1. George Washington
George Washington Birthplace (7/20/08)
George Washington: first in war, first in peace, and first in kick-ass historical sites.
Boy George lived at the Pope's Creek Plantation only to the age of 3 1/2; all the original farm buildings are gone; and there aren't many surviving records documenting his time there. And it's STILL a great place to visit. At the very least, you're going to see some scenery:
That's a beach (believe it or not) of the Potomac River, and it's part of the plantation grounds. In the 18th century, it would have been an on-ramp to the commercial superhighway of the Northern Neck plantation system; today it's just a good place to catch some rays (or in my case, malignant melanomas).
Generations of Washingtons worked the land at Pope's Creek (and other plantations they owned), growing tobacco and that sort of thing; generations of Washingtons are now part of the land at Pope's Creek, since John Washington decided to situate the family burial ground there. Washington's father and grandfather are in the ground not too far from the river. The Washingtons also thoughtfully installed a delightful picnic area, with plenty of parking:
Just pull on up! The plantation buildings are long gone, but the tiny peninsula of land that sticks out between a marsh and the creek does have the foundations of the actual structure where Washington was born. Artifiacts recovered from that site indicate that the two-year-old George probably smoked a pipe, which would explain a) his lifelong dental problems; and b) the Christmas fire that burned the house to the ground. Before they discovered that site in the 1930s, they put up a memorial house where they thought the house might have been. It has no historical significance, but digital photos don't have developing costs, so here you go:
Not pictured is the living history exhibit on the site. I skipped it altogether, because I don't really want to know how to make candles using 18th century technology. I might live to regret this, if I ever travel back in time, somehow get stranded, and then am asked to bring a cake to the birthday party of someone really important. However, it's a risk I am willing to take.
With any plantation, it's hard to get your noodle around what it REALLY would have been like -- a fully operational farm, complete with family quarters, outbuildings, slave laborers and constant traffic and construction would have almost no resemblance to the quiet and manicured parks we visit today. I'm reading "Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder," and it's hard to reconcile the descriptions of everyday life with the Monticello you see on school trips. So as far as birth sites go, I gotta favor Lincoln's. It's only a hunch, but I feel like it would have to be more authentic than most.
Still, just being on the land, you do get a better idea of the life Washington was born into. And a beach, too -- what more could you ask for? Other than the fossilized remains of a cherry tree stump.
Ferry Farm (May 2011)
Ferry Farm is a little odd as a tourist site. It was George Washington's boyhood home, but there's no home left: they found a foundation, they know what was on site, but there's nothing to see except for a few holes in the ground. Archaeology is still in progress, but they aren't pulling the skeletons of George's boyhood enemies out of ancient ditches. Pottery shards only tell you so much about the father of the country. But you visit FOR THE LEGENDS!
The story about the cherry tree is almost definitely a lie. But if that lie about never telling lies sort of happened, then it sort of happened at Ferry Farm! Boy George never threw a silver dollar (since they didn't exist back then) across the Rappahannock. But if they had existed, then it would have happened right there at Ferry Farm! And you can experience those legends by ...
... uh, nothing. There's no cherry trees on the premisies and no ax-wielding animatronic George. There's no landing on the river where you can try to tear your rotator cuff whipping replica inauthentic silver dollars at the far bank.
But I'm a nerd, so I liked it. Some history: George lived at Ferry Farm from ages 6 through 20. After age 11, in wasn't just his home -- it was his inheritance. Augustine, his dad, got the sniffles and died. He left his best properties to George's older half brothers, and the sudden drop in cash flow meant that George would never get the English boarding school education of his dreams. But the Ferry Farm parcel was all George's as soon as he came of age.
Unfortunately that meant living under his mother's thumb for awhile, which apparently stank on ice. Mary was a difficult and controlling woman, so George wasn't banking on getting the farm cleanly. He found some old surveying tools in a shed at Ferry Farm, practiced his craft and landed some gigs out west. When he joined the military, his time out west was a big asset; it put him in position to be a player during the French and Indian War, which in turn put him in position to run the Continental Army. So while nothing super sexy happened at Ferry Farm, you can argue that Washington's experiences there are the reason we drive on the right.
There's a little post-George history, too; long after the property left the Washington family, it was a Civl War camp for Union troops hoping to take Fredericksburg. The ferry launch (which the Washingtons never owned, and were quite annoyed by) was the site of a pontoon bridge for their attempts to cross the river.
