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Cedar of Lebanon 'witness tree' will endure as handcrafted table

Visitors who stop by the tasting room at Wolf Gap Vineyard and Winery in Edinburg will get a glimpse of Montpelier history, thanks to a handcrafted table made from a cedar of Lebanon tree that dated to the 1850s.

They also will be able to learn about the table’s role in an effort to honor the people whose hard work nurtured the estate, its grounds and its living treasures.

JC and Janel Laravie, Wolf Gap’s owners, wanted something special to display in their new tasting room after a couple of years of winery renovations. When Janel Laravie learned from an article on her Facebook feed that Montpelier planned to auction a one-of-a-kind table crafted from a fallen “witness tree” — a silent witness to the joys, sorrows, contributions and eventual emancipation of enslaved workers at President James Madison’s Orange County home — she knew her family had to submit a bid.

“We wanted a focal point — something fascinating. We wanted something historical,” Janel Laravie said. When she learned of the auction, “I sent it to my husband, and he said, ‘Yes, we’re getting this table,’” Janel Laravie said in a phone call with The Daily Progress.

Proceeds from the auction, which was presented by the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee, will fund an archaeological investigation and oral histories at a new memorial being planned at the Burial Ground of the Enslaved at Montpelier. Bidding closed Dec. 3, and the Laravies had won.

When the Laravies went to Montpelier to pick up the table, they came away with a fuller sense of the tree’s significance and of the history that unfolded on the site while the tree grew and flourished.

“It was a great experience,” Janel Laravie said. “The arborist took us down to see the one remaining cedar of Lebanon.”

“The pinecones are like a rose,” JC Laravie said. “But even more beautiful is the cause behind it.”

The tour also gave the couple a deeper appreciation for the mission behind the auction. The planned memorial will honor generations of families deeply rooted in Orange County history without disturbing their resting places.

“They’d identified 254 graves by that point,” Janel Laravie said. “We got to go into the archaeology lab, and that was a really neat experience. Sometimes we overlook the magnificence of history.”

Cedars of Lebanon were among the favored species of rare trees and plant specimens that were presented to dignitaries and collectors. The penultimate witness cedar of Lebanon fell in 2019, despite the efforts of horticulturists, archaeologists and preservationists to save it from disease and extend its life.

The Mellon Foundation awarded almost $5.8 million through its Monuments Project initiative last year to the Montpelier Descendants Committee and the Montpelier Foundation toward the creation of a monument to remember the enslaved people at Montpelier. The table is playing its own role as witness to history — just in a different form.

Craftsman Thomas Von Fange created the table, which is 2 feet, 6 inches tall and 7 feet long. Its cedar top, which features a curving live edge, sits atop rustic metal legs. The table was valued at $8,500, and bidding began at $5,000.

The Laravies see themselves as stewards of a piece of Montpelier history, and supporters of a larger effort to help pay tribute to more than six generations of people enslaved at the president’s estate.

Their plans include creating a plaque to explain the table’s significance and scheduling events to introduce it to neighbors and guests, all the while spreading the word about the memorial project and the people it honors.

“The table is beautiful. Its historical significance is paramount,” JC Laravie said. “Once again, I think it’s much bigger than us.”


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