Michelle Moon: My favorite history site

michelle-moon_avatar-230x230Michelle Moon just completed an MA in Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School and 6+ years leading adult programs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Plus, she wrote a book on food interpretation

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?

Only one or two? Boy, was this a hard question! After much consideration, I’m going with a pair of thematically connected sites that mean a lot to me, both in terms of personal biography and national importance: Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. These two very different spaces tell distinct sides of the story of American immigration. One is monumental, large-scale, governmental and institutional. The other is intimate, small-scale, familial and personal.

I first learned about efforts to revive long-disused Ellis Island as a high school student in the 1980s. News photos of the immense unrestored immigration facility showed scenes of ruin: discarded papers, peeling paint, broken window panes. It was hard to understand how this once-impressive site could have become so ignored.

Thankfully, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration opened to the public in 1990, and soon afterward my mother and I made our first visit. At the time, plaques on the Wall of Honor dedicated to memorializing the 22 million immigrants who passed through this facility were not yet installed, but we did see the spot where my great-grandfather, Joseph Patrick O’Gorman, would be remembered for his journey from Ireland to America (Plaque #319).

usa-nyc-ellis_island_cropThe site was and is deeply moving. Its imposing, richly detailed Beaux-Arts edifice, seen from the decks of a passenger ship, must have induced fear, awe, pride, and hope all at once. Wide, echoing, structured interior spaces evoke a strange juxtaposition: the complicated chaos of travelers from all over the world, speaking myriad languages and wearing an astonishing variety of dress styles, alongside the official impulse to organize, rationalize and manage their arrival and Americanization. Small details encourage visitors to imagine ourselves in the shoes of new immigrants, disoriented and excited….and hungry. In her book 97 Orchard, Jane Zeigelman writes of immigrants’ first taste of America: a cup of cider and a hand pie, given out on the barges that ferried passengers into the processing center.

Kitchen of the re-created Baldizzi apartment at the LES Tenement Museum. Source: https://www.tenement.org/media.php

Kitchen of the re-created Baldizzi apartment at the LES Tenement Museum. Source: https://www.tenement.org/media.php

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum brings us into another chapter in the immigrant story. Inside an 1863 tenement building, a set of apartments – each its own immersive world – shares the tale of a single, real-life family as they coped with the challenges of adaptation and hardship in the new world. Based on oral histories, building archaeology, and contextual research, the tours are thick with personal detail, most of it quite moving. Through thoughtful experience design, the museum invites visitors right into the family: you climb the dim stairway into a firetrap of a hall, cluster in tiny rooms where natural light and fresh air are luxuries, and hear family stories told in a personal voice, just as they may be told around your own kitchen table.


Ellis Island dining hall

Together, these two sites emphasize the central role of diversity and immigration in creating the  American culture we have inherited. Also, they are places that highlight important scholarship contributing to our understanding of immigration issues today. How shall we manage the desire of people to come here for work and family betterment? What kinds of challenges do they face? And how do we balance assimilation and Americanization with remembering and celebrating unique cultural heritage? If I had my wish, every American and would-be American would be able to visit these two sites.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

My very first experience in any museum setting was at Historic Longstreet Farm, a site in a county park in central New Jersey, where I grew up. As a summer youth volunteer, I donned a wool skirt (in July), weeded a beet field, and did embroidery while interpreting an 1890s Dutch-owned house, barn and farm. Later, after a career transition from formal education to museum education, I joined the staff of  Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where I oversaw Ship to Shore, an experiential overnight program for grades 5-12. Students slept aboard a historic ship and used the museum campus to learn about American maritime

history: whaling, fishing, shipbuilding, maritime literature and music, and skills like rigging climbing, rowing and canvaswork. Next, I worked as Director of Education at Strawbery Banke, a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH, that tells stories from 400 years of settlement. Most recently, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, I worked on the interpretation of several historic houses, including the Ropes Mansion, a 2016 Leadership in History award winner for its interpretation of family memories (which also happens to enjoy pop culture fame as the exterior of the “Hocus Pocus House”).

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?