Today you can enjoy a respectable visitors center, some markers showing where foundations were (the farmhouse site is shown below) and a little nature walk along the river (I saw a beaver). It's a pleasant couple of hours. If you're down in Fredericksburg and you love America, you should check it out. And if you don't love America, go to Russia.
Fort Necessity (September 2013)
We all make mistakes in our 20s, whether it's sleeping with the wrong person, taking the wrong job or clinging to our teenage selves. George Washington started a world war. He probably also made out with some uggos, but the world war is what we're focusing on right now.
The year was 1754, and the French and British had been arguing about who controlled the land around the Ohio River. The French had recently built a fort near modern-day Pittsburgh, which meant that brunch places and topless cabaret theaters were on the horizon -- and under international law, any country establishing such institutions would have a morally superior claim to a region. So Washington was put on road-building detail, to help Virginians populate the savage hinterlands of Pennsylvania as quickly as possible. Riding ahead of the bulk of his troops, he heard rumors of a small French force in the vicinity of the "Great Meadows" region. A helpful Seneca chief led him to the Frenchmen, who were resting peacefully at the time.
George did exactly what you'd expect of a man with his noble character. Since the French and British were not at war, he gathered his men, surrounded the French position, and tried to slaughter them all where they lie.
You were probably expecting more from a man with so many mattress sales in his honor, but sometimes the natural order of things can't be denied: not even George Washington could overcome the biological impulse to be a huge d-bag in his early 20s. Sure, he had his reasons for attacking, in the same way that you might have your reasons for ending a four-year relationship via text message. They weren't particularly great reasons.
Even so, murder ended up being a great career move for George, in a roundabout way. Among the French dead was their commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. Jumonville's officer brother was stationed nearby, and within a few days he was cranked up for revenge. Washington, who was extended way past any significant reinforcements, came to the logical conclusion that some s*** was about to go down. He had his troops build a palisade at Great Meadows, dubbed it Fort Necessity, and hoped for the best.
You can now visit a replica of that fort, which is a great reminder of how ridiculously small America used to be. It's a circular structure, which isn't much more than a bunch of unfinished logs driven into the dirt; there's a small cabin in the middle which was meant to hold food, booze and weaponry. There were a few trenches nearby which held the bulk of Washington's 400 or so troops. When the French showed up with 700 guys on July 3, they set up in the trees around the fort (Washington built it too close to the edge of the woods) and sniped at the British all day in a steady rain.
George surrendered late that night and, unwittingly, signed a document where he admitted to assassinating Jumonville -- apparently he didn't have a good translator on hand. Under the terms of the surrender he had to take his remaining men and march them back to Virginia. This is often considered the precipitating event of the Seven Years' War, a conflict that spanned a whole bunch of continents. England and France had been pissy with each other a few years, and something was going to set them off; Washington's backwoods massacre seemed to do the trick.
And it all worked out for Washington. About a year later, he was the Virginia militia officer riding along with Gen. James Braddock, who was supposed to be capturing Fort Duquesne. Braddock got ahead of his reinforcements, was ambushed by the French and took a bullet. Washington took over on the battlefield and kept his troops organized throughout the retreat, and his bravery that day became the foundation for his future military career. He had Braddock buried in the middle of the road that he had started the year before, in an unmarked grave. The remains were eventually moved to the side of the road (which is the modern-day U.S. 40) and topped with a nice marker; it's about a mile away from the rebuilt Fort Necessity.
The moral: Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Washington was looking to make a name for himself, and to do it, he was willing to gun down a bunch of guys in the woods. That made his overwhelming defeat at Great Meadows possible and started the world war that would allow him to become a military hero -- by leading a retreat from another awful loss. And as a military hero, he was able to lead the American Revolution and enter our national folklore as the kind of guy who would never, ever gun down a bunch of guys in the woods. Fortune favores the bold. Put another way:
Mount Vernon (October 7, 2007)
They call George Washington "The Indispensable Man," and here is what they mean:
When you inventory the Founding Fathers, when you think about the fate of America, you realize it wouldn't have happened without George Washington. It's the same dynamic in every office in the world: Idea men are worthless without someone to get s**t done. It's one thing to say everyone deserves a sausage. It's another thing altogether to actually make the sausages and hand them out. George Washington was a sausage-maker hander-outer. And the name of that sausage was AMERICA. YEAH! CUE TOBY KEITH!
