Star-Spangled is now available!


Official cover Star-Spangled_CV         

“Grove provides a page-turning narrative that enhances the familiar aspects of this story and fills in those little-known areas… Generous archival illustrations and the rich and varied backmatter make this a boon for fledgling historians. A well-researched and spirited slice of history.” Kirkus starred review


My new book, Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, is now available at booksellers everywhere. The US national anthem is rare among national anthems of the world in that it is about a historic event rather than the virtues of a country’s people or a prayer for a country’s sovereign. It focuses on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. A fierce, two-pronged British attack in 1814 during the War of 1812 could have ended in disaster for the Americans. The fragile nation, up against the mightiest navy in the world, could have lost its independence in its first war as a new nation. The British army had burned Washington, the new capital city, just weeks earlier with little resistance. Baltimore leaders took a vote and decided to fight rather than surrender. They didn’t know if the British would burn their city or destroy it. Baltimore needed to stand firm.


Francis Scott Key

Most American associate a Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key with the story. He wrote the lyrics to a song that many years later became the USA’s official national anthem. But, if you think you know the story, I bet you don’t. There is so much more to the story than Frank Key. Mary Pickersgill, a flagmaker, sewed the giant flag that flew over the fort. She finished it in a brewery because her house wasn’t large enough. No one has heard of General Samuel Smith, the hero of the day and leading defender of Baltimore. Then there is Thomas Kemp, who built government sanctioned pirate ships. The British called Baltimore a nest of pirates.

Two British leaders play a big part in my story as well, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Rear Admiral George Cockburn. They disliked Americans intensely. But they are an important part of the story.

And the story of the Colonial Marines, a British force of formerly enslaved men, is truly inspiring.



For my research, I’ve visited quite a few history sites associated with this story and fortunately, most of them are preserved and open to the public. Here are some of the blog posts I’ve written about my travels.

Gloucester Cathedral and the US national anthem
Tangier Island
Their final resting places
Stories of a national anthem
Mary, not Betsy
A historic inn on the Eastern Shore
Last battle against Britain
British invasion at North Point

I invite you to explore this story with me and to visit the sites where history was made. At some point I’ll be making presentations about the book. Let me know if you’d like to invite me to speak about it, using the contact page at

In the meantime, I’ll be adding short videos to my youtube channel. Visit for the latest information, and be sure to look at the special Star-Spangled page. 

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In praise of historic sites

I’ve enjoyed visiting history places ever since I can remember. Whether Devil’s Den at the Gettysburg battlefield or the hallowed room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the sweeping lawn of Mount Vernon, places have captured my imagination and allowed me to time travel in my mind.  In this brave new world we find ourselves in these days, with a pandemic raging, there is no doubt that human behavior will change, at least a little. We’re still in the tunnel, so it’s way to early to make predictions. But as one who sees great value in standing where history happened, I can hope. I’m hoping that as a result of COVID-19, more people will seek to explore new history places.

The United States is blessed with many organizations that interpret American history from its different perspectives. From the National Park Service to state and private sites, the custodians of our past work hard to preserve places. Cultural preferences for spending leisure time have changed over the years and visits to historic sites have mostly seen a downward trend. I’m hoping several factors might drive people to visit historic sites more in the coming months and year. 1) perception of the safety and therapeutic value of being outdoors (think battlefields, forts, farms), 2) predicted greater interest in staying closer to home, less international focus, 3) renewed emphasis on the real and a curiosity about how people in the past functioned and made decisions that impact us today.

“From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us,” Napoleon Bonaparte once told his troops at Giza.

As an author and blogger, I try to convey this power of place in my writing and to encourage readers to visit both the pivotal and lesser known places in American history. I’m currently deep into writing my next book for ages 10-14 about Yorktown. Have you visited this important spot in US history? At this place in Virginia, on a peninsula between the James and York Rivers, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, mighty forces converged that essentially ended the American Revolution and allowed the birth of a new nation. The French and British navies clashed in the water and huge guns pounded Cornwallis and his troops dug in at Yorktown. George Washington, Comte de Rochambeau, General Lafayette, Lord Cornwallis, even Alexander Hamilton… they were all there on this ground, waiting with bated breath to see how history would play out. A lone drummer and a white surrender flag spoke volumes. Once you get into the story, it becomes so much more than the field of grass it is today.

