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Saturday, June 8, 2013 : Mount Vernon

 

This morning, the internet connection is pretty unstable, and there is no way we can chat with the family back in France on Skype. What's more, we are not yet done with tropical storm Andrea, and it is still raining as we leave Richmond.

 

Fortunately, the weather gets better quite fast, and a bright sunny sky welcomes us at Mount Vernon, close to Washington, two hours later.

 

In the meantime, we have crossed again, without stopping, part of the historical center of Richmond. Here, the highway crosses the city center, without having been buried as in Boston.

 

We are lucky at the license plate game. Just as we are leaving our car, a SUV licensed in Wyoming, which is not exactly next door, parks next to us. I have a short chat with its owner, and we get one more license plate picture, plus an impromptu conversation about Mount Vernon and the touristic and historical interest of the whole region.

 

Mount Vernon, George Washigton's estate

Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate

 

Then we walk into Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate.

 

After inheriting the estate when his half-brother Lawrence died, the General and first President of the United States lived here from 1754 until his death in 1799, with a few absences during his military campaigns, the Revolutionary War and, of course, his presidency.

 

It has been quite forgotten today, but George Washington's early military career was at the service of the British, and consequently against the French, during the Seven Year War, a.k.a. the French and Indian War (1756-1763).

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Mount Vernon, Ford Orientation Center, George and Martha Washington with two of their grandkids

George and Martha Washington with two of their grandkids

 

As usual, we begin by exploring the visitor center, large and well designed, named the Ford Orientation Center, after the company which built it. We collect our tickets and an audioguide, exclusively in English, that I am going to translate for Marie. Fortunately for her, a rather well detailed estate map is available in French.

 

The statue above shows George and Martha Washington with two of their grandchildren. George having contracted smallpox at age 19, they never had kids of their own, and the grandkids of the statue are borne from the children of Martha's first wedding, whom George raised like his own. Much later, Mary Anna Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha's, married General Lee.

 

Guided tours are available, but we wish to enjoy Mount Vernon at our own pace. The only place where the guided tour is mandatory is the mansion itself and, as our tickets show, we are requested to enter the line at 1:30pm sharp.

 

Though the place is not absolutely crowded, there are many visitors today, which is perhaps explained by the proximity of the Federal capital. The estate may be large, about 500 acres, but I have a hard time imagining the crowds at the height of summer. I better understand the rather rigorous timing of the mansion visits.

 

And after all, we are visiting a military man.

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Mount Vernon, the mansion from the garden, the front door

Mount Vernon, the mansion from the garden, the front door

 

The line begins under the trees, beside a tiny shed that looks like restrooms. As in many houses of the same period, toilets, when they exist at all, are located outside. Monticello, Jefferson's mansion, where you can relief yourself without being exposed to bad weather, looks like an exception.

 

The mansion as we can see it has been expanded in 1758. Neglected and almost in ruins, it has been purchased in 1858 by Mount Vernon Ladies Association, an association of ladies of the good society, whose mission was and remains the preservation of this absolutely unique historical heritage. What we can see clearly demonstrates their brilliant success.

 

Once more, we are requested not to take pictures or videos during the visit of the mansion, which is rather fast. Lead by an expert guide, we can see the New Room, the main dining room, Nelly, Martha's granddaughter's, harpsichord, and the first floor bedroom.

 

In the corridor, hanging on the wall, we notice a picture of the Bastille being torn down and a big key, also from the Bastille. These are the presents of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Father of Freedom.

 

On the second floor, we visit George and Martha's bedroom, George's work cabinet, and the bedroom where Lafayette stayed during his stays with his friend Washington at Mount Vernon. In the main bedroom, we notice the custom-sized bedstead : the General was 6'2 tall !

 

Plenty of portraits, books and furniture are displayed. The arrangement shown to visitors corresponds to the state of the mansion in 1799, last year of the General's life.

 

George and Martha Washington were the perfect example of the famed Virginian hospitality. In the year following the General's retirement, no less than 677 visitors were welcomed at Mount Vernon !

 

Washington was not obsessed with personal power, which he voluntarily relinquished twice, first when he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War, and then when he left the Presidency after his second term in 1797. The two-term Presidential tradition constituted an historical precedent that prevailed until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected for the third time in 1940, and became the rule after the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

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Mount Vernon, the mansion from the lawn, Potomac side

The mansion from the lawn, Potomac side

 

The visit of the mansion ends under a porch with columns, called the Piazza, half-Venetian, half-Southern colonial style. On each side of the mansion, we can see the covered passageways leading to the dependencies.

 

Now, look at this mansion. Doesn't it look like it is made of stone ? Well, not quite. What look like bricks are actually wood sideboards, on which a mix of sand and paint has been applied, in a process called rustication. It smartly addresses the twin objectives of durability and presentation.

