Signage posted for tourists at innumerable U.S. accommodations in myriad towns and cities suggest that George
Washington slept around - a lot, but his happiest sleeps were those cuddled beside Martha at his impressive farm
in Mount Vernon, 16 miles from Washington, D.C. and eight miles south of Old Town, Alexandria. When time
for what Raymond Chandler termed, The Big Sleep, Washington was content to remain at Mount Vernon despite
attempts by legislators to relocate their first president to a crypt under the Rotunda in the Capitol Building.
Born in 1732 at Pope's Creek Plantation on the Potomac River in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1754,
Washington inherited the Mount Vernon "Mansion," a much smaller farmhouse. He expanded it, overseeing every
detail of design, construction, and decoration. Groups of 15-20 walk through the interior, restored to its 1799
appearance. Thanks to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, we are able to visit today for in 1858, they received
their charter from Virginia and purchased Mount Vernon from John A. Washington Jr. for $200,000.
Outbuildings provide a glimpse of plantation life, including the employment of slaves to keep the large
facility running. From dawn until dusk, six days a week, slaves worked, spinning wool and linen, laundering clothes,
preparing food, curing meats, shoeing horses. With an audio guide, we imagine two actual slaves, Vina and Dolsey,
as they boil water in a hot-water stove and plunge the laundry into steaming water. They hand-scrub the fabric with
soap made from lye and animal fat, rinse and finally dry the laundry in the yard. They use irons heated in the fire or
a large wooden mangle to press the laundry. The job is hot, dangerous and taxing. They carry 25-30 buckets of
water per load.
Of 316 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, most lived and worked on the four outlying farms. One in every
four was skilled in a trade. Most women worked in the fields, but some were employed as spinner, weaver, cook,
house servant and seamstress. The 1799 figure reflects the expansion of the plantation since the time that George
and Martha were wed in 1759 when there were only 50 slaves. In his will of July, 1799, Washington freed all of them.
Washington's passion for gardening is reflected throughout the property. The "Upper" or Pleasure Garden
features bulbs, annuals, perennials, trees and two boxwood parterres with a French fleur-de-lis design. The Lower
Garden, known as one of the most noteworthy Colonial Revival gardens in America, supplied fresh produce for the
busy kitchen. The Fruit Garden & Nursery were used to grow cherry, apple, pear and other trees. Washington
experimented with new seeds and plants before using them elsewhere on the estate.
The 8,000-acre estate was native woodland. A quarter-mile walking trail provides a glimpse of the
wilderness that supplied firewood, lumber for construction, and posts and rails for fencing. It also supplied wild
game for the dining table and provided a source of entertainment and exercise for Washington and other avid fox
Washington considered himself primarily a farmer, not a warrior. Recognizing the inadequacies of
18th-century farming practices, he pioneered innovative methods, including crop rotation and the use of fertilizers
and eventually transformed Mount Vernon into a diversified farm. A dramatic invention was a 16-sided treading
barn for processing wheat and other grains. Reconstructed, the barn is used in season as horses systematically tread
out wheat at the Pioneer Farm Site near the river. The four-acre farm site also includes a slave cabin, animals, and
demonstration crops. Washington built a grist mill and distillery and sold whiskey to slave owners at home and in
the Caribbean. Farming and ample fishing in the Potomac required a wharf to transport goods by boat to
Alexandria. Forty-minute sightseeing cruises are available seasonally.
In 1775, Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental forces. Except for brief stops
at Mount Vernon on his way to and from Yorktown in 1781, he was not near there again for eight years. In 1783,
he resigned his military commission to Congress and retired to Mount Vernon. In 1787, he presided over the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and in 1789-97 served as first President of the United States of America.
During this time, he visited Mount Vernon 15 times.
Near George and Martha's burial site on a wooded hill, a slave burial ground is marked by a memorial to honor
African-American slaves. This land was used as a cemetery site for slaves and free blacks who worked for the
Washington family during the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. The graves are unmarked, and
the identities and numbers of those buried on this historical land are largely unknown.
A visit begins at the Ford Orientation Center, highlighted by an 18-minute film which chronicles the heroic
figure who became "Father of His Country." Mount Vernon in Miniature is a one-twelfth scale exact replica of the
mansion with 22 rooms containing hundreds of tiny objects including oil paintings, china, books, and more than
100 tables and chairs.
The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center provides viewers with a rich and comprehensive
collection of historical objects in a state-of-the-art facility. A hands-on History Room at the Education Center caters
to children along with free Adventure Maps for every family with a child's ticket at the Ford Orientation Center.
Scout and campfire club member activity booklets are available year-round. Children will also enjoy a variety of
animals (lambs, oxen, hens, roosters, horses, etc.) similar to those owned by Washington in the 18th century.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
There are walking tours and programs, characters in historic garb, performances at the Greenhouse and a
daily tribute at the tomb, each identified by time on the website. Drive along the Potomac River on the
scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway or hop aboard a boat and arrive by water. Visitor parking is
free and convenient. There are spaces for RVs, motor coaches and trailers. General admission ranges from
children 5 and under: free; 6-11: $7; 62+: $14; adults: $15.
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