Keeping it lively. No matter how inspiring or significant a site, those who work there every day need to find ways to stay continually enthralled and excited, to challenge ourselves to find new and creative approaches. For our audiences, none of it is old hat , and sometimes we need to use imagination to make connections and reveal what can be curious, compelling, and interesting. The biggest staff challenge is not giving in to routine, resting on past research and assuming all questions have been answered, but to stay engaged and excited about every new moment of learning and experience.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I have a very long list. Since I’m very Northeast-based, one major gap in my exploration of American history sites is that I have not visited any plantation museums in the South. Currently, I hear and see lots of very interesting experiments going on in revising old interpretive narratives and memorializing enslaved people – projects like the reinterpretation of Montpelier and the opening of Whitney Plantation, for example.  I’d like to see the architecture and history in Charleston and Savannah, and Alcatraz and Angel Island in California.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

I might be accused of professional heresy for saying: it’s not mainly for information. You can learn the specific tactics of a battle or the events in a heroine’s life without being on site. Instead, I think the power of historic sites is to bring about attention to and reflection on embodied experiences and the insights they generate – insights that are only available in that place. That includes things beyond the basic historical narrative – angles of light; sounds of waterways or birdsong; the narrowness of a stair hall; uneven floors; scents from cooking fires, gardens or orchards; the scale and materials of industrial machinery. These sites augment intellectual knowledge with the senses, sometimes helping people realize for the first time a physical logic to the way things happened. This takes history out of the abstract, adding a grounded, vivid, sensory and human experience of what it’s like to inhabit that space. That personal experience can become a memory container for the historic events themselves, and increase empathy with the past. People should visit historic sites to feel history, to enrich the vividness and detail of our imaginations and engage our emotions in the stories of the past.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 


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Historic Philadelphia hospitals

Guest post by Jay Blossom

Last week I had the misfortune to be treated at two of America’s most historic hospitals, both less than a mile from my house in Philadelphia.

On Tuesday night, I spent a few hours in the Emergency Department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Jefferson Medical College was founded in 1824 when a group of upstart doctors, seeking to create an alternative to the University of Pennsylvania’s monopoly on medical education, sought out the trustees of Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and asked them to create a medical college in Philadelphia. Jefferson College agreed, but Canonsburg is more than 300 miles from Philadelphia, so the college formed a separate committee of trustees to oversee the Philadelphia institution. In 1838, the Pennsylvania legislature granted Jefferson Medical College a separate charter, forever divorcing it from its distant parent.

Jefferson’s founders emphasized clinical practice, so in 1828 they had opened an infirmary for the poor in their new Ely Building, where they treated 441 inpatients and more than 4,500 outpatients in their first year of operation. The Ely Building also included a 700-seat surgical amphitheater, the “Pit,” where students could observe surgeries. Jefferson Hospital, where I was treated on Tuesday, opened in 1877.

Among the early faculty at Jefferson was surgeon Thomas D. Mütter, who in 1858 donated his collection of medical specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia to form the nucleus of the Mütter Museum, a remarkable collection of curiosities that is open to the public.

"The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art."

“The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

Another early pioneer was the surgeon Samuel D. Gross, class of 1828, whom 31-year-old painter Thomas Eakins immortalized in The Gross Clinic. Eakins created this monumental work of 8 feet by 6.5 feet specifically for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and it helped to establish his reputation as a master of realism. Unfortunately, the painting’s frank depiction of an operation in progress offended the exhibition’s judges, who relegated it to the Centennial Exhibition’s medical arts building.

Purchased for $200 by Jefferson alumni, The Gross Clinic was on display at the medical school until 2006, when Jefferson decided to sell it for $68 million to the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Local outcry resulted instead in a joint purchase by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, two Philadelphia institutions that alternate in showing it.

Pennsylvania Hospital, center block

Pennsylvania Hospital, center block

On Wednesday night, still unwell, I stopped in the Emergency Department at another venerable Philadelphia health care facility. Pennsylvania Hospital was co-founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond, a Maryland-born, European-educated physician who had lived in Philadelphia since 1739. The two had already collaborated on the founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743, and Bond later personally attended to Franklin’s common-law wife, Deborah, during her final illness in 1774.

The hospital’s 1751 charter from the Pennsylvania legislature enabled the creation of a hospital for the indigent and the insane, and in 1751, a temporary hospital was opened in a house on Market Street. Just four years later, the cornerstone was laid for the hospital’s permanent home on 8th Street — the current east wing, still in use today. In 1767, the Penn family donated the entire block between 8th and 9th Streets and between Spruce and Pine Streets, and the room where I spent Wednesday and Thursday nights is just about in the center of that block.

0826161327Like Jefferson hospital in the next century, Pennsylvania Hospital boasted a medical staff of innovators. Benjamin Rush, on staff from 1783 until 1813, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early specialist in the treatment of the mentally ill. Phillip Syng Physick, on staff from 1794 until 1816, was a pioneer of surgery — the precursor to later greats like Mütter and Gross. Indeed, the hospital’s surgical amphitheater, 30 feet high and 28 feet in diameter, opened in 1804 on the top floor of the new central block (seen here) which joined the original east wing and later west wing. The amphitheater still exists and was restored to its original appearance in 1976.