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Mount Vernon, view of the Potomac from the porch of the mansion

View of the Potomac from the porch of the mansion

 

The Piazza lawn is separated from the Potomac only by a few trees, which the visitor should imagine were not there in 1799. The view is beautiful and serene, and Washington's and Lafayette's must have been even more. The lawn smoothly goes down to the river.

 

We are at the Northern end of Virginia. On the other side of the Potomac is Maryland.

 

We cannot see it on the picture, but to our right is an alley that smoothly goes down to the river. On its right, the upper part of the alley is sided with small houses, each with a precise usage.

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Mount Vernon, the washhouse

The washhouse

 

We will now walk around the estate, which is going to take us the remainder of the afternoon.

 

Many slaves, up to 316 in 1799, were employed at Mount Vernon. They were craftsmen, handworkers, house employees or worked on the farms of the estate. In late 18th century, even enlightened minds like Jefferson's only see little contradiction between slavery and the ideal of liberty as a founding principle of the United States of America. Lately, torn between his ideals and reality, Washington will free up in his will all slaves directly belonging to him.

 

We begin with the kitchen and the smokehouse, where meat, mostly beef and pork, was prepared and stored. The room is undergoing renovation, we only make a short stop.

 

The washhouse deserves a stop. We can see the fireplace where water was boiled, the large basins where clothes were washed, the clotheslines, and the tables where they were ironed. Of course, all these tasks were executed by slaves or, to use a more recent euphemism, "workers with a non-revocable employment status".

 

Mostly household linen, seemingly in phenomenal quantities, was taken care of in this washhouse.

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Mount Vernon, one of George Washington's cars

One of George Washington's cars

 

Going down the alley, we now visit the coachhouse, made of several separate rooms. In one is a curious one-seat car, used by a young Washington for moving around faster. Our contemporary small convertibles do not really invent anything.

 

In the next room is the large car shown on the picture. It is the luxury car of a wealthy mature man. Here again, our modern overequipped limousines do not invent anything.

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Mount Vernon, the stables

The stables

 

Very close by are the stables, large enough for the many horses Washington, an outstanding horse rider, owned. Jefferson once said about him that he was probably the best horseman of his age. Judging from the time the General spent in military campaigns, moving from one battlefield to another, of course on horseback, experience must have been coming to him pretty fast.

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Mount Vernon, Martha and George Washington's graves

Martha and George Washington's graves

 

After walking along the fruit garden, we take another alley leading to George and Martha Washington's grave. The mausoleum, closed by a metal gate, allows the visitor to see George and Martha's sarcophaguses. Martha outlived George by two years.

 

In front of the mausoleum is a plaza, large enough for several dozens of visitors.

 

Many famous visitors have paid their respects to the General at Mount VernonCharles de Gaulle came here in July 1944, to pay tribute to George Washington's memory.

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Mount Vernon, the slave memorial

The slave memorial

 

Close by, in a quiet and shaded place suitable for meditation is the slave memorial. The slaves who died at Mount Vernon were buried here, under the trees, in unmarked graves. It is therefore hard to track the individual existences of the men and women who rest here. To address this shortcoming, the memorial was erected in 1983.

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Mount Vernon, actors in period costumes at Dogue Run experimental farm

Actors in period costumes at Dogue Run experimental farm

 

After reaching the far end of the alley and the wharf on the Potomac, we continue our visit with Dogue Run Farm.

 

George Washington considered himself first and foremost a farmer, and he had set four farms on his estate. Dogue Run Farm specifically experimented new cultivation techniques. Washington thus contributed to the development of crop rotation, fertilizer and plowing practices.

 

Behind the historical reconstitution shown on the picture, with the man tasting an infusion of locally-grown plants, are the experimental plots of plants that were unknown in the area before Washington.

 

Following financial hardship, Washington had given up cultivating tobacco in favor of wheat, much more profitable.

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Mount Vernon, inside the 16-sided Dogue Run barn

Inside the 16-sided Dogue Run barn

 

At the top of Dogue Run Farm is an unusual 16-sided barn with two floors. The upper floor is separated in two concentrical parts, the inner one being a storage area and the outer one a track on which horses would walk in circles, treading on the wheat spread on the slatted floor, separating grain and straw. Grain would fall in the lower floor, where it was collected, and straw would remain on the upper floor. The whole plant was utilized and waste was non-existent.

 

This smart barn is, in its own way, a forerunner of mechanical threshing machines that appeared only much later.

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Mount Vernon, slave cabin

Slave cabin

 

Next to the barn is a carefully reconstructed slave cabin.

 

To shorten his workers' commute, Washington had found practical to offer some of them those little wooden houses with basic amenities. Slaves who had earned the housemaster's trust could enjoy this very much appreciated privilege.

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Mount Vernon, the animal farm

A hog at the animal farm

 

We are now walking up a forest trail, along which signs remind that the first settlers in the Mount Vernon area were the Dogue, Patawomeke and Piscataway Native tribes, long before the white man.

