innovative ideas with elements of neoclassical architecture. Visitors can explore the gardens and grounds to learn about Jefferson’s scientific pursuits and appreciation for nature. Visitors should also take a guided tour of the house, including public and reception areas as well as more intimate spaces like Jefferson’s bedroom and study. Exhibits at Monticello teach visitors about Jefferson’s life and contributions to American democracy in addition to tackling more difficult subjects like the lives of enslaved people at Monticello.

Don’t skip a visit to the nearby University of Virginia, conceived by Jefferson to “cultivate an environment in which students and faculty could live and learn from one another.” The academic village borders a central Lawn, headed by the domed Rotunda.

Another important site to visit when learning about Jefferson is Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s second home near Lynchburg where he went to escape the public eye. Poplar Forest is named after the tulip poplar trees growing on the 4,800-acre plantation. The house is important for its unique octagonal layout and innovative features.

Jefferson also drew on his knowledge of classical architecture when he helped design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

James Madison

James Madison, our 4th president and “Father of the Constitution,” lived at Orange County’s Montpelier for 76 years. Visitors can learn about the house, grounds, political philosophy, and Madison’s role in shaping the nation’s early years. The house is a grand example of neoclassical architecture, designed in part by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Visitors can also explore the formal gardens, archeological sites, and walking paths on the estate. The grounds also include the virgin “Old-Growth Forest.” This pristine ecosystem has been preserved in its original state for hundreds of years and reminds us of our natural heritage.

George Washington

George Washington lived, worked, and hosted important visitors at Mount Vernon for over 40 years. He also died here in 1799. A visit to Mount Vernon’s house and grounds offers a view of 18th-century lifestyles and social customs. The house is built in a symmetrical Georgian style, and Washington expanded and renovated it during his time there. Mount Vernon is located just outside of D.C., but you can also explore the house and grounds virtually.

Additional sites related to our nation’s first president are the George Washington Office Museum, Washington’s single-room office in Winchester. He worked here in 1755 and 1756 and oversaw the construction of Ft. Loudon. Nearby Fort Valley, the “valley within a valley” where Washington planned to shelter the Continental Army if they had been defeated during the Revolutionary War.

James Monroe

James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, lived near Charlottesville at Ash Lawn-Highland for a quarter century. Visitors can connect to the past with tours of the Federal-style house and formal gardens. The plantation also hosts exhibits, educational programs, and events to give insight into Monroe’s presidency and role in American history.

Natural Bridge

Not only is Natural Bridge State Park a good destination for a hike and some photos of the 215-foot-limestone arch, but it’s also a great way to feel a connection to a president. In his youthful surveyor days, George Washington carved his initials into the rock. Later, Thomas Jefferson bought the 157-acre parcel of land containing the bridge for a steal (less than $200 in today’s money).

Herbert Hoover

Though not from Virginia, Herbert Hoover chose to vacation here. In 1929, the Marine Corps built Rapidan Camp, Hoover’s “summer White House,” on 164 acres of what is now Shenandoah National Park. This was the first presidential retreat complex. Presidents used the camp until the time of Jimmy Carter. Visitors can take a ranger-led tour of the remaining three buildings and the surrounding area.

Another popular nearby vacation destination for American presidents is The Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. Since its construction in 1766, 22 presidents have stayed there!

Important historical sites like those near Staunton provide windows into the past as well as nuanced explorations of history. offering visitors a deeper understanding of our leaders’ contributions, challenges, and historical context.

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