A View From The Overlook: A Virginia Farmer

Mount Vernon, as seen from the Potomac River. Photo by Baldeaglebluff via Wikipedia.

My wife suggested that she would like to do something different and interesting on her birthday. Now if I were Bill Gates or that nice Zuckerburg boy that might mean leasing the island of Lanai and inviting friends.

Since that is not the case, I suggested a boat trip to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, our first President and Founding Father. It would not only be patriotic but cheap.

Joan thought that would be a splendid idea, and oh, yes, she would like duck for birthday lunch at Mount Vernon. That would be more problematical. Did George Washington raise ducks? Interesting question. I would have to ask.

The ten-mile boat trip from downtown Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon is by far the most majestic way to visit Mount Vernon. It is, however, not the most practical way to experience George Washington.

You see, Mount Vernon is, in some ways, the victim of its own success. There is now a lot to see and do and learn at Mount Vernon. In fact, if you take advantage of all the archeology, historical analysis and so on, and ask the right questions and pay attention to the enthusiastic staff, you will probably know more about Mount Vernon than George Washington did. (George tried to keep in touch, but he was away for months and years saving and serving the nation.)

Absorbing all this information and seeing everything will take a leisurely full day with time out for lunch. Also, you will need your own car to visit George Washington’s distillery (You heard right!), an indispensible stop for industrial historians and alcoholics.

Unfortunately, the boat trips to Mount Vernon limits you a bit. The “Spirit of Mount Vernon” arrives at the Mount Vernon pier at 10 a.m. and departs at 1:30 p.m. This gives you around three-and-a-half hours to understand and savor the prime Founding Father. Are three-and-a-half hours enough? Well, that depends. If you are a quick study, and skip lunch, then the boat trip is doable.

On the other hand, the boat trip is more expensive, $48.67 with admission included, versus $17 if you drive your car down the National Park Service’s very beautiful and bucolic George Washington Parkway and bought your ticket at the gate.

Then why go by boat? Well, it’s a bit more romantic than driving, bicycling or walking and you will score more points with your Significant Other. A boat ride will lower your blood pressure and calm your mind; time spent on the Potomac is not deducted from your life span.

Besides, roads being what they were in Colonial and Revolutionary times, the rivers were the way George Washington and his tidewater Virginia friends got around, so you will be historically accurate going by boat.

Does The Park Service Own Mount Vernon?

So who owns Mount Vernon? The National Park Service? Fortunately, no. Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. “Fortunately, no?," you demand accusingly! Now before various NPS advocacy groups lynch me, let me clarify.

You see, nobody sequesters the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Indeed, nobody in his or her right mind messes with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. They are rich, powerful, and goal centered; their goal being the preservation and enhancement of the collective memory of George Washington and Mount Vernon and they are very good at what they do.

Alternate Text
Mount Vernon, by David Samuel via Wikipedia.

The National Park Service has to whine and snivel at the feet of a history illiterate Congress in order to get a roof repaired on a nationally significant structure. The Mount Vernon Ladies simply write a check. Congress? The Mount Vernon Ladies have nothing to with those pompous boors who live on the wrong side of the “rivah.”

Now, there is a lot to be said for having all the money you need. At today’s Mount Vernon, nothing is broken, untended, unweeded, or unpainted. It is probably the way George Washington wanted things to look, only better than reality. (Slaves not being quite the enthusiastic team players as their masters!)

The Ladies have gotten rather good at preserving Mount Vernon and Washington’s legacy, as they have been at it since before the Civil War.

There are very few families that can keep a large estate going generation after generation; some heirs will not like rural life, some will have no aptitude for business, there is war, economic depression, divorce or sickness that will intervene, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and so on. Whatever the reason, John Augustus Washington III, great-grandnephew of George Washington, could no longer afford to keep up the mansion and it showed. Parts of the house were propped up with old ship’s masts. The energetic Anne Pamela Cunningham had noticed this and, in 1854, organized the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to set things right.

In 1860, just before the Civil War, the Ladies purchased Mount Vernon and 200 surrounding acres from John Augustus Washington. The Ladies were now in the preservation business and in the nick of time. It seems that The Ladies provided guided tours of Mount Vernon to both Union and Confederate troops, the estate taking on the aspects of a neutral ground under the enterprising care of Ms. Cunningham and The Ladies. This may have prevented either side from burning the mansion.

The rest, as they say, is history. As the art and science of historical preservation improved over the decades, so did the skill of the Ladies, and so did their fund-raising abilities.

“As America’s oldest historical preservation organization, the Association has often served as a model for historic sites nationwide” (That claim of being the oldest may not be entirely true, as the organization dedicated to the preservation of Fort Ticonderoga seems to be older, but there is no doubt that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is a model for historic preservation—at least for the private sector).

Are All Presidents Worthy Of Historic Sites?

This brings us to the public sector, most notably the National Park Service, and historic preservation.

There has been at least one congressperson who suggested that the primary home of each president of the U.S. should be a national historic site. (The Mount Vernon Ladies would take umbrage at this idea!) So would some of the more snobbish historians in the NPS, who would sniff that "not all Presidents are worthy of NPS attention.”

Oh, come on! We have Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, and James Garfield National Historic Site, not to mention Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, but we don’t have James Madison National Historic Site, or a Woodrow Wilson National Historic Site, or an Andrew Jackson National Historical Site. (And what would “The Friends of Millard Fillmore”, think of our omission of our 13th President?)

