Students come from far and wide to build fence at Poplar Forest

News & Advance
Thursday, August 13, 2009

By Nolan Connelly, Photos By Chet White - ©2009 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.

For the past three weeks, eight students from across the country have made a field at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest their home.

Or as they’ve come to call it, “TJ Pop Fo.”

The students - members of the Student Conservation Association, which provides college and high school students with hands-on conservation opportunities - came to reconstruct a fence that encompasses 61 acres of Poplar Forest.

It is believed Thomas Jefferson used the fence as a way to separate the retreat landscape from plantation operations.

“This is historically accurate to Thomas Jefferson’s time,” said crew leader Tim Spenser. “They knew from site maps that this was where his fence was running.”

At first, said crew leader Jenny Lockmiller, it took two students, wearing hard hats, to lift one of the wooden rails. But by the end, it only took one student.

She said all the work must have toughened them up.

The four boys and four girls slept in two separate tents at the field, where they cooked their dinners on Coleman stoves, made their own bread every day and played games.

“Lots of games - it’s really a bonding experience,” Lockmiller said.

The first time they met each other was at Lynchburg Regional Airport, finding each other by their matching Student Conservation Association shirts.

Now, said Lockmiller, “They’re very close to each other.”

The crew would start working at 9 a.m. after eating breakfast (cereal with powdered milk). They would break for lunch (peanut butter and jelly on homemade bread) at noon and then go back to work until 5 p.m.

Depending on whose turn it was, one student would cook dinner, such as a stir-fry, chili or macaroni and cheese, while others did chores around their campsite.

They would only get the chance for a shower once every three or four days through a deal with the neighboring Poplar Forest golf club.

So it isn’t very surprising when Carl Becker, 16, of New York, said his favorite part about working on the fence was “finishing it.”

Besides completing the fence, another favorite part was observing their daily progress.

“You could see it getting bigger,” said Emily Freedman, 17, of Florida.

Their work did not go unnoticed by dog walkers on their stroll through Poplar Forest.

The students said the walkers would bring them treats as they worked on the fence.

One day, a neighbor walking a dog invited the 10 strangers over to their home for dinner, where they had steak, tilapia, cheesy grits, brownies and “water that was cold,” remarked Julie Balsamo, 18, of Pennsylvania.

Cold water was a luxury, said Lockmiller, since their water bottles would heat up while they worked outside during the day.

After the students leave Poplar Forest today and return to their home states, they will leave behind a fence that will last “at least 50 to 70 years,” Spenser said.

Not bad for a couple weeks of work.