Check out the operations at Mount Vernon and you'll see what I mean (I went with superfriends Don and Bethany a few weeks back). Jefferson was a farmer, Monroe was a farmer, Madison was a farmer. George Washington, though, was a SUCCESSFUL farmer. He knew how to run a business. He was a practical innovator. His estate was a model of efficiency. When all his contemporaries were dying broke, George was worth half a million, back when half a million was not just the downpayment on a one-bedroom condo in the D.C. area. He was growing wheat when everyone else was killing the soil with tobacco; he was running the land's largest distillery when a young nation was itching to get hammered out of its gourd; he kept it crackin' like pistachios, made money, and he really didn't love hos.
And it wasn't just farming. He had solid military command experience from the French and Indian War, a knowledge of the land from his days as a surveyor, and enough time running with the brainiac crowd to hold his own in the new government. The guy was THE celebrity of the 18th century. He could have been king if he wanted, but he had the judgment to walk away from the spotlight TWICE -- retiring his military commission after the war and stepping away from the presidency after two terms. The man was a leader. He wasn't perfect, but without George, we're all sipping tea and eating krumpets right now. Krumpets are delicious. But tea? Bleh.
Let's put it this way: You know how you have that one friend who knows how to fix his own car, built his own deck AND somehow has $100,000 in a retirement fund at age 29 even though you eat most of your meals off a folding card table and can't pay the minimum on your credit card? GW was that friend. For a whole nation.
Mount Vernon is definitely worth your while. It has its drawbacks -- because of visitor volume, you'll probably have to wait in line to see the house, and then you'll be whisked through without much chance for questions. Important questions, like "Would you validate my existence by telling me how thoughtful I am to ask about the patterns on the dining room wainscoating?" But it's something else to see the rooms where he dined, the bed where he died, the guest rooms where the 18th-century equivalents of the Rat Pack stayed ... The first presidential chair is in his home office. That's gotta be the closest we've come to a throne in this country.
And there's much more than the house -- the outbuildings are pretty cool. There's a "pioneer farm" that demonstrates some of the agricultural techniques of the day and provides a home for the most dedicated costumed guides of all:
They don't break character and they even eat grass. That's impressive. There's also the wharf on the Potomac where Washington shipped out his goods, a forest walk, George and Martha's tomb, and a swanky new visitor's center and museum. They even have a disturbingly lifelike statue of Washington that was made with science and stuff. He doesn't talk, like the much cooler statue at Disney World, but it's still pretty impressive.
If you get the chance, go three miles down the road to Washington's mill (background) and distillery (foreground). If you owned a mill back in the day, you were a big shot -- it was actually the law that you couldn't hog it all for yourself, but instead you had to rent out milling time to your neighbors. So yes, Washington was a wheat pimp. Both the mill and the distillery are reproductions, but they're functioning -- so you get a chance to see 18th-century technology in action. The distillery was at one point the biggest whiskey-making operation in the country, run by Washington's Scottish estate manager. They finished rebuilding this year, and while they don't have booze for sale yet, they will soon enough. And that's when we party FOUNDING FATHER STYLE. That means we shoot our flintlock pistols into the air when we're drunk, and then send couriered notes on parchment to our ex-girlfriends. Now, you are wondering: if Washington was planning on going into the whiskey business later in life, does that explain the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794? OF COURSE. It was all part of Washington's evil business plan, which you will understand perfectly if you a) drink a fifth of whiskey and b) then read these pamphlets ...
Some general advice if you're visiting: If you get the chance, talk to the costumed workers outside of the main house -- they're the hard-core historical pros. The highlight of my day was asking the kind woman at the distillery the difference between the costumed and uncostumed guides, and her describing it as a "house slave / field slave" relationship. Get to know your guides. They're just as fun as the history. And for that matter, don't be shy about going twice. You're going to get some variety at Mount Vernon. My recent trip, for example, they had a recreation of one of the Jamestown ships parked at the wharf. Three ships like this carried all the Jamestown settlers to their happy new home 400 years ago:
I'm the one in the Indians T-shirt. If you think you might make it back within the year, go for the annual membership. Not only do you save money, but you get a Mount Vernon photo ID. And let me tell you, it opens some doors with the ladies.
Update: Egad, Martha (1/6/08)
I made it back to Mount Vernon on Jan. 6 (the Washingtons' anniversary), for a few reasons:
1) I have a serious problem.
2) The third floor was open!
Because of the fire code and whatnot, the top floor of George Washington's house is inaccessible to the public 11 months out of the year. But from the start of December to the 12th day of Christmas, you can actually get up there. Because in recorded history, there has never been a fire during these weeks, anywhere in the world.