In 1765, the University of Pennsylvania (which was also co-founded by Franklin) established a faculty to teach anatomy and the “theory and practice of physick.” Pennsylvania Hospital, just a few blocks away, was a natural partner, and medical students often became apprentices of the practicing physicians at the hospital. Since 1997, the long-independent Pennsylvania Hospital has been owned by the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

I’m pleased to say that the medical care at Pennsylvania Hospital remains excellent after 265 years. I was discharged on Friday with a diagnosis of cellulitis and sent home with antibiotics and steroids. I’m on the mend, but it’s good to know that Franklin’s hospital is close by.

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Immigrants come to Wisconsin

How often do you get to see a Norwegian or Finnish farm? In America?

Or see nine newborn piglets, or taste horehound candy, or ride an 1880s tricycle…

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On a recent trip to Milwaukee to visit a friend, we headed to Madison and I convinced my friend to stop at Old World Wisconsin, located between the two cities. The “world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life” (according to their website) is a sprawling tribute to the immigrants who settled the state. It’s a living history museum created in America’s bicentennial year 1976 from historic buildings and farms brought to the site from around the state. So although contrived, it offers a concentrated opportunity to compare European building practices and customs and to jump in and get one’s hands on history in a tangible way. If I had wanted to help with gardening or other chores, I could have.  A variety of smaller sites make up the approximately 480 acre complex: the 1880s village, the German farms, the Polish farms, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Finns and the Yankees (settlers from New England), plus a random 1900 schoolhouse, and a town hall and a club hall. Two small buildings interpret African American settlement of Pleasant Ridge in the state. While these particular exhibits were essentially a book on the wall, the information and photos were interesting.

IMG_0056In the 1880s village we visited St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the first basilica in the state, the Thomas General Store where the storekeeper offered me horehound candy (all of the kids were spitting it out, and I ended up following them), the blacksmith shop, the Sisel shoe shop, and Four Mile house where the woman in the tavern part talked about temperance.

At the various farms, the interpreters explained where the house was brought from, who had built it, where in Europe they had immigrated from, reasons for immigration. Unfortunately they stopped at making connections to today and the deep relevance of the topic on today’s audiences fell short. It was a prime opportunity to draw connections between past and present and I wanted to see that. It’s easy to base a museum like this on nostalgia for a “simpler life” but, in my opinion, the only way places like this can hope to stay in business (aside from the largesse of the state government in this case) is to demonstrate why learning about this particular past is relevant to visitors today. Sure the hands-on activities are fun, but these places must answer the “so what?” question.

IMG_0081I enjoyed visiting the 1900 Raspberry School and sitting at a desk and hearing the interpreter talk about the life of the student. She challenged us to name the five states that didn’t exist yet in 1900. And readers who know of my past adventures with highwheel bicycles understand that I had to try riding an 1890s tricycle at the exhibition building Catch Wheel Fever. This simulated bicycle repair shop and wheelmen club center offers a look at the bicycle craze of the 1890s in IMG_0109Wisconsin. Unfortunately for me, the two young interpreters working there were not knowledgeable about the topic and though I enjoyed my bike ride, I felt frustrated with the exhibition.

Generally though the museum’s interpretive staff, dressed in period clothing, were knowledgeable and welcoming. I thoroughly enjoyed several hours here and hope that in the future the place will attempt to tackle deeper and controversial issues to provoke visitors to think about their world today.

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Charles Lindbergh of Little Falls, Minnesota


Charles Lindbergh has loomed large in my life for fifteen years now. I somehow keep working at museums that tell his story and either display his plane the Spirit of St. Louis or a replica of it. So when in the vicinity of his boyhood home recently, the only Lindbergh home open to the public, I had to visit. The house sits on a bluff above the Mississippi River in the middle of Minnesota.  The tiny town of Little Falls was a logging community surrounded by farmland. I suppose Lindbergh was both a city and a farm boy. When he was four, his father was elected to Congress and served for 5 terms.Charles and his mother traveled to Washington, D.C. during the winter and back to Little Falls each summer, to “camp” as the family called it.