Official cover Star-Spangled_CVMy upcoming book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, will encourage readers to visit the sites in Baltimore where the Americans withstood an attack by a powerful Royal Navy to secure independence a second time. A lawyer, and poet, named Frank Key, was inspired by the sight of the stars and stripes still flying over Fort McHenry and penned the immortal words to the USA’s national anthem. Visit Fort McHenry, or the small shop owned by Mary Pickersgill, where officials from the fort went one summer day in 1813 to place an order for a flag – you can still see the original receipt.

Nineteenth-century author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about visiting the home of the Brontë sisters in England: “Nothing you ever read about them can make you know them until you go there. Never mind people who tell you there is nothing to see in the place where people lived who interest you. You always find something of what made them the souls they were. And at any rate, you see their sky and their earth.”

No matter where we call home, whether one place our entire childhood, or many places, we are molded by the places we’ve lived. Presidential sites, as one example, offer unique perspective on those leaders who have shaped history. Lyndon Johnson’s simple boyhood home near Austin, the modest home Harry and Bess Truman inhabited after the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt’s beloved Sagamore Hill and its woodlands and beaches.

Whether places of personal memory or national memory, or something else, I hope the power of place will draw people to explore the preserved places of America’s past and to strive toward new understanding of how we got to where we are today.



Posted in 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, 21st century, American Revolution, military, national park, President | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ironbridge Gorge’s place in world history


I recently visited Ironbridge Gorge in Great Britain. I’d heard about it decades ago and was finally able to see this important site in world history. The area is a bucolic river valley today, with the village of Ironbridge rising up a steep bank of the Severn River. But back in its industrial heyday, the landscape would have looked quite different… industrial waste, scattered equipment, machines belching smoke. It was famous for having more furnaces and forges within 2 miles of riverbank than anywhere else in the world.


The centerpiece of the area is the recently restored first iron bridge in the world, originally opened in 1781. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and property of English Heritage, the bridge is a wonder of 18th century technology. The US had nothing like it (and was just a little busy at that moment fighting a war for independence!).

Iron had been produced in the Severn valley since the time of Henry VIII.  In 1709, a Quaker ironmaster decided to use coke, a byproduct of coal, instead of charcoal and with the change, the area soon became one of the most important industrial areas in the world during the 18th century.

IMG_1157As industrial traffic on the river increased, the area started to grow and the number of river crossings did not meet the demand. The erratic nature of the river with flooding at regular intervals meant ferry service was often interrupted. The river ruled the area. An Act of Parliament authorized a new bridge. Although work began to clear the site in 1777, the first ironwork probably did not go up until 1779. Where the iron was cast is not known for certain, probably 1 miles away at Abraham Darby’s furnace. Total amount of iron used was 378 tons (384 tonnes). Surprisingly, only one sketch of it under construction is known to exist. How the bridge was raised is still uncertain. Darby’s firm constructed the bridge and his accounts mention a large scaffold. Its design continues to intrigue engineering students.


The company that built the bridge promoted its feat with an 18th century media campaign, with public relations and advertising promoting the versatility of cast iron and the skills of the company. People from all over came to see this wonder of the world and artists and writers drew inspiration from its graceful appearance. Even future US president, Thomas Jefferson, when minister to France, bought engravings of the bridge from a friend in London.

table of tolls for the Iron Bridge

Table of tolls for the iron Bridge

The company charged its first toll on January 1, 1781. Perhaps it was Darby’s Quaker sentiments that made him add a footnote to the table of tolls, for it says that everyone must pay regardless of their status in society (royals, too). Unfortunately he had offered to cover cost overrun and construction of the bridge put Darby into debt for the rest of his life.

“But of the Iron Bridge over the Severn, which we crossed and where we stopped for half an hour, what shall I say? That it must be the admiration, as it is one of the wonders of the world…” John Byng, Viscount Torrington, 1784

The setting reminded me a bit of Harpers Ferry stateside in West Virginia, a former US armory complex located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The area of Ironbridge is filled with various attractions including the Blists Hill Victorian outdoor museum, a place I really wanted to see. But due to a late start, we ran out of time. Even so, it was fascinating to walk across the first iron bridge in the world.

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Gloucester Cathedral and the US national anthem

Official cover Star-Spangled_CV


Happy New Year! Later this year my next book will be published. Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, tells the story of the United States’ national anthem. I recently ran across an unexpected connection to the story.





