In George Washington's footsteps

Virginia: Tourists can visit three homes of the nation's first president, tracing his life from birth to death.

Short Hop

February 17, 2002|By Michael Shuman | Michael Shuman,Special to the Sun

I'm standing on the site of Ferry Farm, George Washington's boyhood home on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, near the spot where legend has it that the nation's first president flung a silver dollar across the rolling waters.

I take a rock and throw. It lands -- plunk -- perhaps a third of the way across.

Did the Father of Our Country really throw a silver dollar across the river? One can find the answer -- sort of -- at three of Washington's Virginia homes.

George Washington Birthplace National Monument sits near the region's other famed river, the Potomac, about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. Ferry Farm, where young George came of age, is on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. And the home where he lived as an adult, Mount Vernon, is about 16 miles from the nation's capital.

The early days

Welcome to baby George's world, where people pinned sachets of orange spiked with cloves inside their clothes in the days before deodorant, slaves slept on corn-husk beds in a detached kitchen, and the youngest child emptied the family chamber pots every morning. This was life on the mid-sized tobacco plantation of a gentleman farmer in 1732, when George Washington came into the world on Feb. 22. Today, a reproduced 18th-century plantation marks the site.

In the detached kitchen at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, park ranger Jennifer Kays explains, "Baths were taken only five or six times a year to preserve natural oils thought at the time to protect people from illnesses." Hence, oranges and cloves instead of soap and water.

Kays demonstrated 18th-century kitchen appliances that a comfortable planter like George's father, Augustine Washington, would have owned, such as a roasting spit, a kick toaster operated by foot and a new invention called a waffle iron.

Dinners were heavy on venison, fish and a variety of breads. Such feasts added pounds, but that was the idea. Big bellies were the fashion, and false pads to make stomachs appear large were as popular as diet drinks are today. If meat had spoiled in the heat of the summer, one might have added basil or red peppers to cover up the stale flavor. Peppermint tea was served to settle indigestion.

The eight-room main house is not original. When built in 1930-1931, it was thought to replicate the home where Augustine and Mary Washington lived with their family. Subsequent research has indicated that the real main house was about half its size. Research also has shown that the current house does not sit on the original home's foundation, which was 30 yards to the south and is marked by an oyster shell outline. The detached kitchen does sit on the original kitchen's location, but is probably bigger than the one where the Washington family slaves would have fixed supper.

Other replica buildings include a weaving room and blacksmith workshop, and in an introductory film one learns that in the days before Hershey bars and bubble gum, raisins were a treat for kids.

Coming of age

If George Washington did indeed throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock and chop down his father's cherry tree, the deeds were accomplished here at Ferry Farm, the site of his boyhood home, just across the river from Fredericksburg.

Such legendary stories flowed from the prolific pen of Parson Mason Weems at the turn of the 19th century. They are also among the main reasons why this patch of real estate was saved in 1996 from being paved over and replaced by a Wal-Mart.

Ferry Farm is now owned and operated by George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation, which also owns and operates Historic Kenmore, the nearby plantation home of Washington's sister Betty.

Washington lived here from age 6 to 20, and no buildings from his time still stand. The original main house burned on Christmas Eve 1740 when George was 8. Augustine Washington's replacement home lasted into the early 1800s, but died a slow, crumbling death.

The sole existing structure, a small frame building with a brick chimney, was long regarded by locals as Washington's first sur-veyor's office. Research has since shown that the building is made from materials dating to the 1890s and was probably a farmhand's house. Then again, the work done in the 1890s may have been a re-furbishment of a much older building.

Paul Schuster, manager of visitor programs, says archaeological excavations are under way on the property. One of several children's workshops taking place regularly is called "I Dig George" and introduces children to archaeology.

A self-guided walking tour takes visitors past detailed historic markers, the remains of an 18th-century ice house and the outline of Augustine Washington's first home here. A children's learning garden is where the Wal-Mart parking lot would have been. And of course, there is the Rappahannock, where one can try to emulate Washington's throw.

Did young George really chuck a buck across the water? And did he really chop down the cherry tree?

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