Washington's world worthy destination

Mount Vernon remains a must-see spot


Road Trips Regional Events

April 21, 2005|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1798, George and Martha Washington entertained more than 675 guests at their home, Mount Vernon.

That's almost two guests per night every night of the year.

It was enough to make George note in his personal diary the few occasions he and his wife actually dined alone.

More than 200 years later, visitors are still coming in droves to Mount Vernon - a total of almost 80 million at last count.

Always a popular field trip for children in this region, those who haven't been to the landmark Virginia estate since their elementary school days will find some surprises.

While the estate no longer encompasses the 8,000 acres over which Washington once presided, today's Mount Vernon is a close facsimile on a smaller scale. Beyond the historic mansion, outbuildings, gardens and the Washington family tomb, there is a continuing archaeological dig, a "Pioneer Farm," a working grist mill and a wharf where boats dock after a short cruise on the Potomac River. Gardening Days is this weekend.

Exhibits range from artifacts owned by the first president to activities that let visitors experience life in Colonial times.

Mount Vernon's prime visiting season started this month with extended hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through August. With so much to see and do, it's easy to fill a day there.

Tours - scheduled at various times daily - include a garden and landscape walk, an overview on slave life and the "Tribute at the Tomb," a wreath-laying commemorating the lives of the nation's first president and his wife. An "Adventure Map" for kids uses clues found on the estate to help solve a puzzle about George Washington.

Visitors who want to see the estate on their own can rent audio devices ($4) at the gate for a self-guided tour of 20 spots or purchase the 160-page guidebook ($5) of photos and extensive written history and use it to walk the grounds and then take it home as a souvenir.

History buffs and those who admire Washington's wisdom will wander Mount Vernon in awe. Even those who aren't so interested in the nation's past will find something to draw them in, be it the cuddly sheep (an heirloom livestock breed), the shady walking trails or the spectacular view from the rocking chairs on the mansion's back porch.

At the Pioneer Farm, visitors learn that Washington experimented with 60 different crops before settling on the wheat, corn, potatoes and other plants that seemed best suited to his soils. This at a time when the prevailing wisdom deemed tobacco the most worthy cash crop.

The farm's 16-sided round treading barn - a reproduction of the original building Washington designed - is an engineering marvel. Wheat was piled on the slatted floor of the barn and horses or mules walked over it in a continuous circle. The grain fell through the slats, where it was gathered for storage. The straw was swept out and used for livestock bedding. And then the process began again. It is now demonstrated regularly for visitors.

Washington, whose father died when he was young, spent a fair portion of his youth at Mount Vernon, staying with the owner at that time, his elder brother, Lawrence. Lawrence, too, died an early death, and so the estate passed to George.

Washington did not reside permanently at Mount Vernon until after he married in 1759. Washington established his new wife, the widow Martha Custis, and her two children on the estate and then spent the better part of the next decades trying to return to them.

The Revolutionary War and his two terms as president intervened. During that time, Mount Vernon was run according to Washington's plan thanks to Martha's watchful eye, a few trusted overseers and a legion of slaves.

When Washington stepped down after his second term as president ended in 1797, he returned to an estate that had grown to almost four times its original size.

After his death in 1799, Mount Vernon was divided among his heirs. Eventually it was conveyed to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which continues to operate the privately owned national landmark.

Travel tips

Today's guests at Mount Vernon must heed the same rule that travelers did in Washington's time: Dress for the weather. If cold, extreme heat or rain threaten, be prepared with appropriate clothing, sunscreen, umbrellas etc. Comfortable shoes are a must. Seeing Mount Vernon properly involves a lot of walking around outside.

Secondly, be patient. There is almost no way to escape a line. Don't schedule your visit to the mansion until the end of the day, thinking the throngs of school kids and other tourists will have headed elsewhere. The day we visited, two bus loads of middle-schoolers from California were dropped off about 3 p.m. - right after their plane landed at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

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