Thursday, June 21, 2007

Washington’s Mt. Vernon

In January I posted a series of posts about presidential homes, I’d visited in Virginia. Now you might have noticed a serious gap – I didn’t go to Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. The reason was simple – I’d already been there ten years earlier so I choose to go places I hadn’t been. Now even if you didn’t notice, George and Martha certainly did and have been harping on me ever since that I really needed to feature Mt. Vernon at the APB so that’s what I’m doing today.

Mt. Vernon Today

Mt. Vernon is owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association since 1858 and has been open to the public since 1860. Before that it was owned by the Washington family, but was in disrepair.

Mt. Vernon in 1858

The house at Mt. Vernon is quite lovely, but it is the 500 acres of grounds that make this such a spectacular place to visit (45 acres are open to visitors). You can take a virtual tour of the house on the web if you can’t make it to Virginia. You can also tour the grounds virtually. There is so much to do and see at Mt. Vernon – there are tours running constantly on a huge variety of subjects, there are a multitude of buildings to see and then there are several great centers/museums to tour as well. Mt. Vernon could be a week long trip in itself and it is a great place to take kids.

The gristmill

Now since there is so much I could feature from Mt. Vernon, I’m choosing one of the newest attractions – the gristmill:

George Washington first acquired a gristmill when he inherited Mount Vernon from the widow of his half-brother, Lawrence, in 1754. This first enterprise was a "custom mill," where wheat and corn were ground not for sale, but mainly for neighboring farmers and for consumption on the Estate.

In 1770, Washington decided to build a "merchant mill," which began operation the following year. Here flour and cornmeal were ground, not only for use at Mount Vernon but also for sale up and down the East Coast of America and as far away as Portugal and the West Indies. The new mill had two pairs of stones. One pair was used to grind wheat into flour, and the other pair was used to grind corn into meal. It is a reconstruction of this mill that you can see today at Mount Vernon.

The water for the mill came from Dogue Run stream. The flour Washington sold was loaded onto ships from a wharf located on the stream's waterfront.

At this same location, Washington ran a distillery for making whiskey, and a cooperage, where barrels were made for storing and shipping the products produced at the site. Mount Vernon archaeologists began a long-term excavation of the entire area in the spring of 1997, and excavated the Distillery until 2006. The Distillery is being rebuilt and will open to the public in the April 2007.

The website is also a great resource – including teaching resources, the papers of George Washington, the archeology and preservation going on continuously at Mt. Vernon, and tons of in depth information on Washington, his family and his home. As such, I’m also going to feature one piece from the website information. There is a great piece about the building of Mt. Vernon and the men (slaves as well as white contractors) who built the house:

Over the four decades he spent building Mount Vernon, George Washington struggled to acquire the necessary materials and skilled workmen to carry out his vision. With few manufacturing operations in the colonies, Washington was forced to import a wide variety of specialized building materials to complement the more basic items like lumber, bricks, and mortar, that could be acquired from the plantation or purchased from local suppliers. Washington employed an array of workmen to carry out his projects. These included skilled Mount Vernon slaves who worked as carpenters, painters, and brickmakers, as well as hired white craftsmen.

Lund Washington: For almost a decade Lund Washington served as the Mount Vernon plantation manager. During the extended period when George Washington was away during the Revolutionary War, his responsibilities increased to include overseeing a variety of construction projects. It was he who was called upon to carry on the second major expansion of the mansion that George Washington had embarked upon just before he was called away to the war in 1775. Lund apparently did not share his cousin’s relish for building, and he seems to have been especially frustrated by the wartime shortages of materials and manpower. George Washington kept in close contact with his manager through weekly correspondence, and their letters back and forth include detailed instructions and advice on the one hand and questions and progress reports on the other.

