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September 25, 2006 Monroe Birthplace Effort


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He was twice president of the United States and twice governor of Virginia. He was secretary of state and secretary of war. He was ambassador to England and to Spain.

But the Virginia Department of Transportation is not cutting James Monroe any slack.

This year, VDOT turned down an application to build a trail from Colonial Beach to the low, forested site just outside town where Monroe was born in 1758.

VDOT officials also say the chances are slim that they can approve a separate grant application from Westmoreland County to build a new entrance and a visitor center at Monroe's birthplace.

G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation, is not discouraged.

"We scored high on our first application for a Transportation Enhancement Program grant for the trail. We'll resubmit it and score even higher next year," Thomas said.

"Everything seems to be coming together. It will be worth the extra time we've taken this year to plan this tribute to our fifth president."

The foundation plans to build a replica of the house and farm where Monroe lived his first 16 years. Thomas also dreams of expanding the birthplace site from the present 74 acres owned by Westmoreland County to the 350 or more acres it was when Monroe was a boy.

One of the properties originally owned by Monroe is a 45-acre tract adjacent to the birthplace. In February, Westmoreland County rezoned the parcel for 86 houses.

Since then, developer Douglas L. Cooper has filed no new plans for the project, said Gary Zeigler, the county's director of planning and community development.

Thomas reckons it will cost $10 million to acquire the additional land, build a reproduction of the simple house the Monroes called home and re-create the farm that sustained them.

It may take years, but he's sure his foundation can raise the money from federal, state, philanthropic and other sources.

So far this year, Thomas' foundation has received three donations for the birthplace project totaling $118,651. The largest contribution, of $50,000, came in a roundabout way from the state of Virginia.

Thomas said state budget-writers erroneously tagged the appropriation for the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library of the University of Mary Washington.

It took a few calls to Del. Vince Callahan Jr., but Thomas said the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee made sure the money went to the Monroe farm project and not to the museum in Fredericksburg.

The Dominion Foundation contributed $25,000 in March, and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund gave $43,651 in April for archeological work at the site.

The duPont money went to the Center for Archeological Research of the College of William & Mary, Monroe's alma mater.

The archeologists spent 12 hot days in August shoveling 632 test holes at 15-meter intervals on most of the county-owned property. The team has also reviewed thousands of documents about the site.

Project manager David W. Lewes said the diggers found seven clusters of 18th-century artifacts near the site of the house where Monroe was born. Other archeologists had found the house spot 30 years ago.

The new artifacts were mostly pieces of old crockery such as creamware, pearlware and stoneware. Bricks, pieces of bottle glass and window panes and one molded pipe bowl also were found.

The archeologists are inviting the public to help examine one or two of the most promising clusters next month as an activity of Virginia Archeology Month.

The archeologists may have found stoneware at the site, but the county appears to have hit a VDOT stone wall in the effort to honor Monroe.

The county obtained $212,000 in Transportation Enhancement Program funds in 1999 and 2002 to develop an award-winning master plan for the birthplace site and to conduct preliminary engineering.

Since then, a river of paper has flowed between Montross and Richmond about building a new entrance to the site, a parking lot and a small visitor center resembling an 18th-century tobacco barn.

But recent bids for the work far exceeded county estimates. The lower of two visitor-center bids was 42 percent higher than the estimated cost. The sole bid for the site work was 132 percent greater than expected.

The excesses are "one of the most extreme cases to work through that we've ever seen," said Jennifer DeBruhl, VDOT assistant division administrator for local assistance.

"We stand to do this project with the county. The issue is one of: Are the bids good value for the work being done?" she said.

Efforts to create a Monroe memorial at the site of his birth go back to the 1920s.

Thomas said advice from the first U.S. president, who was born a few miles from the Monroe farm, is guiding his foundation's work.

"George Washington said, 'Perseverance and spirit have worked wonders at all times.' That's one of our mottoes. We shall not be deterred."