IMG_1208On a trip to England, I visited Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucestershire and was surprised to spot an American flag hanging in the nave area. I assumed it was a memorial related to World War II, but I was wrong. It was honoring church organist and British composer John Stafford Smith. Who, you say?

In about 1775 he penned a little tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” or “The Anacreontic Song.” The tune became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic in Britain and the States.

The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentleman’s club in London named after the sixth century B.C. Greek poet Anacreon. The Society usually met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. The meetings usually included a concert by a well-known musician in London. The evening would begin with the concert, move into supper and end with a rousing sing-along. The first song was always the club song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”


In the US, at least eighty-five songs used the same tune. The most popular political song of the day in 1814 was “Adams and Liberty” to what tune? Smith’s of course.


Francis Scott Key

Today, people around the world recognize the tune as America’s national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. A Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the words of a poem after a battle in Baltimore during the War of 1812. He had been detained by the Royal Navy as they prepared to begin a bombardment of Baltimore. He ended up with a front-row seat to the event and during a very long night of both ferocious bombardment and storms, he was anxious to know if the British had managed to take Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and the city. Only at dawn’s first light could he know for sure.

Inspired by the sight of the stars and strips still flying over the fort, he began writing. He wrote a poem of four verses on an envelope and most likely had Smith’s tune in mind.

Key later said “In that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, the heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song? With it came an inspiration not to be resisted and if it had been a hanging matter to make a song [I] must have made it.”

He showed the poem to a few friends and one of them, with Key’s permission, took it to a local newspaper office and had them print a thousand copies with the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Several hundred copies were given to troops at the Fort.

The poem gradually appeared in newspapers up and down the East Coast. About three weeks later, the Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore presented the first public performance of the song, with its new name, the Star-Spangled Banner. It soon was a regular occurrence. “I hear Uncle Key’s song is sung every night…to a crowded audience and with great applause,” wrote one of Key’s nieces.

Eventually the American military adopted it as an unofficial national anthem and then sporting events began playing it. It didn’t become the official national anthem until 1931.

Gloucester Cathedral is an amazing piece of architecture known especially for its vaulted ceiling and the intricate stonework in the cloisters.  It also features one of the largest medieval stained glass windows in England. Begun around 1089, it’s an enduring place of worship and burial site of King Edward II. And yes, it was used as a location for several Harry Potter films.

Related Posts: A little known monument in east London,

American History in London

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Blenheim Palace and Americans


As an American, I’m easily blown away by the great houses that dot the English landscape. The grand scale of some of them is super impressive. After all, the United States doesn’t have anything comparable. Even the now public estates of our wealthy families from the past, the Newport cottages, Biltmore, Hearst Castle, do not come near the level of an estate like Blenheim Palace. And that’s a good thing, because who really needs a palace unless you’re royalty? And the US does not have royalty for a reason. Many of the great houses in Britain were built before the United States even existed.

I’ve visited a variety of English castles, palaces, and houses over the years. Windsor Castle, a current residence of the Queen, is certainly beyond impressive. But, the sheer vastness and scale of Blenheim Palace, eight miles northwest of Oxford, with its 2000 acres of parkland and over 300 years of history is, well, hard to conceive.

It was a gift from a grateful Queen Anne to the 1st Duke of Marlborough after he defeated the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. A victory over the French is always worth a lot after all. It was built between 1705 and 1722 in the English Baroque style and today is the home of the 12th Duke and his family. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

President Trump’s visit to Blenheim on July 12, 2018 was hardly the first bit of American history at Blenheim, though it may have been the first US presidential visit to the estate. The residence has a long history of American visitors and beginning in 1895, American residents. American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt married the 9th Duke of Marlborough at age 18 under great protest. The arranged and supposedly loveless marriage was a sacrifice for the bride and groom, hers to please her social climbing mother and his for the marriage settlement of approximately $2.5 million, American money to save a prime piece of British heritage.

Churchill's birthplace

Bedroom and bed where Winston Churchill was born.

In 1874, twenty-one years earlier, another American member of the larger Duke of Marlborough family, Jenny Churchill, gave birth unexpectedly while attending a party at Blenheim.  The baby boy, named Winston, was grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. He would grow up visiting family at Blenheim and spent much of his childhood there. He proposed marriage to his wife Clementine in the Blenheim gardens at the Temple of Diana in 1908 and he is quoted as having said: “At Blenheim I took two very important decisions; to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.”.