Thomas Green: For Washington, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of his workers appears to have been an ongoing challenge. The behavior of Thomas Green, a skilled “joiner and house carpenter” who served as “overlooker” of the slave carpenters for six years, typified some of the problems Washington found so exasperating. Green’s fondness for drink, his stubbornly independent nature, and his tendency to move from one project to another without finishing, often left Washington fuming over Green’s idleness and carelessness. How did Thomas Green manage to keep his job? A shortage of men with his high level of skill certainly worked in his favor. In addition, Green had married Sally Bishop, the daughter of Washington’s personal servant, Thomas Bishop. Convinced that Sally and her children would suffer if her husband were fired, Washington’s loyalty to the Bishop family compelled him to keep Green employed.

Isaac: Skilled in carpentry and charged with considerable responsibility, Isaac occupied a unique place in the Mount Vernon labor structure. While the great majority of slaves worked as field laborers, many were trained in a variety of building trades and plantation crafts such as brickmaking, carpentry, painting and plastering, spinning and weaving, and blacksmithing. Isaac was in charge of the carpentry shop, which called for both turning skills and bench carpentry. He made spokes for wheels, axletrees for carts, handles for chisels, and fingers for cradling. Isaac also made and repaired sills, plates, posts, and rafters for building frames. By the 1790s, Isaac was directing the other carpenters in erecting simple buildings.

William Sears: English woodcarver William Sears arrived in the colonies in 1752, at the age of 20. He may have been a convicted felon, sentenced to seven years’ indentured servitude for stealing clothes. George Washington’s neighbor, George Mason, bought the indenture and Sears spent five years creating brilliant ornamental carvings throughout the interior of Mason’s home, Gunston Hall. By 1772, with a wife and child, Sears had become a respected, independent artisan. Two years later, he was commissioned by Washington to carve a chimneypiece for Mount Vernon’s small dining room. Sears may have provided the design, an illustration from Swan’s pattern book, The British Architect. The final result was magnificent, and is considered by many to be the finest single piece of decoration at Mount Vernon.

Some things to remember if you do visit Mt. Vernon:

  • It is extremely close to DC – just 16 miles. You can drive (there is free parking) or take the metro (you’ll have to grab a connector bus, but its easy). There are also various bus tours during the season.
  • Mt. Vernon is open year round, but does have shorter hours during the winter. There are programs year round, so check out the website or call ahead if you want to see if you can make one of these great events.
  • Adult tickets to Mt. Vernon are $13 (additional $2 for the gristmill tour if you add it when you buy your general ticket). There are discounts for seniors and kids.

Mt. Vernon also asks all visitors to abide by these customs and courtesies:

  • Photography is prohibited in the Mansion, all of the galleries of the Museum, and in the Leader's Smile Gallery of the Education Center.
  • Strollers and motorized "scooters" are not allowed in the Mansion or the George Washington Museum.
  • No food and beverage, except bottled water, is allowed on the estate.
  • Dogs that are service animals are welcome at Mount Vernon, but are not permitted in the Mansion, the theaters of the Ford Orientation Center, or the galleries of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.
  • No gum in the Mansion.
  • Never take flowers or other plant materials.
  • Do not feed the animals.

Take a day (or a week!) and explore the home of our first President - you can do it in person or via the web!


elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I visited Mt. Vernon in the 7th grade. It was a lovely place. It's hard to imagine that anyone would allow it to be neglected...

Jennie W said...

I can't imagine purposefully destroying any historical place, but people do it all the time. Its amazing what some people will destroy in the name of progress!

The Tour Marm said...

Mount Vernon has been besieged by student vandals and there has been a great deal of needless wear and tear.

I would suggest that one visits in the autumn and not during March-June as they are the busiest months for student touring. If you need to go during those months, then the late afternoon is best (3:30 PM on). The rule has been, if one is in line for the mansion before 5:00 PM, one will get into the mansion. First thing in the morning and after 12:30PM are the worst times during the height of the season.

Public transportation from the greater Washington, DC/Northern Virginia area by contacting metro: 202-637-700 or planning your trip on their website:

Because of the crowds, I have opted to send my groups to Gunston Hall.

However, the Mount Vernon Inn is lovely and reservations should be made; it is an oasis and the food is good.