A historical connection
September 22, 2011
Sometimes, a cow may get loose. Or even a peacock. A visitor may arrive on the day of a December wedding ceremony, or during the annual Summer Festival. Behind the house, there is a 100-year-old Boxwood Garden. In the middle stands an oak tree, 20 feet around, that has survived since the 18th century.
Ash Lawn-Highland is the historic home of James Monroe, class of 1776, and, upon the death of its former owner, was bequeathed to the College of William and Mary in September 1974. Through the work of director Carolyn Holmes, the site has remained both a museum and working 535-acre farm and hosts numerous performing arts events throughout the year.
Though Monroe’s home is already teeming with history, one contemporary figure of historical significance who is oftentimes overlooked is Holmes herself. According to David Holmes, retired professor of religious studies, Carolyn Holmes’s appointment in 1975 was one of the highest ranking positions held by a woman in historic preservation.
For Carolyn Holmes, though, that fact played only a little role in her life at the time.
“In the years I was growing up, I never dealt with anyone who thought I was second rate for being a female,” Holmes said. “Sometimes if my husband were home, people would go to him asking his opinion and he would have to tell them I was in charge. But I never felt set aside in any way. I don’t think I was particularly conscious of it.”
Instead, the greatest part of her appointment to the position was becoming such an integral part of the historic home’s preservation. In fact, Ash Lawn-Highland’s picturesque situation is, according to KK Pearson, director of education at Ash Lawn-Highland, its greatest virtue.
“The drive is beautiful — there is not a season out here that is not gorgeous.” she said. “Once you turn down our driveway, whatever troubles you may have are gone. Everything is beautiful, and it’s a joy just to be a part of it.”
One of the ways in which Ash Lawn keeps up a relationship with the College is by offering yearly internships to students. It is, according to Holmes, an experience few forget.
“The students really do enjoy working here,” Holmes said. “They’re at the home of an alum of their college, so they become familiar with a very special kind of history. We stay in contact with a lot of the students who come here, and many come back as well.”
Many students are drawn to the historic aspects of Ash Lawn-Highland by the internship programs, but their experiences on the site have more than just historical value.
“We have as many non-history majors as we do history majors apply,” Pearson said. “Some of them are interested in marketing, some in just the function of museum work. We get archaeology majors — a whole variety. And it’s because we’re a small business, just as much as a museum.”
The diversity of events found at Ash Lawn-Highland every day is an important part of the internship experience.
“When these [students] leave, they know how to deal with any type of situation that arises,” Pearson said. “That’s how we work.”
The homey, friendly atmosphere that most feel when they visit the historic site is built into the student internships, as well.
“I don’t think you can find one single intern that hasn’t had a wonderful experience,” Pearson said. “They just sort of become part of the family.”
Students who have interned at Monroe’s home have gone on to work in a variety of fields, including the museum business itself.
Ash Lawn-Highland’s location is one of its most impressive features, as well. Located within six miles of Monticello, historic home of Thomas Jefferson, class of 1762, and 30 miles from Montpelier, Madison’s home, Ash Lawn is situated in a place that, according to Holmes, “gives a wonderful narrative picture of American history.”
While the site’s proximity to Monticello may seem daunting, as it carries the name of such a well known historical figure as Jefferson, this is not the case, according to tour guide Dotty Brown.
“[Monroe] is less known than most of the other presidents, but that’s always been one of the most rewarding things about working there,” she said. “We impart this knowledge on visitors and they realize that he was a wonderful person who did a lot for this country. We get a lot of compliments from people who say they learn a lot about this president.”
The domestic atmosphere surrounding Ash Lawn also speaks to its differences from Monticello.
“It is true that people sometimes come through the front door muttering about how it’s not as grand as Monticello,” Holmes said. “But they they take the tour and they come away and say, ‘you know, it feels so friendly, a home I can live in, a home a family can live in.’ And I think they generally come away feeling very good about it.”