We've all heard the rumors about George Washington's secret brain-damaged man-child, manacled to a wall in the attic away from company and forced to eat rats for sustenance. And yes, we've all wondered if maybe Washington didn't die of a throat infection, but in fact had his jugular torn out after hitting Bruno with a riding crop one time too many. But they don't show you that room, or even the secret door behind a portrait of John Paul Jones that would access it.
Instead, you get to see the lader up to the cupola, some storage rooms, some spare bedrooms, and one very interesting chamber: Martha's bedroom. After George died in 1799 (jugular), Martha shuttered their bedroom and moved to the third floor, staying in a smaller, darker room until her own death two and a half years later. If I heard right they have the original furniture and drapes still in the room. We don't really mourn people the way we used to, nor do most of us have mansions big enough to go around shuttering rooms. So to see her old room -- spacious, bright, decorated -- compared with her new room -- cramped, dark, spartan -- it really is a striking demonstration of what she must have been feeling without George. (Or Bruno, who was of course put down after killing George.) To steal a factoid from one of the guides, David MacCullough called Mount Vernon the autobiography Washington never wrote -- you get a remarkably solid idea of the man from the plantation and how it ran. Looks like you can learn something about Martha too.
Holiday visitors actually get to learn a LOT, as they hand out Martha's "Great Cake" recipe. Without reprinting the whole thing, I will mention that 40 eggs are involved, as well as 5 pounds of butter. Basically, the kind of recipe you can have when slave labor is involved. Yikes.
Federal Hall (2/8/08)
For 400 years New York has been devouring itself; a necessity brought on by the laws of real estate that has, over centuries, become a philosophy for living. The new springs forth on top of, underneath, next to and inside the old.
There are pockets of the past that survive. In 1789, New York was the bustling heart of a new and confused nation, though hardly the concrete island we imagine today -- what mattered of Manhattan ended before the numbered streets. (20th St. was a rural suburb at Teddy Roosevelt's birth in 1858; when his father moved the family far from the madding crowd in 1878, it was to the pastoral quiet of 57th St.) After a decade of post-Revolutionary muddling, the Constitution was finally in order, the Congress assembled. Just one piece of the puzzle remained, and so on April 30, General George Washington (retired), who had declined the titles of king and emperor, left his New York residence and proceeded with much fanfare to Wall Street.
At Federal Hall, a venerable meeting place where colonials had debated the Stamp Act and the seeds of the First Amendment had been planted in the years before the war, Washington ascended to the balcony of the first capitol. There, in front of his countrymen, he placed his hand on a stout leather-bound Bible and took the oath which officially made him the first president of the United States of America.
That building is gone. But the slab on which Washington stood that day remains, as does the Bible -- and both are on display in the Greek temple which stands on the spot, a building that has served as an office, and a Treasury vault, and now a museum. It's a shrine to the birth of American democracy, just across the way from a shrine to capitalism (the New York Stock Exchange), and on the steps outside you can still see Washington -- but twice the size, cast in metal, forever with his hand outstretched as though reaching for the Bible once again.
It's still Manhattan, though. From the inside, depending on the window, you can see into the building next door, where professional-looking people in expensive-looking spandex work out on treadmills in a room with too much wood paneling to have so many treadmills. And if you head west, within minutes you reach the site of the World Trade Center. It's mostly a hole in the ground. A cleaner, tidier hole with glimmers of progress, but still a hole. Standing and staring for a few minutes, you notice not just the destruction, but the people around it -- for every person contemplating the gaping void where two of the greatest feats of modern engineering stood, where thousands died, there are ten people strolling past seemingly without a second thought. Talking on cell phones in five different languages, lost in their own lives. Maybe they stopped and stared at one point, but now, not even seven years later, it's back to being a city block for many. The history isn't gone, but in New York, where everything is demolished and rebuilt eventually, maybe it's easier to let go.
Strange, then, that just a block from there stands St. Paul's chapel, a colonial-era parish. It is the oldest continuous-use public building in the city. The church has survived fires, and age, and on Sept. 11, the flying rubble of the the towers; it became a shrine to fallen rescue workers in the weeks that followed the attack, as well as an operations center for those still combing through the rubble. It functions today not just as a church, but as a museum -- and not just to the rescue workers, but to America's past. George Washington worshipped at that church. He had a private pew (it served as a station for rescue workers to have their feet rubbed in 2001); and on April 30, 1789, he attended services there on his first day as president.
