Shelton Sprouse has never worked a day in his life. That’s how he feels, anyway, because the Monticello stonemason loves his job. Sprouse’s work has revolved around all things Thomas Jefferson since the 1980s, when he built the stone wall that surrounds and retains the 1,000′ garden Jefferson cut out of the east side of the hillside at Monticello. Now, Sprouse’s life as a stonemason has come full circle, and he is back to renovate and restore the wall he built 30 years ago.
The wall was an essential aspect of the grounds at Monticello, evident in Jefferson’s sketched renderings, but had been dismantled over the years. According to Sprouse, stones were removed from the wall in the 1940s, spread out around the area, and used to line nearby roads.
“During the age of great bulldozer discoveries, they were able to move most of the stones from the original wall,” he said, shaking his head. Sprouse wasn’t impressed with the decision to use physical pieces of history for road development, but said he contributed to recovering at least 80 percent of the material.
In the late 1970s, Monticello underwent a restoration Renaissance. Under groundskeeper Peter Hatch, there was an increased focus on returning Jefferson’s gardens to their original layout—right down to the stone wall that was an integral part of his beloved terraced vegetable garden. Sprouse was part of a team of expert craftsmen assembled by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to reclaim the lost stone and rebuild the wall using Jefferson’s own copious and meticulous notes. Working side by side with archeologists as they uncovered the old foundation, Sprouse and others brought the scattered rock back from all over the estate and reconstructed a critical, if humble-looking, remnant of Jefferson’s grounds.
Sprouse and his business partner and close friend, John Apperson, constructed the massive wall—16′ tall at its highest point-—over the course of three years in the early 1980s. It required strenuous physical labor, but according to Sprouse, his job is more than hauling and lifting.
“It’s a consciousness experience that requires the utmost attention,” he said, and compared it to both football and ballet. A high school coach taught Sprouse the importance of isometric exercises, and he said the core strength and balancing techniques he developed are the only reason he’s standing today.
Thirty years after stacking the last stone, Sprouse is back. Under the supervision of new groundskeeper and Virginia wine godfather Gabriele Rausse, he is providing maintenance on a portion of the wall, a project he expects to last until the first week in September.
Sprouse’s knowledge is evident in the way he slowly examines the wall, stone by stone, pulling out any pieces that appear damaged or loose. He then clears out any debris, carefully pieces the stones back together, and bangs them into place with a sledgehammer.
“I’m hugely proud of this work,” he said, biting into a freshly picked tomato and leaning against the stones. The job is gratifying not only because he is restoring something truly historical, he said, but also because he gets to see tourists experience Monticello on a daily basis.
Sprouse said he’s not much for taking time off, and would rather just be doing what he’s loved for the past three decades. And with an office like his, who wouldn’t want to come to work every morning?