George Washington, without all the hype

Fredericksburg attractions include first president's boyhood home

Short Hop

February 20, 2005|By Jerry V. Haines | Jerry V. Haines,Special to the Sun

There's a monument at the corner of Washington Avenue and Pitt Street in Fredericksburg, Va., engraved to proclaim that the woman buried below it is "Mary, the Mother of Washington."

It sounds almost biblical, consistent with the high regard many people had for George Washington and his family. (Lots of people disliked him, too; they just didn't make statements in marble about it.)

But to me what's attractive about Fredericksburg is the opportunity it gives us to sweep away the legendary stuff -- good or bad -- and see the day-to-day realities of Washington's life and the lives of people of his time.

Located between Washington and Richmond, Fredericksburg is probably better known as a place for Civil War scholarship than for study of the Revolutionary War. But George Washington is the link to Colonial and revolutionary-era America.

He was born Feb. 22, 1732, on Virginia's Northern Neck, about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. When he was 6 years old, his family moved to Ferry Farm, at Falmouth, just across the Rappahannock River. There he would spend his childhood and teen years, chopping down cherry trees and throwing silver dollars across the river.

Gotcha! He probably didn't do either of those things.

The cherry tree story most likely was originated in the next century, long after Washington's death, as part of a cult of Washington adoration. And, although he was a strong young man with a good arm, what Washington threw across the Rappahannock was a rock, thereby depriving future comedians of punch lines about how a dollar doesn't go as far as it used to.

Fredericksburg is neatly laid out in a rectangular grid of one-way, tree-shaded streets. The map provided by the Visitor Center points out the conveniently grouped historic sights and estimates walking time.

It's difficult to take an uninterrupted stroll through Fredericksburg, for there are too many distractions. Antiques shops, modern galleries, venerable old houses turned into B&Bs -- all compete for your attention with museums and historic churches.

Town pharmacy

In Washington's day, a town pharmacy was run by Hugh Mercer, a brigadier general in Washington's army as well as his friend. His apothecary shop on Caroline Street is now a museum staffed by docents in period dress who explain the health concerns of Colonial Americans and the compounds used to alleviate them: millipede tea for treatment of whooping cough, for example, or a powder made from crab claws to ease "tavern distress."

Phlegm bothered hypochondriacs of the time, who believed that it came from the brain, which would dry out if too much were produced. Guides at the shop explain the use of amputation knives, primitive dental instruments and lancets for bloodletting (the use of which may have killed Washington as doctors endeavored to cure his "quinsy" -- severe throat inflammation).

A guide also will reach into a jar and pull out a live leech, which nearly fills the palm of her hand.

Nearby is the Rising Sun Tavern, built as a house for Washington's brother, Charles, but converted to a tavern in 1792. Now it provides colorful insights into early American life.

A woman dressed as a tavern wench -- a term she says means "young woman" and has no negative connotation -- proudly describes her place of employment as a quality hostelry. After all, they change the bath water after a mere three users, and men are permitted to sleep only five to a bed.

In the tap room, she describes the beverages and food that guests would expect to find, including venison and other game, fish and, for dessert, cake with calf's foot jelly and whipped cream.

Liquid refreshment came as ale, homemade beer and cider, or, for the fashionable tippler, imported rum. A popular mixed drink was called "flip," and was made from beer, molasses, sugar and rum.

Among Washington's local admirers was James Monroe. The man who would become the fifth U.S. president practiced law in Fredericksburg after the Revolutionary War. He held many posts in state and federal government, including a three-year stint as minister to France during Washington's presidency, although the two did not always get along.

His descendants established the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, where you can examine Monroe's personal artifacts and nod politely as a fiercely loyal docent complains that Monroe, not Thomas Jefferson, should get credit for the Louisiana Purchase.

Another name from America's birth linked to Fredericksburg is John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy. The house that locally is called the John Paul Jones House actually belonged to his brother, William. Jones, like many sailors of that period, had no permanent address, but frequently visited William. That building currently is occupied by a shop specializing in the re-creation of antique lighting fixtures, but many of the original aspects of the house are preserved.

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