“Returning to my Minnesota home after winters spent at the capital, a thousand miles away, riding the train westward in springtime, I seemed drawn by an elastic force, an attraction like gravity that grew stronger as I neared my home — drawing me back to central Minnesota , to our farm, and finally through the doorway of the house itself…returning to the farm home I loved so deeply.” [Autobiography of Values]

Like all houses, this one reveals stories about its inhabitants. The space behind the wall boards Charles created to hide his toys in case the house was broken into when the family was WP_001862in Washington. The well he dug at age 17 to ensure water in the winter. The screened in porch where he slept in both hot and cold temperatures. Photos show him at work and at play around the property. His mother was a chemistry teacher who owned a Brownie Box camera and documented her son’s boyhood, developing the photos in her kitchen. My favorite is one of him with a raft he built, looking much like Huck Finn.

ice box

ice box

He didn’t like school much but managed to graduate from the Little Falls high school. After graduation Lindbergh farmed his parents’ 110acres with some help from a local farmer. He didn’t love farming, but demonstrated a natural inclination toward fixing things and inventing. During the summers his job was to bring in the ice blocks for the ice box. He invented a pulley system to help lift the large blocks up the stairs.

When he was about nine years old he was in an upstairs room of this house when he saw his first airplane. As he later told it: “The sound of a distant engine drifted in through an open window. Automobiles had been going past on the road quite often that summer… Suddenly I sat up straight and listened. No automobile engine made that noise. it was approaching too fast… I ran to the window and climbed out onto the tarry roof. It was an airplane! Flying upriver below higher branches of trees, a biplane was less than two hundred yards away — a frail, complicated structure, with the pilot sitting out in front between struts and wires… I imagined myself with wings on which I could swoop down off our roof into the valley, soaring through air from one river bank to the other, over stones of the rapids, above log jams, above the tops of trees and fences.”  [The Spirit of St. Louis]

WP_001855Below the house in the garage sits a sleek Saxon Six automobile. Charles learned to drive at age 11 and in 1916, he and his mother and uncle motored all the way to California. Charles did all the driving. What an adventure it must have been. Apparently he never wrote much about it.

Life changed forever for Charles and the family when in 1927 he determined to fly the Atlantic solo from New York to Paris and against many odds, managed to succeed. He earned the $25,000 Orteig Prize but got more than he bargained for. Overnight he became the most famous person in the world. People wanted a piece of everything Lindbergh and even the house and car suffered at the hands of souvenir seekers who stormed the house and scratched their names into woodwork, broke windows and damaged or carried off the few Lindbergh furnishings left by the family when they vacated the home. The family donated the house to the state in 1931 and the Minnesota Historical Society oversaw the restoration. Today it sits preserved and ready to tell the stories you don’t often hear about Lindbergh’s boyhood. Whatever you think of this controversial figure, Charles Lindbergh led a fascinating life on the world stage.


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Alex Rasic: My favorite history site

Alex taking a break during a Homestead festival with one of the museum’s harshest critics: her son, Henri

Alex taking a break during a Homestead festival with one of the museum’s harshest critics: her son, Henri

Alex Rasic is Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, near Los Angeles, California.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

Since I find this question so hard to answer, I am going to make things easy for myself and solely focus on my marvelous home state of California. The two sites that first come to mind are Watts Towers and Alcatraz Island.

Watts-towersWatts Towers is a series of 17 interconnected sculptures created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954. The sculptures are made of steel rods wrapped in wire mesh, which were then coated with cement and decorated with a variety of found objects including bottles, seashells, figurines, and mirrors. The tallest of the towers is about 100’! Neighborhood children would bring Rodia objects they found around their homes to add to his creation and Rodia would walk miles along local train tracks looking for scraps. I love that one man’s vision, often called crazy and ludicrous, and nearly demolished, survives as an emblem of inspiration for a community that has struggled to receive fair and adequate support from law enforcement and the City of Los Angeles.

220px-Alcatraz_dawn_2005-01-07When I first visited Alcatraz Island in the 1990s, I only knew what I had seen on film (Birdman of Alcatraz is my favorite!), read in crime stories, or learned at work. One of the figures associated with the historic site where I work, William Workman, is the first documented owner of the island. He was granted Alcatraz in 1846 by Mexican Governor Pío Pico, however, following the Mexican-American War, the grant was negated. Aside from all of that, I had no clue that Alcatraz had been declared a military installation in 1850, served as a prison for private citizens and soldiers accused of treason during the Civil War, was home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse, was the birthplace of the American Red Power Movement, and is an active bird sanctuary. Every time I have visited since, I have learned something new. The variety of topics that can be explored are endless.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I joined the paid staff of the Homestead in 1995. The designation is important because I started as a volunteer staff member in 1989, when I was a sophomore in high school. Growing up, the Homestead was my local museum, and never in a million years did I think I’d have been here for so long! From an early age I knew I wanted to work in a museum, but I was not sure what kind (art, history, science, etc.), so I did a lot of volunteering in college and as a young grad, but I kept coming back to the Homestead. I am so fascinated by the history of Los Angeles, and the opportunity to work at such an incredible historic site hidden (literally) in a city dedicated to industry. Museums like the Homestead are few and far between, and it’s a joy to provide a place of respite, renewal, and inspiration for 21st-century Angelenos. I started off working in both collections and public programming at the Homestead, but quickly realized that my passion lies in programming and interacting with the public and our phenomenal group of volunteers.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?

