Location: Mount Vernon, Virginia
Webpage: Private Museum
General Description: On Washington family land from the time of his great-grandfather in 1674, George Washington continued the expansion of property. The parcel that included Mount Vernon became solely owned by George Washington in 1761 and Mount Vernon became the center of George’s Home tract. Built on the site of an earlier, smaller home that was built by George’s father, Augustine Washington sometime between 1726 and 1735. The mansion is built of wood with a sandy finish that makes it look like stone was built in stages between 1758 and 1778 in a loose Palladian style. The principal block, dating from 1758 is a two-storied structure flanked by two single story secondary wings complete in 1775. These included servant quarters on the northern side and kitchen on the southern side. This mansion remained George Washington’s country home until his death in 1799 and remained in the ownership of successive generations of descendants, slowly declining along with the land holdings until 1858 when the historical significance was recognized. It was saved from ruin by The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who still own and operate it today. It was saved during the Civil War although it was visited at different times by both Union and Confederate troops, who all considered it sacred ground. Today the property has been fully restored to its condition in the late 1700s and is visited annually by hundred of thousands of visitors. Along with tours of the mansion, visitors can walk the formal gardens, explore the numerous outbuildings, walk through woods and along the Potomac River, visit George and Martha’s tomb, and explore the Pioneer farm and heritage animals. The property also includes a working grist mill and working whiskey distillery located on an adjoining tract also owned at the time by George Washington.
1) The Visitor Center and museum are extensive and lavish. The admission cost is $17/person, which seems excessive until you realize it includes full access to all the grounds and farm, tour of the mansion, and tours of the gristmill and distillery.
2) As you approach the mansion you can see what your admission fee is paying for. The grounds are immaculate and your first site of the mansion takes your breath away.
3) Since our mansion tour was not for a couple of hours, we first walked down the forest path to the Pioneer Farm. The forest path is relatively short with a few interpretive signs about the uses they made of the forest (which included roaming hogs that were collected for slaughter in the winter).
4) George Washington was an innovative farmer for the time. Instead of growing tobacco, which had been the main cash crop of colonial Virginia, he changed production over to wheat throughout the farm. This was partly due to the fact that tobacco is hard on the land productivity, but also to avoid the British requirement that all tobacco had to be shipped to England for sale, whereas wheat could be sold locally in the colonies. At the time wheat was threshed either by hand or by horses walking on the sheaves to separate the grain from the stalk. This meant that the wheat was mixed in with a lot of dirt and other material. To improve on this, George Washington built a large octagonal barn where the horses could walk in a circle on the second floor over the wheat knocking the seed loose to fall through the floorboards to the ground floor. This was an ingenious design that, as far as I know, was not done by anyone since.
5) George Washington was innovative with many other agriculture practices. For instance, he did not like the time and effort needed to maintain the wooden fences surrounding the fields. He experimented with growing boxwoods and other shrubs to create a living fence that would be good substitutes for at least the permanent fences.
6) At the dock, you can elect to take a boat trip along the Potomac River for an additional fee.
7) The mansion tour is different then any I have ever seen. The time for your tour is actually the time you are allowed to join the queue. You get to see some of the smaller outbuildings (such as the ornate outhouse) while waiting in line. Once you enter the northern wing of the mansion the tour begins. In order to accommodate the massive number of tourists, the tour is actually a continuously moving line through the main rooms in the mansion. In most of the rooms, there is an interpreter that gives a well rehearsed, short speech, on a continuous loop. This must get awfully boring after the first couple of hours. There was a gentleman just ahead of us that asked a question and it took the interpreter a few seconds to stop and orient on the guy, who had to repeat his question. Her answer indicated that she did not understand (nor particularly care) about her answer, especially since the guy had to exit the room before he heard the whole answer.
8) They have done a GREAT job in restoring Mount Vernon. Each room is filled with period pieces and furnishings and you get a very good sense of what life would have been like. This is a totally different experience then you get with looking at 200 hundred year old structures that have not been restored that contain period pieces that in such a state of disrepair that they would be discarded. For this reason alone, I would strongly recommend a visit.
9) While the tomb of George and Martha Washington is a small crypt with two stone caskets, the fact that it is George Washington, the father of our country, added to the experience!
10) The outbuildings around the mansion have also been restored to their 1700s condition and are filled with period tools and equipment along with interpretive signs for each building. There is even a very large “manure pit” that was another innovation of George Washington. Manure would be added to the fields in one of two ways. Either collected into this pit for distribution or by fencing in the animals in the fields using temporary fences to add their manure directly where it was intended.
11) In my opinion, the best part of the visit were the tours of the grist mill and distillery. Both have been restored to working condition and we had the opportunity to see them grinding corn. Whereas, we have seen a number of old grist mills, this one was in the best condition and we could actually watch the process. The whiskey distillery also produces whiskey according to the 1700 practices twice a year and the tour guide gave an excellent explanation of the process. You could also purchase some of the whiskey they have produced, but be ready to pay a hefty price!