Having seen the room where Churchill was born, I also wanted to visit his final resting place. Churchill selected the family vault at St. Martin’s Church, in the tiny village of Bladon about a mile from Blenheim. His modest grave is surprising for a man who has been called the greatest Britain of the 20th century and who was honored with supposedly the largest state funeral in British history to that point.

Blenheim tells the story of an interesting intersection of American and British history (not unlike the Downton Abbey TV series) and its popularity as a tourist destination today demonstrates its enduring presence in Britain’s rich heritage. Plus, who doesn’t want to gawk at the beauty and grandeur of aristocratic life?

Consuelo Vanderbilt with Winston Churchill at Blenheim

Consuelo Vanderbilt with Winston Churchill at Blenheim, 1901


Posted in 18th century, 20th century, cemetery/grave, garden, house, International | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Best historic bike trail in the US?


Virginia’s capitol building, Richmond

One of the most historic bike trails in the United States has got to be the 54-mile Capital Trail that runs from Richmond to Jamestown in Virginia, current capital city to first capital and first permanent English settlement in America. I conquered the trail in about 5 hours recently, not counting time spent reading historical markers. Oh, my friend and I stopped to read the first few. Then we realized that if we stopped to read every one, we would double the trip. It’s not an exaggeration to estimate at least 100 markers stand along the trail. This area is layered with history, from Native American settlements to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and into the twentieth century. I tried to practice speed reading as I whizzed by them.

I’d imagined a ride along the James River, past the many elegant plantation homes that line the river: at least eight, two with ties to U.S. presidents including Sherwood Forest, home of 10th president John Tyler and Berkeley, the birthplace of 9th president William Henry Harrison and his grandfather Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration. Then, there is Westover, considered one of the finest Georgian homes in the country, an estate that was occupied by British troops under traitor Benedict Arnold during the War of Independence and by Union troops during the Civil War.

The reality is that the trail does parallel the river, but inland a few miles. The water is only in view at Richmond and when crossing a high bridge over the Chickahominy River. The paved path follows state route 5 and except for a few spots, the sound of traffic is always in the background. And, unfortunately, only one plantation home is visible from the trail, the others are set back from the trail or sit by the river.

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IMG_1093 (2)Nevertheless, I enjoyed the ride. While my friend and I had not wanted to take many breaks, we made three memorable stops along the way. First, we rounded a corner and came to an abrupt stop to marvel at the beauty of a cotton field ready for harvest, the fluffy whiteness spreading  as far as the eye could see. While I’d seen cotton fields before, I’d never seen such a large field. I have done quite a bit of research about the history of cotton production and was thrilled to see this stunning sight. Of course, historically, cotton was not the prime crop here, tobacco was. This land was once filled with acres of “Virginia’s gold” that brought great riches to the colony’s wealthiest families on the backs of an enslaved labor force brought from Africa.


The second stop was Westover Church, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Virginia built in 1730 and still an active congregation. The simple brick building is surrounded by those standard Virginia botanical features of boxwood and magnolias. No doubt over almost three centuries, a number of illustrious Virginians worshiped here.

The final stop was Charles City County’s historic courthouse, built around 1730 and claiming to be the third oldest existing courthouse in the nation (a claim that would be pretty hard to substantiate). The complex of several brick building sits at a crossroads that saw troops from both sides in several wars marching through.  Simcoe’s British cavalry attacked a patriot militia in a tavern here during the Revolution and Grant’s Union army troops came by in 1864.  A Confederate monument, dedicated in 1900, stands as a reminder to a heritage of sacrifice.

I was happy to see that the county’s complex history continues to be told. A newer historical marker tells of a later story. It commemorates the lynching of Isaac Brandon nearby in 1892.



Chickahominy River

My friend and I had chosen to ride west to east, against the progression of historic settlement, in hopes that the trail would be somewhat more downhill since it follows the river flowing toward the Chesapeake Bay. We neared Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital, home of the restored outdoor museum Colonial Williamsburg. Suddenly the trees opened up to a wide expanse of water, the Chickahominy River.  We crossed the high bridge and were in the home stretch. 

We had parked a car in the Jamestown Settlement parking lot, conveniently located at the end of the trail. Our trip through centuries of Virginia history was over, for now. I hope to ride the trail again, in a different season, and will practice my speed reading so I can read more historical markers along the way.


