A Visit to Mt. Vernon
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— Summer is not the best time to visit Mt. Vernon, the home built in 1754 by our first president, George Washington, because of the extreme heat. Nonetheless, we were there on one of those hot days in early June that arrives like a band of trumpets so soon after the passing of May.
The word “hot” doesn’t’ quite define temperatures we endured. “Beastly” is more fitting, a word Mother always used for unpleasant temperatures. How Colonists survived Virginia summers without air conditioning is beyond imagination. One thing is certain—our forefathers were heartier than we are.
It had been at least 25 years since we had visited Mt. Vernon and the changes were monumental. The Ford Motor Co. and Donald W. Reynolds foundations had pumped big money into building orientation and educational centers along with a museum and restaurant where visitors could acclimate to Mt. Vernon before beginning the tour.
We were guests of Boyce Ansley, member of the prestigious Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, who had planned a day for us beginning with lunch in her apartment before our tour, which was conducted by retired ace history teacher, John Marshall. Yes, that was his real name and he really knew U.S. history.
We saw three films that depicted George Washington’s life before, during and after the Revolutionary War where he had served the nation as general and later as its first president. A well-educated man with firm understanding as to what the struggling new nation was trying to create, Washington was a courageous leader who led a rag-tag army through years of abject misery to final victory against the British in Yorktown. Far above and beyond the despicable, big-spending, promise-you-anything-to-get-your-vote kind of politicians so prevalent today, Washington had both honor and ability to chart our new course.
The Revolutionary War Theater even treated us to fog and snow as we saw a movie of Washington crossing the Delaware that fateful Christmas morning when he beat the British in a surprise attack. Our seats and the walls of the theatre shook and rumbled as the cannon fire blazed against Trenton. It was as if we were there ourselves to help throw the paid Hessian soldiers out of town.
Standouts in the museum were George Washington’s famous wooden dentures, his sword, snuff box, and the first Purple Heart medal, which he created to award his soldiers for courage. I also liked the life-size bronze statues of George and Martha and her two small children that greeted us at the front door. George’s outstretched hand greeting visitors from all over the world over the years had been worn shiny from all the hands that had gripped it, including mine. I was surprised at how short Mrs. Washington had been.
After the air-conditioned museum, we moved quickly through the heat of slave quarters, outbuildings and gardens to the mansion where a little air conditioning helped in spite of open doors and milling crowds. A hostess dressed as Mrs. Washington welcomed us. When she heard we were visiting from Episcopal High School, she spoke of how much the Anglican Church had meant to “dear George” and she read us his favorite, Psalm 100 from the beautiful Book of Common Prayer.
We toured the stately rooms dressed in original antiques and china, but the best was going to the top floor and climbing a ladder that took us up inside the cupola. What a view of the Potomac River and surrounding farmlands. Washington believed his home had been built on the most beautiful site in the nation, and I agree. Fortunately, Mt. Vernon has been successful in buying surrounding land both in Virginia and Maryland, and the view of the river is as it was in Washington’s day.
Later we visited his granary mill and distillery where Washington once produced his own special brand of rye whiskey. We sampled it and it was so powerful that my mouth went numb. It was fun to raise a glass and toast the “Father of our Country,” but I was relieved when sensation returned.
We learned the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association had been formed to save George Washington’s home, which by 1860 had fallen into gross disrepair. With money the ladies raised themselves (because Congress had no money, just like today), they purchased the home and 200 acres of land from one of Washington’s descendants. This far-sighted action saved this spectacular historical site for posterity.
Mt. Vernon offers a unique educational experience that really connects visitors emotionally to our nation. I only hope more Americans will take time to learn about the Father of our Country, Revolutionary War, and thrilling beginnings of our great republic.