Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Virginia / Washington's Mt. Vernon

The Home of George Washington
Mount Vernon, Virginia

Estate Mansion Green
I was headed south for a week-long teacher's institute at Colonial Williamsburg but first made a side trip on the way to see George Washington's beloved Mount Vernon along the Potomac River in Virginia. This was the home of the father of our country, a sacred place to George Washington and yet throughout his life, public service would pull him away time and time again to serve the young nation. First he served as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and promised his wife Martha that he would return home in time to celebrate Christmas. He retained his promise to her and did return home in time to celebrate the holidays, eight long years later.

Mount Vernon Mansion
Mount Vernon was a constant work in progress and George Washington oversaw the property's evolution into a grand Georgian style estate modeled after those found in Europe. During the war he corresponded frequently with his cousin and friend Lund Washington who ran the day-to-day operations of the estate in his absence. His letters gave instructions concerning various expansion and construction projects, as well as the agricultural production of the five farms surrounding Mount Vernon. One cannot ignore the fact that the man who was leading the movement to overthrow British control of the colonies had so much to lose if the cause was lost. His willingness to risk and potentially sacrifice everything he had in the name of liberty, certainly inspired others to risk their own possessions for political freedom.
 View of the Potomac
Later, he was pulled away again to serve as the nation's first president moving to an apartment in the nation's capital at that time, New York City. As he worked to unite the young nation and avoid conflict with foreign governments he realized from his own personal experience in New York that a new, more centrally located national capital was needed to anchor the northern and southern states. The District of Columbia would later be created as a keystone capital city that would geographically join the north and south and help unite the United States of America. Nearing the conclusion of his second term as president, Washington decided to retire from public life and return to the home he had managed and built from a distance. He felt he had done more than his fair share by serving as general and then president, sacrificing 16 years of his life for the nation. The country had progressed well under his watch and was off to a good start, his goals were accomplished, and he stepped out. He had finally returned to the role of citizen farmer where he concentrated on agricultural science and techniques.

Mock Marble Siding
One unique characteristic of many of the buildings at Mount Vernon, including the mansion, are the exterior walls. Even from a short distance away, the exterior gives the illusion that the walls are made of stone. In fact, the sides are actually wooden planks carved in the shape of rectangles to resemble blocks of stone. The planks are then painted white and covered with fine sand while the paint is still wet to complete the illusion. Upon drying the exterior has the look and feel of stone.

Washington's Wheat Farm
George Washington retired to Mount Vernon and lived out the final years of his life on his estate which was constantly filled with visitors, friends, and family. He spent his time experimenting with new crop rotations and new farming techniques. He is often considered a pioneer in the field of agriculture, as he was concerned with the environmental impact on the land. He felt traditional methods would destroy the fertile land and sought new methods to preserve the land for future crops and generations. Unfortunately, his stay at Mount Vernon was once again brief as he died a short two years later of pneumonia following a tour of his fields on a cold day in driving sleet and rain.

Washington Family Tomb
Washington's tomb is on the grounds a short distant from the house in a quiet wooded space. The current tomb replaced the family structure that had previously deteriorated in 1831 and contains the bodies of George, Martha, and other family members. A short distance away is an area that was designated as a burial place for the many African-American slaves and free blacks that worked on the plantations. All slave plots are unmarked and no records were maintained of the names or the number of people buried in this wooded section of the property. A pathway has been constructed through the area ending in a small circular monument in their honor.

Restored Slave Cemetery
This space also contains the remains of Billy Lee Washington who was George Washington's personal slave servant and constant companion. He is the only slave to be openly freed in Washington's will where it is also noted he was awarded a pension of $30 a month for life and the option to live on the grounds of Mount Vernon, which he did until his death sometime around 1828. Despite his importance in Washington's life... accompanying him on campaign during the war, his presidency in New York, and retirement at Mount Vernon... he is also buried in an unknown, unmarked location within the slave cemetery hillside.  Sadly, the one man who probably knew Washington best remained silent as he was never interviewed to have his thoughts and perceptions recorded for history.

Mount Vernon Estate
Source: Lithograph / The Granger Collection
The interior of the house is off limits to cameras, which is probably an incentive for you to buy the guidebook at the gift shop... which, I did. By the way, it is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it! The house is filled with very bright colors, some which might be described today as gaudy. In some rooms the walls and woodwork are painted all the same color, with only the ceiling standing out in contrast in bright white. My favorite room of the house was the first room you see on the tour, which is the large dining room. This multipurpose room is painted various shades of green (Washington's favorite color) with intricate white plaster stencil designs framing multiple angles and edges throughout the room.

Key to the Bastile
The one artifact I found most fascinating was a large key mounted in a metal-framed display case that turned out to be the main key to the Bastile prison in France where the French Revolution first began. It was a gift to Washington from his old friend from the American Revolution the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette credited him with helping to inspire the people of France to overthrow their own monarchy system of government. It was the first item visitors would see upon entering the center hallway of the house where it was proudly displayed and where it remains today.

Multipurpose Large Dining Room
Source: Photograph / Mount Vernon Estate Website
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
The Mount Vernon estate was passed through several generations of relatives where the property fell into disrepair and was later abandoned. The property went up for sale in the late 1950's but neither the national or state government of Virginia showed any interest in the purchase and restoration of the property. However, in 1960 the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association came through to purchase the estate following five years of fund raising. The nonprofit association purchased the 200-acre property and slowly accomplished the restoration of the house and support buildings. The association still owns, maintains, and operates the property today.

General George Washington
(American Revolution Period)
The visitor center is built slightly off sight as not to disturb the historical setting of the plantation. Here you will find several excellent gift shops, a food court, and an excellent museum. One of the never-ending questions the displays attempt to answer is... What did George Washington really look like? In 1785, world-renowned French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon came to Mount Vernon to make a life-like bust of George Washington. It is considered the most accurate likeness of the founding father. In partnership with the Discovery Channel, the museum has used modern technology in combination with Houdon's bust to recreate Washington's appearance at various stages of his life. The results of the project are three life size dioramas of Washington during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and his inauguration in New York City.

Colonel George Washington
(French and Indian War Period)
Overall, the estate was a great experience. I showed up mid morning on a rainy day and was shocked to see the line to get into the house tour was several football fields long. I waited well over an hour outside as the long single file line inched slowly forward. I also made some new friends from Nebraska who didn't have an umbrella! I would love to go back and explore the long walking trail along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway that parallels the Potomac River on your way to the estate. It is a ten mile long paved trail that is called the Potomac Heritage Trail. It looks like something worth checking out on a rain free day.

Please See My Additional Photographs of Mount Vernon...



  1. I enjoyed the blog, hope to read more soon, and I also hope to travel to mount Vernon also sometime over the summer.

  2. Very nice very nice.


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