Jamestown Settlement


Related Posts:

Jamestown’s foothold in the new world

A place of history inspiration – Williamsburg

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, agricultural, American Revolution, city/town, Civil War, house, military, President, religion | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tangier Island


Perhaps you’ve heard of Tangier Island since it has been in news stories about global warming.  The tiny dot of land in the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 12 miles from the mainland, is only 4 feet above sea level.  Its area has been eroding over the decades (67% reduction!) and today it is only 1.5 miles by 1.5 miles or so, an easy 15-minute drive around the perimeter on a golf cart!

I wanted to visit Tangier because I’ve been writing a book about the Battle of Baltimore and the Star-Spangled Banner. Tangier was a British base during the War of 1812 and became the site of Fort Albion.

The British commander in the Chesapeake, Rear Admiral George Cockburn,  had been instructed to: “Find and get possession of some convenient island or point within the Chesapeake… which might serve as a place of refuge for the negro slaves from the surrounding shores.”


His superior, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had issued a proclamation in April 1814 announcing that escaped slaves were welcome with the British and promised them freedom and resettlement and, for fit, young men, an option of military service. This was not a humanitarian mission, they saw an opportunity to bolster their fighting forces. They formed the Colonial Marines, a regiment that would see battle at Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other sites. Four Colonial Marines were killed during the Battle of Baltimore.

IMG_0986Cockburn built a fort named for his flagship and the ancient name for England, Fort Albion. The community eventually included barracks, a church, a hospital, and houses with gardens. It became a temporary home for almost one thousand former enslaved people.

While I’d read that the site of Fort Albion is under water, I was curious to see the community and to find out if there are tangible remnants of the story. The island’s human history began with native groups, specifically the Pocomoke Indians. Its European history began with the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1608, a year after Jamestown was settled. The first settlers came around 1686. Many of today’s inhabitants trace their roots to settlers from the Cornwall region in England. Their distinct dialect fascinates linguists and is unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’ve walked across Cornwall, but it’s not quite the same accent as I heard there.

A small museum on the island does tell the story of the British occupation. I’m not sure how many settlers were on the island in 1814, but the British made themselves at home and built shelters for the refugees who escaped from the surrounding plantations. From Tangier, the Colonial Marines participated in a number of military engagements and impressed the British military leaders, who had low expectations at the start. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, the War of 1812 officially ended and the British evacuated the island, taking along the many refugees, who they sent to other British colonies such as Nova Scotia and Bermuda. Many of the Colonial Marines and their families ended up in Trinidad, where they settled into agricultural communities in their former divisions. They proudly identified as Americans and called themselves the “Merikans.”


Today, Tangier continues to scrape its existence from the surrounding bay, with industry focused on oysters and crabs. While there is nothing to see from the War of 1812 chapter in its history, the island is worth a visit to get a glimpse of a culture that has survived for hundreds of years in this remote post in middle of the glimmering bay.


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My book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem will be published next year by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Related blog posts:

A Historic Inn on the Eastern Shore

Their Final Resting Places

Posted in 19th century, military | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

One of the most unique history sites

The Northern Neck of Virginia is a remote, flat region of corn and soybean fields sculpted by the rising and falling of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal waters. It’s a long arm of land stretching east of Fredericksburg, between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. In the 18th century, it was home to Virginia’s wealthiest dynastic families – the Lees, the Carters, and others. Their riches came from vast acres of tobacco, cultivated and harvested by thousands of enslaved workers. The vestiges of a past life are found in preserved homes and remnants that dot the rural landscape.  I recently visited a unique and ambitious project to reclaim history from the ravages of time.

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In 1940 while the house was intact, the Historic American Buildings Survey produced detailed photography and drawings of the property.

Menokin is a history site unlike any you’ve ever visited. It’s a stabilized ruin of a house built around 1769 for Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Rebecca Tayloe. The house was never modernized (no indoor plumbing or electricity) and sat abandoned from the 1960s through the 1990s. Vandals and curious children over the years explored and snatched some of its architectural treasures. Those who could find it, for the forest had worked hard to claim it — it became so overgrown that one could walk within fifty yards of it and not even see it. The structure began collapsing in on itself.

In 1995 the Menokin Foundation acquired the property and began to stabilize the building. They added a roof and shored up some of the precarious walls. They also identified a cache of original materials that had been stripped from the house over the years and protected for the future. Visitors to the visitor center at Menokin usually get a look into the conservation lab. The lab is filled with treasures such as the front door pediment, fireplace mantels, and doors to rooms throughout the house. The doorknobs themselves tell a story of the progression of time and represent a variety of styles.