 

We then visit the animal farm, where we can see cows, hogs, sheep, poultry and other animals selected by Washington. They were raised for meat, wool, leather, milk and, something of high importance for a pioneer farmer like Washington, biological fertilizer, a.k.a. dung.

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Mount Vernon, the upper garden and the greenhouse

The upper garden and the greenhouse

 

We are now back on the main lawn in front of the mansion that, during some renovation, replaced the large straight alley leading to the front door. This large lawn was used for ten-pin playing, hence its name of Bowling Green.

 

We cross the upper garden, part ornamentation, part experimental botanical garden. The red brick building in the back is a greenhouse, flanked by two wings used as slaves quarters. Winters in Virginia being kind of rigorous, the greenhouse has to be heated, to keep the most fragile plants at the right temperature.

 

We visit the stove room, where a fireplace sent warm air into the greenhouse thru an elaborate system of ducts enclosed within the walls. In winter, the position of slave permanently tending the fire was one of great trust, because the plants in the greenhouse were fragile and highly sensitive to cold.

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Mount Vernon, greenhouse slave quarters

Greenhouse slave quarters

 

On the other side of the building are the slave quarters, one for women and small children, and one for men. These basic dwellings were mostly occupied by slaves working in the house, in the dependencies or in the workshops.

 

A sign documents the widespread usage of  corporal punishment. In 1793, Charlotte, a seamstress, unfairly whipped by the substitute manager for some small deed, had foolhardily menaced to "tell everything to Lady Washington when she comes back".

 

More generally, the displays and the Mount Vernon website do their best to track the individual fates of the estate slaves. But the task is daunting, for very few records were kept. Still, it is praiseworthy to try to put names, faces and individual stories on all those who would otherwise be a mere statistical footnote of history.

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Mount Vernon, the shoemaker's workshop

The shoemaker's workshop

 

On this side of the mansion are the workshops. We visit the shoemaker's, who made and repaired the workforce's shoes. Each employee received a pair of shoes per year.

 

The Washington family used more luxury shoes, made in London or New York.

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Mount Vernon, the blacksmith at work in his shop

The blacksmith at work in his shop

 

We also visit the blacksmith's workshop. All metal objects used on the estate were made here, including tools to garden, farm, and so on.

 

As we can see on the picture, the reconstitution of the workshop and forge is in absolute accordance with the 1799 state of the art.

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Mount Vernon, estate manager's house

Estate manager's house

 

Then we visit the house of the estate manager, in a way the chief of staff of the estate, who organised and assigned tasks, and supervised their proper execution. Without the estate manager, nothing much would have worked properly at Mount Vernon. Needless to say, this position required the absolute trust of the housemaster.

 

Common sense dictated that the estate manager had a service accomodation very close to the main mansion.

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Mount Vernon, spinning room

Spinning room

 

All large plantations in Virginia and elsewhere attempted to become self-sufficient. It is for this purpose that Mount Vernon maintained a spinning and weaving workshop. Linen was cultivated, wool was spun, and the fabrics were used to sew employees' clothing. There again, the Washington family used better clothes than what was produced locally.

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Mount Vernon, the botanical garden

The botanical garden

 

Once again, we cross the botanical garden, George Washington's favorite, who cultivated here many exotic varieties he was trying to adapt to Virginia's climate and soil. Predictably, the gardener's position was also one of very high trust at Mount Vernon.

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Mount Vernon, the house where salt and fishnets were stored

The house where salt and fishnets were stored

 

We make one more stop in the room where salt and fishnets were stored.

 

In those times, salt is the only known way to preserve fish and some meats. The quantities of salt consumed by a large plantation like Mount Vernon were therefore huge, and required a large, dry room for storage.

 

Fishnets were used for fishing in the Potomac, a river where fish is plentiful in high season. After the fishing season had ended, fishnets were taken back to the workshop, repaired, and stored in crates until the next season.

 

Our visit of Mount Vernon is ending. A full day is required to enjoy the most of such a large and rich estate.

 

What did George Washington bequeath us ? Quite a lot, undoubtedly.

 

Where Jefferson was a universal and experimental mind, Washington was first and foremost an organizer, with a strong determination both in ordeal and in success. It is not by chance but by gratitude that so many buildings, the Federal capital and a state bear his name. Not much interested in personal power, he mostly considered himself a farmer, and was eager to experiment new agricultural practices and techniques, for the higher purpose of better serving his country and its population.

 

George Washington was both the freedom fighter General and the innovative and enlightened patrician.

 

We drive back to our hotel. The internet connection in the room being particulary unstable, I end up sitting in the hotel lobby to update the blog. Despite the help of the hotel staff and the Best Western technical support, it is going to take us three days, and a bit of luck, to put our finger on the glitch.

 

Just in case, we watch the weather forecast, which is not nice, on TV. Waiting for tomorrow, we go out for dinner in a really nice Australian steakhouse, The Outback.

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