Hands down, the variety of things we do…especially if you work at a smaller institution. Everything from conducting VIP tours to unclogging toilets can come your way on any given day. Sure, we have areas of focus, but when you work with the public, you have to be ready to turn on a dime, which can be both fun and frustrating. I think our field can do a better job of talking to visitors about what we do, and involving them in the process of planning. We’ve been pretty insular as a field, but that’s changing more all the time.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

Once again, focusing on California, it’s definitely Manzanar National Historic Site (a World War II era Japanese internment camp). 1942 was not that long ago. Why on earth did our government think internment of the Japanese was the right thing to do? As a first-generation American whose father immigrated to the U.S. less than a decade after internment began, I have always had a desire to learn more.


Manzanar – a hot windstorm brings dust from the surrounding desert July 3, 1942

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

There are many reasons why I think people should visit historic sites. Here are a few:

·         To be surprised and feed our curiosity. As our programming and exhibits become more dynamic and visitor-focused, I think we will see more visitors come through our doors who will expect to see or do something special every time they visit, and they won’t be disappointed. Historic sites are thinking more about how to connect with their surrounding communities or with enthusiasts of particular subjects. (I call them “buffs,” Tim calls them “foamers”!) It’s an exciting time to be in the field.

·         To better understand one another and to see the ways in which we are connected. There are ways to talk about subjects like immigration, family life, architecture, work, etc., that can relate to people of diverse backgrounds and ages. Asking our visitors more questions arms us with more ways to engage with them and make history more relevant.

·         To have fun and escape from reality for a little while. Need I say more?

Thanks for contributing, Alex!

Related blog posts: A gem of southern California history; Japanese American history in Washington

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

Posted in 20th century, military, national park, Our favorite sites | Leave a comment

A new Civil War gem in Washington D.C.


I finally managed to visit a new historic site in Washington D.C, one I’ve walked by hundreds of times. It only became “official” in July 2015 when it opened to the public. But the narrow brick rowhouse has been standing at 437 Seventh St. for over 150 years, just blocks from Verizon Center where the Wizards and Capitals play. And, a few minutes walk from the original Patent Office (today the National Portrait Gallery).

Clara Barton is best known as the 200px-Clarabartonwcbbradyfounder of the American Red Cross. But much of her humanitarian work began in this house. Even before she was the “angel of the battlefield,” she was a trailblazer as one of the first, though often cited as the first, female clerks in the federal government. She moved to Washington in the mid-1850s  to be a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, but the position soon was downgraded and then eliminated because of opposition to her gender and politics. With the new Lincoln administration in 1861, she again took a job at the Patent Office. She rented two rooms at the site on 7th Street at some point during the Civil War. By August 1862 her focus had changed and she received permission to access the front lines and to distribute medical supplies. While not a trained nurse, she excelled at organization. She stockpiled supplies in her rooms and she eventually was granted more authority on behalf of the US Army to oversee medical care and provisions.


The sign in the window of 437 does not say “Clara Barton slept here,” it says “Missing Soldiers Office.” From rooms on the 3rd floor, Barton and her staff of ten provided a ray of hope to thousands of families desperate to find loved ones after the end of the Civil War. People had already started contacting her during the war because they knew she had proximity to the soldiers. Recognizing the great need to help bring families together, she sought and eventually received authorization from the government to run this effort. She also eventually received $15,000 compensation for her four-year effort. From 1865-1868 her staff attempted to ease communication and find and identify soldiers killed and missing in action. The office received over 63,000 letters and managed to respond to over 40,000. They found and identified over 20,000 missing soldiers.

Hidden for over 130 years, the office and her quarters are in a building owned by the American government (GSA). Once a shoe store on the first floor, much of the building had not WP_001794been modernized and its most famous use had been forgotten. No one knew that objects left by Barton lay in the attic. A hand-painted tin sign advertising the office was an obvious clue. In 1996 a GSA carpenter entered the derelict building that was slated for demolition. An envelope caught his attention and curiosity led him to a treasure trove of primary source materials with stories to tell, over 350 boxes of artifacts.