He might have gone to services that day at Trinity, the "home office" for St. Paul's, just blocks away on Broadway. But that building had been destroyed by fire, and was in the process of rebuilding (in New York, a given). It was finished after New York had stopped serving as our capital (the government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, then the newly built city of Washington). Today the church and its graveyard still have their honored space in the heart of the financial district, and businessmen who give it no second thought walk every day within feet of the grave of Alexander Hamilton -- the Treasurer who may have made their careers possible; the father of the political party in America; a man who would probably have mixed feelings on the availability of jumbo soft pretzels within 200 feet of his final (courtesy of Aaron Burr) resting place. Engineers building on the World Trade Center site are within blocks of the crypt of Robert Fulton, the inventor and engineer whose work with steam engines helped make New York into the port that could one day sustain those towers.
We live beside history, and underneath it, and on top of it as well. On an island of millions, moving forward sometimes means ignoring that history -- or at the very least, not being held in its thrall. The resilience that makes Manahattan possible comes with the price of sometimes forgetting the things that made Manhattan great. But pockets do survive, if you want to take an afternoon to remember.
Deshler-Morris House (June 2010)
Philadelphia was not always the dazzling urban oasis that you see today. In the 1790s, there was a slight problem with corpses. As in hundreds of them, piled in the streets. Yellow fever was a mild impediment to good governance, and so George Washington took the federal business to scenic, wild and wonderful Germantown! Just six miles away, it had everything you look for in a summer capital: fresh air, and no blistering bodies. Plus a garden where Martha could tinker around for a few weeks.
The "Germantown White House," aka the Deshler-Morris House, was a furnished rental, and a place that Washington was familiar with -- a few years before, the battle of Germantown featured the house as a kind of pivot point for the British lines. The British commander even used it as an HQ as the battle, so the home was more than just a summer rental to Washington. It was sweet revenge against the limey bastards who licked him but good. Imagine one day entertaining guests in the home of the guy who gave you swirlie in high school. Same thing.
Plus it actually saw some political use! Washington had Cabinet meetings in his two summers at the house, and so Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton graced the parlor on more than one occasion. That's vacation for you: bitter political enemies, sharing some brewskis and watching the summer bunnies roll by the front window. Sometimes Hamilton would wax his Camaro out front while Jefferson manned the grill. Imagine mobilizing troops against whiskey distillers, or avoiding war with France, but at your beach house. Same thing.
The point is, it's a quaint little slice of American history. The furnishing isn't original, but the building has been renovated to its 18th century splendor, with spacious rooms and checkered hallways and a sweet garden lawn. The National Park Service is in charge, so they have a pleasant little museum display and some volunteers with fun stories. For instance, because Pennsylvania law called for the emancipation of any slave who stayed too long, George had to send his servants back to Mount Vernon in shifts. Fun! And George would often send his chief slave, Hercules, into the fever-ridden downtown to pick up dinner on cheesesteak Fridays. True, I swear!
Germantown itself has gotten a little scary, but do stop by if you have the chance. I stopped in on Father's Day, with my mom and dad in tow, and we're all still giddy about the experience. Or at the very least, I'm giddy, and they've learned to tolerate my moods. Of all the executive residences, the Deshler-Morris house is the oldest one left -- the homes from New York and downtown Philly are long gone, with no replicas just yet. With Congress gone for the summer months, that rental house was the undisputed center of American authority for months at a time. That's worth the price of admission, isn't it?
Yes, because it's free.
Monument 1.0 (5/15/08)
It's in Boonsboro, Maryland. After driving past the sign on I-70 for about 10 years I built up a critical mass of intrigue, much like a normal person might FINALLY decide to rent "Skyscraper" with Anna Nicole Smith after 300 visits to Blockbuster.
The ORIGINAL Washington Monument was built by the people of Boonsboro in 1827, and from what I can gather they did it barn-raising style. Everyone in the town walked up the local mountain, threw down a few drinks and built a 15-foot tower to honor our first commander in chief right around Independence Day. They came back later and built it up to 30 feet a few weeks later, when it was widely agreed that everyone in town was bored and had nothing better to do.
The original structure fell into a crap-like state twice, then got restored in the 1930s. The simple tower honors Washington by embodying his ... uh ... round stoniness. The Appalachian Trail now runs straight by it, so that all granola-munching eco-snobs with an REI membership and lots of vacation time can marvel in the glory that is GEORGE WASHINGTON.
The view from the top of the tower is really impressive, and the drive through the surrounding countryside is great. I'm not sure I'd tell you to go out of your way to see it, especially when Washington Monument 2.0 represents a more-than-slight upgrade. But as with the Jefferson book collection, if you have a freakish obsession with the presidents, this is totally in your wheelhouse. Go for it.