A magical moment at Mount Vernon

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Recently I experienced what I call a magical moment at a history site. I haven’t been to any historic sites since March, thanks to the pandemic. I was happy to hear that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s restored home near Alexandria, is open again. So, a friend and I braved the blazing heat of a Virginia August. I live near the estate and have visited many times both professionally and personally. Normally, I avoid the site like the plague in summer because it’s jam-packed with tourists from all over the world. This year, the travelers are staying home. Seeking a new walking location, my friend and I decided that a walk at Mount Vernon would be a nice change of scenery. I’m writing a middle grade book on the battle of Yorktown and, no surprise, Washington is a main character. So, I saw an opportunity to soak in the environment of one of my characters.

Sadly, the place was very empty. We strolled by the mansion, commenting on the cream color. “I thought it was white,” my friend said. “I did, too,” I said. Two questioning historians wanted some answers. (and here they are)  We ambled past the outbuildings, by the lazy sheep, down to the wharf. Even the wide Potomac River was relatively empty IMG_1889of watercraft for a summer day. I had been on that very water that same morning, in a kayak. It was my first time seeing Mount Vernon from the water. I sat there awed by the commanding location of the red and white house. This is the view anyone arriving by water would see, including the British warship that arrived in spring, 1781, threatening to burn the house. Washington’s cousin was serving as caretaker and the General had warned him not to negotiate with the British. He did anyway, causing great embarrassment to Washington, and a letter of rebuke from Lafayette to Washington. The British ship left with 17 enslaved people from the property who were escaping bondage.

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The cotton is high at Mount Vernon.

We moved through the Pioneer Farm. I checked to see if the staff had planted cotton. Yes, the plants were in bloom and very healthy. I showed my friend the 16-sided threshing barn. We looked at the slave cabin and tried to imagine how a large family could live in the space. We stopped by the Washingtons’ tomb (noting that the inscription above the entrance says General, not President. Interesting). We next paid respects at the slave memorial, inscribed with the words Faith, Hope, Love, and the burial ground. We noted how terminology has changed from an original marker placed in 1929 — “faithful colored servants?”

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It was nearing closing time, but as we headed away from the mansion, I suggested we sit for a minute on the piazza. Most people who visit Mount Vernon never forget the sweeping view the spot offers. The piazza, a two-story porch, was designed  by Washington and is the one of the house’s most striking architectural features. In the 18th century, it was rare to see such a grand facade on a private residence. The piazza  provided additional living space during warmer weather and most likely the Washingtons ate many meals overlooking the spectacular river view, enjoying breezes off the water. Thankfully, the viewshed  has been preserved (not without a few battles over the years). As we settled into the highback chairs, we suddenly realized that not another person was visible. We had the view to ourselves. My imagination was free to IMG_1894picture the Washington children playing on the lawn, French general Rochambeau admiring the view, or the Marquis de Lafayette laughing with Washington. Might George Washington suddenly come through the doors from the house and greet us? Had we slipped through a time portal?

I visit historic sites to learn something new, but I also go to experience the power of place. With imagination, preserved places can transport you back in time. Mount Vernon was not the site of a major historical event. It was a private refuge for a very public and influential person who wrestled with weighty decisions. Today, it provides insight into his character, his passions, his soul. It also helps us to see that, like every human on Earth, he was a complex person.

The heat was finally getting to me. Much as we didn’t want to leave, the air conditioning was luring me away. As we walked to the exit, I recalled another magical moment at Mount Vernon a few years back — a climb to the cupola to look out on a snowy landscape. That day, two history colleagues and I had enjoyed a private walking tour of the property in the falling snow. It was another moment that remains etched in my memory. The power of place, indeed.

[Don’t forget to support your local history places during these difficult times. They are struggling. They help root our communities and give them meaning.]

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Related posts:

History Relevance at Mount Vernon

The unexpected Mount Vernon

Beyond Mount Vernon

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com 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 tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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3 Responses to A magical moment at Mount Vernon

  1. Dianna Wissinger says:

    I had the privilege of working there during college. It was magical, especially in early May with beautiful blue skies and no humidity. As the summer progressed, and so did the heat and the crowds, it was more challenging, but still a wonderful opportunity.

  2. Rob Stephenson says:

    I first visited on Presidents’ Day 2010 – the site was covered in thick snow, with damage to many trees, as it was only around a week after “Snowmageddon”. The crowds were down to what I imagine they would normally be on that day, so it was a relatively short wait to get through The Mansion. I returned for another visit in June 2015 – much busier, but also much easier to move around the site – and, similar to you, a “time warp” experience, when I discovered that the docent at General Washington’s Tomb had the surname “Henry” – about as historic a Virginian name as one could find!

  3. Rosina McWhirter says:

    Mount Vernon is a “little piece of heaven on earth!” I have been there many times, and never regretted a minute of the time spent there.

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