Since the Government Services Administration in not in the business of running museums, they needed to figure out what to do. Eventually they found a partner in the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, based in Frederick, MD. Today, the museum runs the site and houses the artifacts.

While a visitor area on the first floor and a number of rooms on the third floor have been restored to their 1860’s appearance, a challenge remains. The office’s furniture had long since disappeared, so the rooms are sparsely furnished. Do visitors expect a furnished space? How can visitor imaginations be sparked? What is the main message and why is this office relevant today? The museum staff must ultimately figure out who their audiences are and how to engage future visitors. The place’s power to transport visitors back to wartime Washington is undeniable and the building has an important story to tell of this unique time in the city’s history.

Learn more about how the building’s secret was discovered.

Also in the neighborhood:

Lincoln history and Chinese food

The President is shot!

President Lincoln’s cottage


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Gunpowder along the Brandywine

I recently taught a workshop at Hagley, site of the original gunpowder business of the great French immigrant family, the du Ponts. I brought with me childhood memories from school trips to the site many years ago and wondered what my adult eyes would notice.

WP_001758The bucolic area sits along the tranquil Brandywine River just north of Wilmington, Delaware. Parts of both the powder yard and the workers community, along with the du Pont’s 1803 Georgian mansion they named Eleutherian Mills are restored and interpreted.

Eleuthère Irénée du Pont left France in 1799, a political refugee with with several years of service in the French royal powder works. He bought an old cotton mill in Delaware, rolled up his sleeves and built a business which eventually became the nation’s main supplier of gunpowder and construction explosives and today is a massive worldwide manufacturer.

The 235 acre site is one of America’s premiere industrial history sites and easily integrates science and history into stories of America’s transition from agrarian to industrial society.

The Powder Yard area along the river features restored mills and demonstrates how du Pont harnessed water power to provide the energy needed to combine saltpetre, charcoal and sulpher into black powder. The mills churned out powder between 1802 and 1921.  Clearly an ever-present danger existed and workers were checked at the gates for matches, metal in shoes, suspenders, belts, and alcohol. One spark could cause a major explosion. Women and children were not allowed in the most dangerous areas. Yet despite the safety precautions, there were 288 explosions over the production years, resulting in 228 deaths.

WP_001760As I walked through the bucolic site, with the daffodils in full bloom and the water rippling over the rapids, I recognized the key challenge for the museum’s staff. There is a disconnect between the quiet and beautiful site today and the reality of the working mills, with major noise and dirt and constant danger. How can visitors really grasp the experience of two hundred years ago? My tour guide did demonstrate powder and even created an explosion. Who doesn’t appreciate a good explosion? I note that they even offer an “Explosions Walking Tour,” sure to garner a decent audience.

Up the hill from the mills sits the Workers’ Hill area, interpreting the life of the workers. It includes a foreman’s home and the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday school building to tell just a small part of the story of the thousands of workers who were born, lived and died in the vicinity of the mills. I asked where the church was, and was told a number of churches sprang up within walking distance. Many of the early workers immigrated from Ireland and became the leading edge of the long Irish immigration to the United States. Men came first, and in what historian’s call a “chain migration” they sent for wives, children and siblings. The town of Letterkenny, Ireland was the origin for the largest number of workers. They worked alongside English, French and Italians.

The ancestral Dupont home at Hagley. Here to teach an AASLH workshop. Toured the gunpowder mill buildings, not this home. Great American history site.

du Pont home Eleutherian Mills

High on the hill overlooking their empire, five generations of du Ponts lived and worked to build a prospering business. Visitors can tour the house and gardens and see early offices and a barn containing a Conestoga Wagon used to transport the powder to the port at Wilmington.

There can’t be too many American companies that are as old as du Pont and it’s easy to forget that this is a corporate history site. If interested, check out the company’s official history here.  Sadly, my schedule did not allow me the time I wanted to explore Hagley. The many history course I’d taken since my earlier visits gave me a whole new appreciation for the history represented here and I plan to return in the near future.

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Gunston Hall, home of George Mason


Land front of Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall, eighteenth century home of patriot George Mason, sits on a bluff commanding a spectacular view of the Potomac River – not far downriver from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and just over 12 miles by road. As close neighbors and Virginia politicians, Mason and Washington were friends for decades, members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Then George Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and refused to sign the Constitution due to it’s lack of a statement guaranteeing rights.  Ultimately this was added as the Bill of Rights, but many perceived his refusal as jeopordizing the entire effort. This cost him his friendship with Washington.


Palladian arch entrance portico on the land side

In 1755 at age thirty George Mason began construction of his home, Gunston Hall, named for an ancestral home in Staffordshire, England.  The vast plantation grew tobacco and wheat for cash. As part of the wealthy planter class, Mason wanted to display his status through a stylish home, one that displayed the symmetry and balance of the popular Georgian style. His brother Thompson was studying law in London and Mason contacted him to locate a carpenter-joiner who could create a stylish , English interior for his new home. Thompson found a twenty-one year old named William Buckland who brought high-style London to the Virginia countryside. Eager to prove his skills, this indentured worker designed and executed Gunston’s formal spaces along with enslaved workers and gifted woodcarver William Bernard Sears.

I traveled to Gunston to give a talk about a new book, and seized an opportunity to tour the house with the property’s director. Under renovation at the time, the house was empty of furniture, not the usual appearance. Without the visual clutter of decorative arts, the rich ornamentation of its intricate carving stood out. Here’s a quick look.










The Chinese room, colonial America’s first known example of the Chinese style, served as the dining room.  The chinoiserie  or Chinese style was the rage in London. Five pagoda-like hoods grace the upper walls. The stylistic elements are identical to those found in plates in Thomas Chippendale’s publications. It hosted such illustrious guests as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.











The Palladian Room is the most spectacular room in the house from an architectural perspective. The intricately detailed carving on the fireplace wall is impressive. The black walnut doors surrounded by an “egg and dart” pattern add to the richness, as does the red silk/wool damask wall coverings. The Italian influence of Palladio shines through.

Bright green paint highlights the Masons’ master bedroom, also on the first floor. In many ways the room was the center of operations for the domestic management of the plantation.



Gunston’s riverfront entrance. The blue tarp over the roof is part of restoration efforts.








The riverfront entrance served most visitors in the eighteenth century. They entered the house through a Boxwood Allee and a Gothic-style garden porch.

On the outside, Gunston Hall looks small and lacks a distinctive facade that many colonial American plantation homes have. Its interior is what sparkles to impress. Any visitor to Gunston in the 18th century would have been impressed, and that was the point.

While less well-known and visited than neighboring Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall is well worth the visit at any time of year.

Hundreds of miles south, outside Charleston, South Carolina, sits Drayton Hall, built just before Gunston and providing an interesting comparison. Check out my blog post about Drayton. 


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Bethany Hawkins: My favorite history site

Bethany in CT 2015

Bethany at the Old State House in Hartford, CT with P. T. Barnum

Bethany Hawkins is Program Manager for the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, TN.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

Choosing one or two favorite historic sites is like asking me to choose between my children. When you love historic places, it is hard to pick just one. The Hermitage, Home of Andrew Jackson, has to be one of the two, simply because it was the first historic place with which I connected. I grew up in Nashville and as a fourth grader I loved reading a kid’s biography of Rachel Jackson. After seeing me reading it for the umpteenth time, my mother said, “You know we can go to her house, right?” I made her take me right away. It blew me away to know I was walking on ground where my favorite P1020459heroine walked. I remember visiting her grave and thinking it was so cool that I was actually standing above her (ok, I was a bit of a morbid kid).

I am going to cheat for the second choice and pick two which connected with me for the same reason. In my work with AASLH, I get to travel to a lot of historic places and experience them in a different way. Often, I am thinking about how I can use that visit to train others in the field about what to do (and what not to do) instead of the actual tour or story of the property. While on business for AASLH, I got to visit the Phillip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut and Drayton Hall in Charleston. In both cases, I connected to the sites outside of the formal tour at a time when neither had many visitors due to the season. I loved the landscape surrounding the properties. It was almost a spiritual experience to just “be” in the space, leaving a lasting impression with me.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I worked at the Sam Davis Home and Museum in Smyrna, TN. It was my first job as I started as a part-time interpreter at the age of 15. It really opened my eyes to the field of history. As a result, I ended up a history major and continued to work at the site as an interpreter and then administrative assistant throughout high school and college. When the director retired, I was hired as the executive director where I served for seven years.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?

I think most people would be surprised at the many hats one has to wear when working at a historic site. Very little of what I did on a daily basis actually dealt with history. I had a degree in history, but had to learn on the job about project management, human resources, and animal removal. I loved the various challenges that arose each day, but very little of it, at least at the small site I worked at, involved historical research and interpretation. When I did get the opportunity to “do history,” however, it was a great treat.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I would love to visit any of the multitudes of historic sites in Europe, particularly England and Italy. Through my job at AASLH, I have been privileged to visit many of America’s historic sites, but have not had the pleasure of visiting Europe. I believe it would give me an entirely new perspective of what history is and how my experiences fit into the larger world narrative.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

People should visit historic sites because they provide so many different experiences. You can visit to learn about someone, like Rachel Jackson, or to see how weird it would be to live without plumbing or electricity.

You can also visit to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Historic sites provide a great opportunity for people to make a spiritual connection to the past, nature, or just unplug for a little while.

Finally, I think people should visit historic sites to learn about the past and connect it to our present. Visiting a museum and seeing sterile artifacts in a museum case can be an important way to connect to history, but historic sites provide us history in contexts that we can relate to. We can see the past more clearly. They lived in a house, so do we. They worshiped in this church, so do we. They fought here on this place for my freedom, and I am standing here. Powerful connections can be made through place and that is why I think historic sites are so important.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

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One of George Washington’s churches


Three churches in northern Virginia are usually associated with George Washington: Pohick Church near Lorton, Christ Church in Alexandria, and the Falls Church in the city that was named for it. All remain active churches today and their exteriors have been restored to a colonial appearance. Pohick is only 7 miles from Washington’s home, Mount Vernon and only 3 miles from Washington’s grist mill and whiskey distillery.

Although I’ve been to Mount Vernon many times and to the grist mill, I’d never been to Pohick Church. I finally managed to visit on a cold winter day. Surrounded by a cemetery, the church sits along busy Route 1 south of Washington, D.C. Its landscape of tall trees manages to shield it from much of the bustle around it and its appearance offers a unique look at a country church of colonial Virginia. It’s not that difficult to imagine George Washington sitting in the family box, pondering a sermon given from the pulpit.

Pohick was the first permanent church in the Virginia colony north of the Occoquan River, established sometime prior to 1725 (some sources say as far back as 1695). Pohick became the parish church of Truro Parish in 1732. The present structure was completed in 1774, the congregation’s third church building. The Washington connection began when George Washington’s father Augustine became a member of the church’s vestry (governing board).

By 1767 George Washington was a farmer at nearby Mount Vernon WP_000988and had followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of Pohick’s vestry. The vestry, which included neighbor George Mason of Gunston Hall, supervised construction of a new, grander church. Washington had only a year to worship in the new building, completed in 1774. The following year he was appointed commander of the Continental Army which sent him north.

WP_000992The interior features the typical box pews of many colonial churches. The Washingtons and Masons and other wealthier members purchased family boxes to provide additional income to the church. Those boxes are marked.

Pohick church managed to survive the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1785 when many Anglican (now Episcopalian) churches fell into disrepair. Though Washington died in 1799, the church’s rich connections to American history continued. Oral tradition says British soldiers raided the church during the War of 1812 because of its association with Washington. By 1837 the structure was in major disrepair, but a man named Reverend W. P. C. Johnson led the charge to raise funds to repair the building. Contributors to the cause included Presidents Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, and statesmen Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key. By 1840 the building had been restored.

Of course, another war was on the horizon and the Union armies occupied the building using it as a stable during the Civil War. Soldiers encamped around the building and supposedly their graffiti is visible today carved on doorposts. I must look for this during my next visit! The church yard became a Union observation lowepost with balloon ascents by aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe.  According to the church’s website, a Pvt. Robert Sneden recorded in his diary, “Balloons are now used frequently at Pohick Church . . . A gas wagon is attached to the balloon with which the balloon is only one half or one third inflated, then it rises 1,000 feet or more, and is held on the ground by two or three long ropes by a lot of soldiers who are detailed for the purpose” (Feb 1). On March 5, 1862, Professor Lowe himself wrote a dispatch from Pohick to General Heintzelman, stating, “Have just made two ascensions with the balloon. It is fully inflated, and will take up two persons with all the ropes. If to-morrow is a fine day it would be a good time for the general to go up. I can see camp-fires on the Occoquan. T. S. C. LOWE, Chief Aeronaut, U. S. Army.” Having studied Thaddeus Lowe for a work project, I was thrilled to learn of this connection. 


baptismal font

Despite its dilapidated state, the Washington connections secured continuing interest in the welfare of the building. Services began again within nine years after the war and yet another restoration was completed, back to its colonial appearance, by 1917.

Any visit to Mount Vernon or Gunston Hall should include a quick stop at this colonial country church.

Read a more detailed history of the church at the church’s website.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, cemetery/grave, President, religion | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments