One of the top items on our bucket list has been to go see the new and improved Mount Vernon. (We’ve been there before, but it was at least ten years ago, before the renovations.) Today was the first day that even came close to real spring weather here in DC, and so we went for it.
It was very lucky we decided to beat the crowd and get there around 9:30. There was still parking available, but huge fleets of buses were already lining up at the gate.
I haven’t been to a major tourist attraction around here for a while. Not much has changed: most American tourists are overweight, and student groups still wear matchy-matchy clothes.
This was the line to get into the mansion at 10 AM! We talked to a guy later who said that he wasn’t even able to get into the house, and that this was the second time that had happened to him. That would be a bummer, to pay $15 and not even be able to get into the house.
If you can’t get in, there is a slick new information center and museum with a dollhouse that is an exact replica. The roof even lifts up so you can see the garret rooms.
The museum is sort of generic, but pretty good. Other than the movie (which includes a decent battle scene) it focuses on George Washington as a Virginia farmer, rather than as a soldier or politician. He was much more closely associated with what became the Confederate elite than most people realize. For example, the Washington family silver was saved from Union troops by Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who was Martha Washington’s great-grand-daughter. In a classic Confederate move, she buried it in the yard when her husband told her the Yankees were coming.
Many, if not most, of the items in the museum were donated by Washington’s very Southern descendants, and those closely associated with them, including a military field telescope donated by Jefferson Davis himself. Even the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which rescued the dilapidated mansion in 1858 and still runs the place, was started by a woman from South Carolina. Just interesting.
But there’s a lot of other stuff to see. There’s a working farm with lots of information about Washington’s progressive farming techniques. He was into compost, crop rotation, and cover crops before they were cool. He adapted native American techniques such as burying fish heads in the garden to add nutrients. He was kind of like Thomas Jefferson except much less flighty. In fact, he was a good businessman.
As you walk away from the house and down the path to the riverside farm, the number of people drops by about 80 percent, and their average weight drops by about 100 pounds. Apparently, most visitors just don’t bother (or are too elephantine) to make it down the hill. And there wasn’t one school group down there. It was a lot quieter, but it’s kind of a shame all those kids don’t get to see actual crops growing in actual dirt. Not to mention the slave cabin, barn, and animals. (By the way, I have decided that split-rail fences are native to Virginia, and will therefore certainly be allowed by the Reston Association at my next house, right?)
As we left, we found all the people who weren’t at the farm. They were in the gift shop, buying items like these special edition collectible and commemorative Mount Vernon eggs.
For $2 on top of the regular ticket, you can go see Washington’s grist mill and distillery. It’s just about 3 miles down the road, but there was hardly anyone there. So, we got a really nice tour of this very cool gristmill. I didn’t get a photo of the outside, but you can see it here. I actually think it’s way more interesting than the mansion. It’s a complete replica of what was, at the time, the height of technology.
A huge water wheel runs a drive shaft down the middle of the building. Running off the shaft, with an incredible series of handmade wooden Archimedes gears, are all the functions of a mill, from grinding, to sifting, to dumbwater-type things that move the grain around the four floors of the mill, to a big rake for the drying room on the top floor. It’s just really cool when they open the flap to let the water run in, and then about ten different mechanisms start grinding, sifting, moving, etc. It makes you wonder why we don’t use water power more than we do now.
In the 1790s, Washington hired a Scotsman as his farm manager. Being Scots, he saw grain and water and naturally thought: whiskey! So, he talked Washington into letting him build a distillery on the site. The distillery was a huge success, even though it produced what we would consider to be moonshine. It quickly became the largest distillery in the country. A complete replica of it, built on the original foundations, was completed just a few years ago. We were walked through the whole distilling process, which was quite educational. Apparently, it is astonishingly easy to make your own whiskey, if you aren’t too picky about the taste.
Finally, we had lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn, which surprised us by not being at all a rip-off. In fact, it was quite good, and reasonably priced. I recommend the “turkey Pye” with biscuit topping. Yum!