From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
Joel Wheeler was a caretaker of Monticello. Before that, he was Benjamin Franklin Randolph's farm manager at Carter's bridge (Round Top) farm in the 1840s and 1850s. When Benjamin Franklin Ficklin purchased Monticello in 1864, the property was in disrepair. “The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now,” wrote a young woman who visited in the summer of that year. “The parlor retains but little of its former elegance, the ballroom ... on the second floor … has a thousand names scratched over the walls.” Maintaining property in Virginia during the Civil War and the following years was difficult at best, but Monticello’s decline in the 1860s and 1870s was evidently aggravated by its longtime caretaker, Joel Wheeler.
When Uriah Phillips Levy took possession of Monticello in 1836, Thomas Jefferson’s estate was in less-than-pristine condition. By 1860, Levy was looking for a new manager and hired Wheeler to begin work in the fall of 1860. Levy – who resided at Monticello only for brief periods – and Wheeler are credited with doing a commendable job of restoring and maintaining the house and grounds over the years.
Wheeler stayed on at Monticello after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and Levy’s death in 1862, and apparently became more cantankerous – and less concerned with upkeep – as the years unfolded.
During the war, Wheeler, who was not being paid by the Levy family, continued like his predecessors, to charge groups to use the Monticello house and grounds for parties, picnics, and other activities, while the public took souvenirs.
Wheeler also, according to various accounts, planted vegetables on the West Lawn, allowed pigs to roam the property, stabled cattle in the basement, and stored and milled grain in the parlor. “As for the house, he seems not to have done anything,” Melvin I. Urofsky wrote in The Levy Family and Monticello: 1834-1923, a Monticello Monograph published in 2001. “The gutters fell away, the roof rotted, rainwater flooded the basement, and the elements took their toll on every part of the great house.”
Wheeler was able to keep charge of Monticello until the fall of 1878, as the Levy family squabbled over Uriah’s estate.
- ↑ This article is based on "Caretaker contributed to Monticello's Decline."Monticello Newsletter, 17:(Winter 2006).
- Leepson, Marc. Saving Monticello: the Levy family’s epic quest to rescue the house that Jefferson built, New York: Free Press, 2001.
- Urofsky, Melvin I. Saving Mr. Jefferson's House: The Levy Family and Monticello, 1834-1923. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 2000. Available for purchase at Monticello Museum Shop