The main draw for most people is the house site. Visitors are welcome to go on hard-hat tours of the ruins with trained guides who are happy to describe the future vision. The foundation is actively fundraising for a series of phases that will ensure preservation. The ruins reveal layers of construction and offer many different angles on building practices in the 18th century. The house’s builders used iron-infused sandstone quarried nearby, and other local materials, many acquired on the property.  It is a powerful connection to the past. The fingerprints of enslaved workers who formed the bricks and mixed the hand-crushed oyster shells into mortar are visible upon close inspection.

The Foundation’s goal is to eventually interpret the entire site, including remains of outbuildings and the site of enslaved workers’ cabins. These have been located. The vestiges of formal terraced gardens and tobacco rolling roads lead to Menokin landing on Cat Point Creek, a good put-in spot for kayakers and canoers . Native American history is also an important part of the land’s story. The site was home to the Rappahannock Indians, who Captain John Smith met in 1608. They called the place Menokin.

The long-range vision is to use modern building practices to preserve and stabilize the structure and incorporate modern technology to help bring the property to life. It will not be restored. The site will be a work in progress for a long time.

Aside from preservation, Menokin faces several tourism-related challenges: it is remote (though not far from Tappahannock, VA), its original owners are not well-known to most Americans (even though Francis Lightfoot Lee was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation), and at present, it requires a vivid imagination to picture the site in its original glory. But for a glimpse behind-the-scenes at how historians and archaeologists and conservationists work to understand the past, there are few places as interesting as Menokin. 

Take a detour off of I-95 sometime and explore this fascinating area.

Related posts:

One of the Best Historic Houses –  Drayton Hall in South Carolina

A National Park Service site in development

Thomas Jefferson’ retreat,  Poplar Forest



Posted in 17th century, 18th century, American Revolution, house, Native American | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Within These Walls… if our houses could talk



IMG_0735If you’re visiting Washington this summer, here is a must-see exhibition: Within These Walls at the National Museum of American History. It features the largest artifact in the museum’s collection, a house that stood at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts for two hundred years. It has been on and off display since the museum opened in 1964, and eighteen years ago, the staff opened a new exhibition surrounding it, telling the stories of five families who made it home over the centuries. Yes, EIGHTEEN years ago. But, they’ve refreshed it recently, improved the lighting, added more to the stories, and it looks spectacular! I visited recently and its stories continue to grip me and hold their power to ignite my imagination. History at its essence is change over time and this house is a concrete example that most people can relate to; our living situations change. The structure stood as people rotated in and out, the neighborhood changed around it, and its rooms were decorated and re-decorated to reflect the tastes and styles of each era.



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The people who lived in this house were not famous, you haven’t heard of them. But, their lives intersected with major themes in America’s past. The original owners built the house in the 1700’s to show their status in the community. Abraham Dodge and his family lived in the house during the American Revolution. He fought for the patriot cause and pondered the meaning of liberty, all the while owning a teenaged boy named Chance Bradstreet. Slavery was legal in Massachusetts.  When the exhibition opened in 2001, the curators IMG_0740knew an enslaved young man named Chance had lived in the house, but they didn’t know much more about him. Today, after years of research, his story is revealed.  The Caldwell family held anti-slavery meetings in the parlor and were strong abolitionists. The neighborhood changed as did the house’s occupants. Soon it was divided into two apartments and became a rental property. Irish immigrants Catherine Lynch and her daughter Mary rented the house. Catherine was a laundress, Mary was employed at the nearby Ipswich Mills. A woman named Mary Scott and her family lived in the house during the dark days of World War II. Mary’s daughter and son-in-law lived with her, along with their young son. They grew a victory garden, did their own canning, and installed blackout curtains at the windows.

I happen to have a personal connection to this exhibition: I was part of the team that developed it twenty years ago. It remains one of the most fascinating Smithsonian projects that I’ve worked on. When developing the exhibition, we struggled with how to bring the space to life. Today, the museum staff has brought new energy to the display, they’ve added projections that hint at the families living there. The constant movement makes the space more dynamic.