All in all, we have some 18 presidents who have been included in the NPS pantheon (out of a total of 43) either in the form of “Boyhood homes,” “Historic Sites (residences) or “birthplaces.” (A now diminishing category; Jimmy Carter was the first president to be born in a hospital, and we can expect future presidents to take that route.)

As far as the “birthplaces” go, one of them, the “George Washington Birthplace NHS, is sort of a fake. The real birthplace, “Wakefield,” burned to the ground in 1777 while Washington was busy at Valley Forge. In the early 1930s, the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the house “reconstructed” as a sort of historical guess and gifted it to the National Park Service.

Alternate Text
George Washington as a farmer. 1851 painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, original in Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

As later archeology indicated, the “guess” was a bit wide of the mark, creating a rather too grand “birthplace,” as if George Washington’s mother had been Martha Stewart.

This is one reason why the NPS doesn’t like to do “reconstructions” or “replicas” and does them only as a last resort, when interpretation of the theme would be otherwise difficult or impossible (Bent's Old Fort NHS is a good example).

Indeed, of the Founding Fathers, the NPS has been able to scarf up only one residence, that of the second president, John Adams (though it was a sort of doubleheader, in that Adams National Historic Site was also the home of son John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States.)

This may have been coincidence, or (is it possible?) good strategic planning on the part of the National Park Service.

By NOT acquiring “Mount Vernon”(Washington) “Monticello” (Thomas Jefferson) “Montpelier” (James Madison) and “Ash Lawn” (James Monroe), the NPS avoided having to explain slavery, that “peculiar institution” that caused Washington’s contemporary, the Englishman, Dr. Samuel Johnson, to archly inquire “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” (The NPS’s John Adams professed “an abhorrence of slavery” and boasted that he “Always employed free white or Negro labor.")

To their credit, The Mount Vernon Ladies take the slavery issue head on and make no attempt to romanticize a brutal institution. According to the Ladies; “Although Washington was considered an enlightened slave owner (He did not employ the lash) and granted his slaves certain limited freedoms, they nevertheless labored for the benefit of others, lived in poverty and were victims of a system that viewed them as property…. Slaves were expected to work from sun up to sun down, with Sundays off. Some were also granted three or four days off at Christmas as well as the Mondays after Easter and Pentecost.”

It is true that in the past, the Mount Vernon Ladies skipped rather lightly over the slavery topic, but so did the National Park Service; probably in deference to southern congressmen whose positions on various committees controlled the NPS budget.

Indeed, within living memory, one NPS official remarked ingeniously that, “Perhaps we should tell the bright side of slavery as well as the dark side; that the labor of the slaves allowed men like Jefferson leisure to think and write all those glorious thoughts on freedom” (The official was not being ironic!).

As For The Boat Tour...

Your tour boat will motor quietly down the Washington Channel, with the peninsula of East Potomac Park on your right and the Victorian mansions of Fort McNair’s “General’s Row” on your left. Also on your left, you will be passing the spectacular Beaux Arts style “Roosevelt Hall” built by Theodore Roosevelt to house The War College (No, they don’t field a football team). You will then cross the mouth of the Anacostia River, one of the nation’s most polluted rivers, thanks to Congress (both literally and figuratively). Interestingly enough, only the Anacostia River and of course, the Potomac, existed in George Washington’s time. The Washington Channel was dredged out by the Army Corps of Engineers and the peninsula of East Potomac Park was created from the dredge spoils.

Soon you will pass the “Gibraltar of the Potomac, Fort Washington NHS a stone redoubt now administered by the NPS that would have been Washington DC’s last line of defense had the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack ended differently.

You will shortly see the red-roofed mansion of Mount Vernon, with its distinctive cupola on the right, or Virginia, side of the river. On the left bank you will see nothing but a densely wooded shoreline.

Alternate Text
James Madison's Montpelier also is not under the National Park Service. Kurt Repanshek photo.

“Nothing” is the whole idea. It is the 4,000-acre Piscataway Park, courtesy of the National Park Service (and Henry and Alice Ferguson) who came up with the brilliant idea of protecting the viewshed of Mount Vernon, providing you with the same 18th century view that George Washington had.

The Maryland planners (or plotters) had planned a sewerage treatment plant and a petroleum tank farm on what is now Piscataway Park before they were foiled. (Thank you, Henry and Alice!)

Your boat makes a sharp right and comes to dock at the Mount Vernon pier. It is a quarter-mile walk up to the mansion. You will march through the house in a back-to-belly non-stop conga line that is eerily suggestive of the lines that used to snake through the tomb of that other revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin (The Mount Vernon tour is actually more impressive and interesting than it sounds.)

You will learn more about Washington in the crackerjack state-of-the-art museums, the Ford Orientation Center, and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

A walk through the gardens and agricultural exhibits will help you understand why Washington was one of the most progressive and successful farmers in North America and how he made a considerable amount of his income from a commercial shad and herring fishery on the Potomac.

Unfortunately, you will need your car to visit the working replica of his most successful business enterprise, the largest whiskey distillery in America, turning out 11,000 gallons a year. He also produced flour in his state-of-the-art water-powered gristmill.

You will have time for lunch before the boat whistle blows, if you carefully budget your time, and yes, the roast leg of duck and the peanut & chestnut soup is excellent!