The unexpected Mount Vernon

You know you’re a history geek when… you get excited about visiting a basement. OK, this wasn’t just any old basement. It was the basement of probably America’s most famous historic house (after the White House). I recently had the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon’s basement, not part of the regular tour. I’m not sure what I thought I’d see. Maybe I was wondering if George Washington just might have a junk pile in his basement. I climbed down the steps, careful not to hit my head. My guide said we had to be quiet or the visitors above would hear us.

The long corridor ran the length of the house and featured small storage rooms on either side for wines and vegetables. Apparently Mrs. Washington kept a pile of potatoes in one of them. Above me were exposed beams and floorboards. The beams included labels which stated they were original to the earliest part of the house – mid-1700s. There was the cornerstone, carved with a prominent LW, for Lawrence Washington, Washington’s older half-brother who first lived at the estate and built the oldest portion of the house.  According to my guide, had I seen the second National Treasure movie, I would have been even more excited about the cornerstone, a version of which was featured in the movie.  However, apparently the producers changed the design to suit their story.

I was even intrigued to see the modern cooling system, installed about fifteen years ago. Anyone who has encountered Virginia summers knows what a welcome addition that was.

Winter is a good time of year to visit Mount Vernon, which sits overlooking the Potomac River south of Washington. The crowds are minimal and the mansion’s third floor is open to visitors. This includes the rooms where Mrs. Washington moved after her husband died. Apparently her grandson shared the floor with her in a room or two across the hall. The house is beautiful in the stark light of a low sun. The light accentuates the architectural features of the white house — the columns and cupola, the weathervane. Martha Washington’s famous Christmas pudding sits on the table in the kitchen, garnished with some holly sprigs. In a nearby tent, interpreters demonstrate 18th century chocolate techniques – chocolate drinks only, no bars or molded shapes during this time period.  They explain the interesting ingredients to add to the mixture – nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, pepper, and chili peppers.  A camel lies lazily on the lawn…  Wait! A camel? Yes, Alladin, the camel, is visiting for Christmas. In 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings (not a small sum) to bring a camel to the estate to entertain his guests. Some historian at Mount Vernon must have seen an obscure reference to the camel and convinced someone that it was a good idea to find a camel and put it on display for the holidays. Why not? No, the presence of a camel doesn’t offer deep insight into the character of Washington, but it does bring smiles to a lot of faces, especially young faces. Plus it does show a different side of Washington. It is unexpected and visitors appreciate and remember the unexpected.

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Sadly, my favorite animals, the mules, are not on view this time. George Washington could be called the father of mules in America. One day last spring I went to meet the mules at Mount Vernon and ended up helping to capture a wayward draft horse. But that is a story for another post.

Mount Vernon is full of surprises and well worth a visit. Have you been to Mount Vernon? What were your impressions?

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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11 Responses to The unexpected Mount Vernon

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  4. Nancy Roebke says:

    I have been there. Is the smell of boxwoods strong in the winter too as it is the spring?

    • Tim says:

      I can’t remember. Do you know how to tell American boxwood from English? American has the pointed leaves (like an A), English has rounded leaves. I learned this on a garden tour in Williamsburg years ago. Have never forgotten it.

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