IMG_0752And, the most popular interactive in the museum (so I’m told) is still there to lure visitors to try their hand at wringing out laundry. We wanted visitors to get a sense of how hard it was to do laundry by hand in the 1880’s. We explained the process on clothes hanging on a line. Then we came up with an idea: the wring-o-meter. It simulates wringing a piece of laundry, a meter with an arrow measures your strength, and you learn how many pieces Catherine Lynch would have wrung out in a day. Plus, visitors can lift up a bucket of “water” nearby and find out how many buckets went into one load of laundry.  One cannot leave the section without a better appreciation for all the women in the past who washed laundry by hand (and for the inventor of the washing machine!)


And for fun, the exhibition team signed their names on the inside door of this reproduction outhouse. It’s one outhouse I’m happy to have my name in! (hopefully the only one)

The exhibition ends with a section that explains about the research process and encourages visitors to research their own homes. I’m always saying museums need to do more to encourage visitors to apply what they learn. Here’s a perfect example of providing practical advice that may help visitors learn more about their own history.

This exhibition is a long-term exhibition and should be around for a long time. Go visit it!

Exhibition website


Posted in 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, American Revolution, house | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Underneath a sheen of privilege


Homewood Museum, a large “country” home in Baltimore, was not on my radar. I’ve been to Baltimore many times and like visiting historic homes. One reason may be because it sits on the campus of John Hopkins University in the middle of Baltimore (countryside at the time it was built). Recently I was invited to speak to a museum studies class held in the basement of the house and the director gave me a tour of this Federal-period Palladian gem built between 1801-1806.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only Catholic signer. He built the home as a wedding gift for his only son, Charles Carroll, Jr.  But most people, even Marylanders, have not heard of Charles Carroll, Jr. and his wife Harriet Chew (of Philadelphia). Challenge one of a historic house museum: to build an audience, you must own something rare that people want to see or tell the story of a person that the public wants to know more about. And this starts with knowing who the person is. Charles Sr. was one of America’s movers and shakers, friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Charles Sr. must have had high hopes for his son’s accomplishments. He was sadly disappointed.

Every house museum must decide what stories to tell. For Homewood, the stories have changed. Tours initially highlighted the architectural and decorative arts features of the house; they now tell about the fascinating people who lived on the property, of their decisions in the midst of the challenges of life.

Charles Jr. and his family were hardly your average family of their time. They were the wealthy elite living in a time when America was trying to figure out what it would become. While well-connected, thanks to his father, and raised to make a difference in his world, Charles Jr. did not make any major contributions to the growing nation. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Wisely, the staff has chosen to expand the stories told at the site, and include two other families who lived there, enslaved families. William and Rebecca Ross and their two children, and Izadod and Cis Conner and six children, also lived on the property, along with the Carrolls’ five children. That’s a lot of children! The house is large, but this is still a lot of people to manage. In total, at least twenty-five enslaved people lived and labored at Homewood.

IMG_0565As the Homewood website says, “But underneath the sheen of privilege, all was not well!” Life there was not filled with peaceful, lazy days of summer but with chaos amidst a booming time for Baltimore, including a British attack during the War of 1812. The house tour tells the stories of the three families, using primary sources to spin tales of escape, alcoholism, physical abuse, separation, and legal challenges. At one point the Carrolls leased Izadod and Cis to a plantation in Louisiana for several years. William Ross escaped in 1809 then was returned under unknown circumstances. The mistress of the house, Harriet, fled to her family in Philadelphia to escape an alcoholic husband (two quarts of brandy a day according to some reports!). These stories tell of the realities of family life during a time of racism, slavery, and gender inequality. There are many potential connections with present-day societal issues and  much opportunity to make the site relevant to today’s visitors.

I especially loved the privy. Of approximately eight outbuilding that once stood, only the carriage house and the privy remain. The carriage house is now the theater department’s John Astin Theater and the privy is open to visitors on occasion. The spacious outhouse sat 7 people, with a side for each gender. Its walls include graffiti from 1897-1910 when the estate served as the Country School for Boys. The interpretive panel at the privy is one of the best I’ve seen, explaining location and ways to sweeten the air. It addresses what inquiring minds want to know, right?

Some people visit historic house museums to see beauty, and there’s definitely beauty at Homewood. But to me, the people story is so much more interesting and important. The key, in my opinion, is for history sites to transcend the purely fascinating information and go to the level of relevance. When a site can connect past to present in a meaningful way, it demonstrates history as the dynamic discipline it is.

Posted in 19th century, house | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments