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

Bits from the books… impress your friends with fun bits of history trivia

Bits from the books… impress your friends at holiday parties with fun bits of history trivia –  there is plenty more in my books. Here are 11 favorites.

1 Top General of the American Revolution, First President of the United States, Father of his country… Chief mule man? George Washington, farmer, was an avid P1020497mule breeder who once sent his donkey Royal Gift (a present from King of Spain) on a stud tour throughout the South. Some historians credit the popularity of mules in American agriculture to Washington’s avid promotion of mules. [GM]  Read more…


2  Sacagawea, the Indian woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition from present-day North Dakota to the Pacific coast, almost died on the expedition. The healing waters from a sulpher spring near present-day Great Falls, Montana, helped her recover from illness. William Clark, especially, became quite fond of her and her baby, Baptiste, who he called Pomp. After the expedition, he wrote to her husband, who had been one of the expedition’s translators, “your woman…deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to give her.”  [GM]

3  During President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, held in today’s Smithsonian American Art Museum, there was a mad rush on the 250-foot long buffet table which resulted in utter chaos and food smeared everywhere.  There were an estimated four thousand people in attendance. The New York Times reported the following day that “In less than an hour the table was a wreck…positively frightful to behold.” [GM]

SSB at Fort - Copy

Reproduction Star-Spangled Banner being raised at Fort McHenry, Baltimore

4    Mary Pickersgill, the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner flag, subject of America’s national anthem, received $405.90 for her efforts. Born in Philadelphia, Mary came from a family of seamstresses and no doubt her family was acquainted with a more well-known seamstress, Betsy Ross. [GM]  Read more…


5  An Englishman named Thomas Stevens set out in 1884 from San Francisco to ride a highwheel bicycle around the world. He was the only person to achieve this feat.  He managed to avoid breaking any bones on the crazy trip, despite flying over the handlebars on many occasions. [GM]  Read more…

6  Charles Lindbergh was a meticulous packer. His wife, Anne, wrote that her husband “added and subtracted endlessly from lists.” Because he tried to anticipate every kind of emergency, he carried a sled on one his flights over Greenland. He also took along a new invention called an Armbrust Cup designed to collect condensation from the wearer’s breath in case of lack of water. [GM]  Read more…

7  The world of 1924 was so gender segregated that the U.S. army crews that were first to fly around the world were three months into their flight before they sat down to a dinner table with women, in Karachi, India (now Pakistan). [FF]

8  The world fliers arrived in Paris on Bastille Day. They were greeted by thousands of well wishers. That night their hosts took them to a famous Paris cabaret and ushered them to special seats. They were so exhausted that when the lights dimmed they promptly fell asleep. Once in their hotel, they hung a sign on their room door, “Please do not wake us until nine o’clock tomorrow morning unless this hotel is on fire and not even then, unless the firemen have given up all hope.”  [FF]

9  The 1924 first flight around the world broke army regulations by hauling a reporter who begged to go along on a leg of the trip.  Linton Wells, the Associated Press reporter, lost his job as a result of this. The army fliers who allowed him into their airplane later regretted it because they were “jammed into the cockpit like a pair of Siamese twins and during the six hours and thirty minutes’ flight to Allahabad neither of us could move an inch,” Wells wrote. [FF]


Norma Jean Dougherty, 1945 in the Radioplane factory

10  Superstar actress Marilyn Monroe was “discovered” by an Army photographer during World War II while working in a drone factory. He was doing a photo shoot about women working for the war effort. Enamored with her beauty, he suggested she go to a modeling agency. The photographer’s commanding officer who recommended he go to the factory was a man named Ronald Reagan. [MF]



11  Let me bust a big myth…Eli Whitney, the famous American inventor, did not invent the cotton gin… What?  Every American student learns this “fact.” He invented a type of cotton gin. Cotton gins had been in use in some form or other since the first century. [GM]

GM – A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History
FF – First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race
MF – Milestones of Flight: From Hot-Air Balloons to SpaceShipOne  (to be published in June 2o16)

Check out my books at


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First Flight Around the World, finalist for nonfiction award

world flight cover

I’m honored that my recent book First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race has been named a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

nonfiction award

Few people know about this 1924 Army Air Service flight that made front-page headlines in newspapers around the world.  Strange how certain events get lost to history. My theory is that the Lindbergh publicity tidal wave three years later may have contributed to this or perhaps the fact that none of the eight Army guys who participated in the flight are a household name.

Four Douglas World Cruiser airplanes, each named for a U.S. city, left from Seattle traveling west. One crashed into a mountain in Alaska, one was stranded for a short time in a lagoon in Indochina, and another sank in the North Sea. All of the fliers survived the nail-biting adventures. They battled delay after delay, stressed because they were racing crews from five other countries who were not about to let the Americans achieve the glory.

Check out two past posts about sites associated with the world flight.

Sand Point on Lake Washington, Seattle, was the starting and ending point for the flight.

Crissy Field in San Francisco was a stop on the world flight.

It’s appropriate the the award ceremony will be in Boston. One of the four planes was named the Boston. (Sadly, it sank in the North Sea) The world flight’s route took it to the city on September 6, 1924 where a huge crowd welcomed them. One of the pilot’s later wrote that “every boat and whistle for miles around was saluting us and guns were fired.” The governor and mayor greeted them with a motorcade and police escort to the Massachusetts capitol where they were given the key to the city. Military bands led them through cheering throngs. The Americans had become celebrities during their travels and this was their first taste of America’s appreciation for their sacrifice. In the end they won glory for America: first to circumnavigate the globe by airplane, first across the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea by airplane and first to cross both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by airplane. They showed that the United States could compete with Europe in the skies.

cruisers over NYC

World Cruisers over New York courtesy of National Air and Space Museum




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Linnea Grim: My favorite history site

Europe2008 146Linnea Grim is the Hunter J. Smith Director of Education and Visitor Programs at Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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

One of my favorite historic sites is the Jefferson Building, part of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I suppose it’s a natural fit for someone who has worked at Monticello (another one of my favorite historic sites!) for nearly a decade. The story of Jefferson selling his books to Congress after the War of 1812 is one we relate often on tour. However, the Jefferson building fascinates me

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

for what it tells about the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. It simultaneously conveys the importance learning had developed within our society with the growth and prominence of Washington, D.C. at the end of the nineteenth century. I love the amount of detail and symbolism in the architecture. It also serves as a museum that contains some of the most jaw-dropping artifacts our country owns, not least of which is Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. Most of all, though, I like the site because it is still a functioning building bustling with researchers. As Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1816, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

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

I’ve worked at the Museums of York (Maine), the Supreme Court of the United States, and at Monticello. In each of my positions, I’ve been involved in education and interpretation.

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’m intrigued by how disparate visitors’ perceptions can be. Two visitors can be on the same tour or involved in the same program and leave taking completely different messages. It’s a constant challenge – albeit a fun one – to learn from visitors and continue to refine what we do to create the most enriching experiences that we can.

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

St. Augustine, FL. I’ve worked with American history for such a long time that I feel St. Augustine would be a fascinating site to compare and contrast to those I know in Virginia and New England.

 Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

Knowing more about the human experience can give us a sense of connection among one another and motivation to improve continually.

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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Where food and history mix in San Antonio

I recently visited San Antonio, Texas again. The famous historic sites in town are, of course, the Alamo and perhaps the Spanish missions. But I explored a beautiful area of town once called “Sauerkraut Bend” with a main street named for Prussia’s King Wilhelm I (during World War I the German name was changed to Pershing Avenue until a few years after the war ended).

The King William historic district sits along the San Antonio River on land once owned by the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo). The property was subdivided and laid out in the residential grid in the 1860s, just when many Germans began to settle the area. The streets are lined with imposing Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian homes with beautiful gardens. One of the homes, Villa Finale, is a National Trust property and open to visitors. A paved path along the river allows glimpses of back yards and offers a bucolic wander slightly beyond the city’s bustling Riverwalk area.

In 1950 after years of decline, dedicated preservationists recognized the value of the faded properties. Slowly but surely the area was restored to much of its former glory. The King William neighborhood was listed as a National Register Historic District in 1972.

Just on the edge of the neighborhood looms the towers of the Pioneer Flour Mills, headquarter for C. H. Guenther and Son, Inc., the oldest family-owned business in Texas and (according to their website) the oldest continuously operating milling company in the United States. Truth be told, my initial reason for being in the King William District was not history, but food. A friend had taken me to the Guenther House restaurant a few years earlier and I wanted to return. Today, the 1859 house is a combination museum, restaurant, banquet facility and retail store.

While my friends and I waited for a table (and looked at the pastries and pondered what delicious baked item we would soon be eating), we perused the small museum filled with Pioneer Flour Mills memorabilia.

The museum stands in the former library. A store is located in the former upstairs music room and a bedroom. Other rooms in the house have been restored to reflect the Victorian influences of the early days of the house and the Art Nouveau style of later periods. The entire upper floor of the house is a former ballroom with a connecting terrace overlooking the San Antonio River.

Finally our table was ready and we sat down. But the clock had just crossed the magic hour and we could order breakfast or lunch. I had come for breakfast but Champagne Chicken Enchiladas sounded pretty tempting. I watched servers carry plates of sweet cream waffles by my table. Decision time. In the end I ordered the pumpkin pancakes and was not disappointed. I forgot, of course, that everything, including serving size, is bigger in Texas.

If you find yourself in San Antonio, be sure to visit this historic place on the river. Your stomach will thank you and your inner history geek will appreciate this great neighborhood.



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Max van Balgooy: My favorite history site

Max van Balgooy 2011Max A. van Balgooy is president of Engaging Places, LLC, a design and strategy firm that connects people with historic places. Much of his work focuses on the value of objects, buildings, and landscapes in interpretation at such museums as Drayton Hall, Taliesin West, Cliveden, Gamble House, Lincoln’s Cottage, and James Madison’s Montpelier. Along with an active consulting practice, he serves on the steering committee of the History Relevance Campaign and teaches the George Washington University. He blogs at

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

Oh, I’m terrible at this question because it’s like asking a parent about a favorite child or an artist about a favorite painting—they’re all my favorites but in different ways.  So I’ll talk about two very different places that have continued to have an impact on my thinking about the interpretation of historic sites: Glass House and Drayton Hall.

3748363952_0d9d1440d9Drayton Hall in Charleston sticks with me because it showed that a historic house can be successfully interpreted without any furniture—the house is the primary object and the architecture, spaces, and finishes are expertly used to interpret the life of the family and history of the region over three centuries.  I’ve now banished the assumption that the best interpretation for an historic house consists of rooms furnished to a specific period.

Glass House is not one but a dozen buildings built over fifty years on several acres near New York City.  The site not only shows the evolution of Philip Johnson’s architectural thinking but also demonstrates the connection between architecture, landscape, and objects.  As a result, I always look for connections 250px-Glasshouse-philip-johnsonbetween house, landscape, and furnishings and consider the changes that happened to a site over time (and as corollary, that the earliest period is not necessarily the most significant).  But there’s one more thing that caught my eye (or should I say, my heart?): emotion A springy bridge over a creek or a pavilion that requires a small leap over a threshold to enter were his examples of “safe danger.” Philip Johnson provoked emotional responses through architecture and I keep looking for ways to do this to create memorable experiences at historic sites.

Both of these sites are successfully interpreted through guided tours, a technique that many people find boring and many places are abandoning.  It’s too bad because these two sites easily demonstrate that a guided tour can be a transformative experience—but it requires a system that includes training in both content and technique.

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

I started working at historic sites in seventh grade as a volunteer, but my first paid job was after college at the Homestead Museum in southern California.  I was so proud of my first business cards featuring my name and title, “Historical Interpreter: Weekend Supervisor.” Although one of my friends jokingly said it was a euphemism for “Tour Guide: Bad Hours,” I loved the job and it convinced me to go on to graduate school to learn more and return for a series of different positions from historian to assistant director.  After a dozen years, I left to become the director of interpretation and education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I served as an in-house consultant for 28 historic sites across the country (including Drayton Hall and Glass House) for a decade.  That experience gave me a national perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing historic sites and house museums and helped launch my current career as a consultant to historic sites across the country, including the Haas-Lilienthal House, Gamble House, Taliesin West, Cliveden, Touro Synagogue, and James Madison’s Montpelier.  The variety of sites and projects keeps me sharp, lively, and hopeful.

3) 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?

While there are museum-like aspects to historic sites, it’s much more complex.  First of all, the biggest and most significant object in your collection is the building—and you leave it outside in the weather and not only allow people to touch it, but let them walk on it.  What museum does that? Secondly, historic sites often include activities that function like parks, libraries, botanic gardens, community centers, and historical societies but have fewer resources in comparison.  I guess that’s two challenges.  Sorry for the miscount.

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

I have a list so long that I’ll never accomplish it in my lifetime, so I’m grateful for any progress I make, big or small.  But at the top of the list are the capitals of ancient empires, such as the Moors in Spain, Assyrians in Iran, Ming dynasty in China, Ottomans in Turkey, Khmers in Cambodia, and Incas in Peru.  I’ve continually read about the influence of these empires on world history but seeing them in person will help me better understand them (but isn’t that true for all historic sites?).

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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A ride on the Belle

I’m guessing that deep down most history lovers crave occasional moments where they feel they’ve stepped into a time machine. I think reenactors call it a history rush. So when you give several hundred history geeks (the ones that get paid minimal salaries to preserve the past and educate the public) this opportunity, there is mass euphoria. I suppose a little bourbon punch helps, too.

I was recently in Louisville, Kentucky for the American Association for State and Local History annual conference. One evening event was held at Locust Grove, the restored home of William Clark’s (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) sister. We dined on delicious Kentucky foods and drank bourbon punch.  It was a fun evening, but as the sun set, the excitement grew. The conference organizers and our amazing Kentucky hosts had added a bonus to the evening.

belle of louisville photo

courtesy of Pam Pettengell

We disembarked from our bus onto a grassy area at the Ohio River’s edge. There in front of us, in it’s riverboat splendor was the Belle of Louisville, the oldest river WP_001504steamboat in operation in the world. Its lights beckoned and its steam calliope’s shrill notes cut through the air.  I stopped to greet my friend Kent, the key organizer of this trip. He was giddy with excitement. The calliope began to play Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and the Kentuckians in the vicinity paused with hands over their hearts. Soon, the signal to board was given and I walked up the gangplank ready to cruise into history.

Originally named the Idlewild, the boat has a storied past. Built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1914, it was designed to be a ferry and freight boat, for mostly day trips. She began service on the Allegheny River. Her huge paddle wheel and 5 foot draft made it able to travel most navigable waterways. Soon she was navigating many of the major rivers in the nation.  However, by 1962 she had fallen into major disrepair and her hull had been condemned by the U.S. Coast Guard.  A Kentucky judge bought her at auction for $34,000, brought her back to Louisville and rechristened her the Belle of Louisville. After extensive restoration, she was ready to cruise again. In 1963 she raced against the famous Delta Queen in the first Great Steamboat Race (the Queen won that one).

220px-BelleOfLouisvilleThe whistle blasted and the crew heaved the large ropes that had tied the boat to trees on the bank. This was not a usual landing site for the boat.  We would be cruising down river to Louisville. Soon the large paddlewheel began slapping the water and we were gaining speed. There were no ladies in hoopskirts or gamblers with a cigar hanging out of their mouth (wrong era anyway). There were also no flappers or jazz musicians, or big bands. All would have ridden on the boat at some point, but this night belonged to the hundreds of historians giddy with delight. Some roamed the boat, some planted themselves on a bench, soaking in the narration broadcast throughout the boat. Some went down to the engine room to marvel at the pistons and vast underbelly of the boat. Others plotted how they might see the pilot house and ship’s wheel, supposedly off limits to passengers. Truth be told, I was one who ended up in the pilot house, gazing in awe at the huge wheel. It was just as I’d imagined.

WP_001512We cruised down the quiet river under bridges and toward the lights of Louisville. Too soon the boat was pulling into her dock and the trip was over. My history geek friends and I had had our history rush and most agreed it was the highlight of the week.

My coworker Pam and her husband were fond of riverboat cruises and had taken several overnight trips on the Delta Queen before it was retired from service. She had wonderful stories from her travels on the rivers of America and this taste of the riverboat life had added fuel to my desire to some day book a tour on a steamboat and experience this distant era when steamboats were a common sight on America’s waters.

Fun photo timeline of the Belle’s history.

Video of the Belle’s engine

Video of the Belle leaving river’s edge

Video of the Belle’s calliope

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Bill Peterson: My favorite history site

Bill Peterson

With some inspired students at a buffalo jump. According to a Lemhi Shoshone guide, red shirts keep rattlesnakes away.

Bill Peterson is the Northern Division Director of the Arizona Historical Society based in Flagstaff, Arizona. He is responsible for all operations and management of that division.

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

This is a problem for me, impossible to answer; it is like having to choose a favorite record to have on a deserted island to listen to for eternity. It’s like asking a loving parent to choose a favorite child, or for me, to choose my favorite Labrador Retriever! Do they have to be recognized sites, or just there without an interpretive sign telling us all how important they are? Or can they be like an old geographic friend, one that you return to from time to time in your life to seek solace, or feel closer to nature or history?

Whitefish Point Lighthouse

My number one would be a stretch of beach on Lake Superior’s southern shore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There is one nearly invisible, barely recognized site, the Vermillion Point Life Saving Station, at the West end of the place, and the widely popular Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum eight or nine miles to the east. I spent my summers there at a family getaway, on the lake, in between these two places. During those youthful summers I spent time with an elderly woman named Janice Gerred who was a retired school teacher from the Lansing area. She too had grown up there, and she knew every bit of history of the ships that had passed by, and more importantly the ships that had sunk on this part of Lake Superior. Mrs. Gerred spent hours telling me these stories over and over. Her father was in the Life Saving Service (U.S. Coast Guard after 1915) and her family operated a cranberry farm that is today one of Michigan’s only centennial cranberry farms.

The stories that Janice told me as a child somehow stuck and I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on the United States Life Saving Service. That place and my childhood experiences there, which included finding wreckage from the Edmund Fitgerald, helped launch my career as a historian. I don’t get to the Great Lakes much anymore, but I miss them and they are always on my mind, like an old friend. One of the places I find very special is the Sleeping Bear Point United States Life Saving Station. The National Parks Service interprets the Life Saving Service there and I have always appreciated that.

Other historic sites that have had and impact on me range from an uninterpreted and quite private buffalo jump in Montana; numerous archaeological and Native American sites in the West where I call home now, and places like Arlington National Cemetery.

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

My first paying history job was as part of a field archaeology crew for a contract archaeologist. We worked on a native site that is probably a campground or something now. But then I also got a job for the then Michigan Bureau of History at Fayette Townsite on Lake Michigan. I joke now that my job was “ urinal cigarette butt and chewing gum remover,” but really I was a tour guide. Now we call them interpreters. I have also worked as the Curator of Education and Interpretation for the Montana Heritage Commission in Alder Gulch, Montana. I currently hang my hat as the Northern Division Director for the Arizona Historical Society in Flagstaff, where I where I work with an amazing team of people responsible for the 1908 Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent and Riordan Mansion Historic House. This juxtaposition amuses me to no end, we tell the stories of the poor farm and the richest of the rich in early Arizona.

3) 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?

There is a lot they don’t teach you in museum school. There are the average challenges we all face in this industry that involve managing our cultural, human, physical, and financial resources. Most people are somewhat surprised how “corporate” this work really is. IT is probably my number one challenge at work, behind money, visitation numbers, personnel issues, IT has become so important and rapidly changing that it is difficult to keep track of, but we keep our smoke signal machine in working order just in case!

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

Again these are too numerous to mention. I would like to go to England, Ireland, Germany, and Norway, just to visit the lands of my ancestors. But there are a wide range of sites in the U.S. that I haven’t been able to get to either. I still have ten or twelve states to visit as well as a couple of Canadian provinces that I hope to get to as well. All of my visits would include historic sites and museums.

5) Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

There is very little I can say here that won’t sound cliche, but here goes. Visit a historic site for inspiration.

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 share your favorite site, please contact me. 

Posted in 19th century, Native American, Our favorite sites, transportation, West | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment