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George Washington’s iconic home, Mount Vernon, wears out like any other home. For 45 years, George himself oversaw and expanded the Mansion. As a child, he had lived in the home his father built in 1734, which was gradually expanded to the house we know today. After passing through the hands of his brother, niece, and his widowed sister-in-law, George first leased and then inherited the estate.
Owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association since they bought it in December of 1848, Mount Vernon requires constant maintenance and occasional major restorations and renovations. A significant project is under way now on the Mansion from 2023 to 2026. (Many outbuildings are also preserved on the estate.)
HVAC for preservation
In Washington’s day, his home relied on fireplaces, windows, and doors for heating and cooling. For the thousands of daily visitors to his home now, those sources are not adequate.
An underground utility bunker near the Mansion has been expanded to house updated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment. This replaces a system installed in 1999 in the cellar. The older system prevented some areas of the cellar from regular inspection, and due to humidity, some structural elements have deteriorated. This damage can now be repaired, and the new system will provide climate control in the cellar for the first time. When the project is complete, more of the cellar will be accessible to visitors.
Drainage for the cellar
Many of us have lived in or known of homes with a damp cellar—or even flooding—due to rain and groundwater intrusion. Washington himself dealt with this, and the drains he installed in the cellar have been uncovered in the course of repair work.
Despite his early efforts, dampness in the cellar has continued to cause problems, so new, underfloor drains are being installed.
How did the Washingtons use their cellar? They stored food and supplies, a familiar use for today’s “basement” areas. The cellar also housed a kitchen for use by the enslaved household staff. And at least one staff member is believed to have lived in the cellar.
Framing and masonry repairs
Scientific study of the Mansion’s first-floor joists has determined the date of construction to be 1734, when Augustine Washington, George’s father, owned the estate. Moisture and termites caused damage to the wood framing, and by the late 1800s several localized areas were repaired. Unfortunately, the repairs did not always take into account overall structural issues, and a more comprehensive repair is now needed.
(Photo by Martin Falbisoner)
Can you imagine all you would need to remove from your home’s structure to reach and repair the wooden framework within? And to do all that without damage, so it could all be replaced when the work is finished? The Mount Vernon Ladies Association is devoted to preservation of the Mansion as it was when Washington lived there, and I’m thankful that craftsmen are available today with the skills to do that work.
As for masonry, the stone and brick components in the 18th century were softer than today’s, and the mortar used to hold them together was also a soft mortar. Modern “Portland cement” is much harder. Repairs made during the last century using modern cement have contributed to the deterioration of the original brick and stone elements. A historic soft mortar will be used to replace the hard mortar, bringing these structural elements into a more original state.
Christmas at Mount Vernon
The Washingtons celebrated Christmas with special foods and traditions, as many of us do. At Christmas in 1787, George surprised the household and guests by hiring a camel to be brought to Mount Vernon. This year, Aladdin the camel will amuse visitors to the estate from November 26 to January 6. Special seasonal activities include a candlelight mansion tour, chocolate making, fifing demonstrations of 18th century holiday music, and fresh baked gingerbread.
One Washington family holiday tradition you can follow at home is baking Martha’s Great Cake. The recipe is available at Mount Vernon’s website.
Visiting Mount Vernon during preservation
If you plan to visit Mount Vernon—which I highly recommend—be sure to consult their website so you know what to expect during this busy time of restoration. Some parts of the mansion must be closed to allow this work to take place. However, the estate has many other attractions and a wonderful museum.
George Washington is quoted as saying “I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” As Washington said in 1797, I now send you “the compliments of the season, and the return of many, many more, and happy ones.”
Learn more about George Washington Speaks on our website.
This is the fifth year that George Washington has personally appeared at Harbor Ridge, a middle school in Gig Harbor, Washington. Students prepared a welcome sign that reflects their enthusiasm to hear from the first president. They knew they could ask any questions they wanted of him. I gave five presentations (a combination of seven classes) to eighth graders as part of their American History studies. Each of the five groups had a different personality, and they put George to work with their questions. It was exhilarating!
Before my visit, the teachers at Harbor Ridge Middle School submitted questions that their student wanted to ask George. Their primary interest was George himself. Knowing their questions in advance allowed me to craft a presentation just for them. And planning my visit in conjunction with their American History curriculum allowed the students to prepare, and consider questions for me that they might not otherwise have thought about.
In the Classroom
I began each presentation, dressed as General Washington, by asking them what they knew about me. They mentioned various facts about his family, education, social status and personality, and these were listed on a whiteboard. Then George filled in what they didn’t know about him. All of a sudden, George Washington became a real person, just like them. He had once been their age, and like any fourteen-year-old, he was awkward, shy, and fearful of being laughed at and made fun of.
Here are some of the questions we explored:
Was Washington wealthy or poor? Most thought he was wealthy and privileged, when actually, he was both.
Was he from a two-parent family? Most thought he was from a typical, two parent home, when the correct answer was “Yes and no.”
Then General Washington filled in the missing information, giving them more context about my life. In history—like many areas of life—context is everything.
Washington’s Family Life
Washington’s father married and had two sons, and then his first wife died. His father remarried, had six children with his second wife. George was the eldest of the second wife’s children, and when George was eleven, his father died. George’s father was a wealthy farmer and entrepreneur, and his sons would all have been well educated and wealthy—if their father had lived. But the bulk of wealth went to his two older half-brothers by primogeniture. Those older brothers had already been educated at a prominent school in England, something George had hoped for too. But his mother was left with a small farm, and chose not to remarry, so from age eleven, he was raised in poverty by a single mom.
This was a surprise to the students at Harbor Ridge. So you see, context is everything.
In the photo above, the young lady on the right is five feet tall, about the height of George when he was eleven, while the young man on the left is about six feet tall and about the height of George when he was fifteen. During those four years, George grew more than twelve inches, but his mother could not afford to buy him new clothes. She had to let out the clothing on the right to fit the body on the left.
George asked the student on the left: How are you feeling about wearing the smaller, older clothing?
He answered: Not good.
George gave some context with the next Question: Oh, by the way, wearing older clothes that are not in style and don’t fit, also includes the three or four socially important dances throughout the year where you meet young people from all around northern Virginia. Now how do you feel about being poorly dressed and the object of glances from those who are much better dressed?
Answer: Awkward. Embarrassed.
Question: Laughed at? Made fun of?
I have not found stories from Washington’s social life as a youth in anything I have read. Was the context true? Yes! His father died, he was part of the second family, a single mom raised him in poverty, his lack of education dogged him throughout his life, he was shy and awkward, and the local dances provided social opportunities. Fear of being laughed at? That detail is not recorded, but what do you think? This is part of historical interpretation.
The historical record provides a lot of information about George Washington’s life, and life in the colonies during his lifetime. My reading of more than one hundred books, visits to historical locations, and interviews with various authors, historians, and other specialists—all this informs the way I interpret and present Washington’s life.
After each presentation at the Harbor Ridge Middle School, the students came up to get selfies and ask individual questions. This young man had a couple of questions about Martha.
George accommodated him and then shared that five-foot-tall Martha would stand on her tip toes, grab his coat lapels and pull him down to get his attention, and then she would say “Now listen here old man”!
The students’ individual questions cover many topics, and reflect a strong interest in Washington and the founding of America. Likewise, the topics requested by teachers vary—some ask me to focus on the French and Indian War and Washington’s early military experience. One group wanted me to talk about agriculture and gardening at Mount Vernon, as Washington was renowned in his day for his expertise and experimentation with agriculture and animal husbandry. Learn more about George visiting students in their classrooms here https://georgewashingtonspeaks.com/for-students/
Can George Washington visit your classroom?
Most of my personal classroom visits take place in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. However, I have visited classes as far away as Nebraska, and will visit a school in Indiana in 2023 as part of a series of events there. I am always happy to visit using Zoom. If a school location requires travel, it’s always ideal if multiple presentations can be arranged on the same trip. Please email [email protected] to inquire about a visit!
For a recent presentation to students, I was asked to talk about agriculture in Washington’s life. After his birth on his father’s Popes Creek plantation, the agricultural life was Washington’s usual environment from his earliest days—the tobacco crops, the kitchen gardens and medicinal plants, the hedgerows, shade trees, and decorative plants surrounded him. His interest in them grew because his family made their living by raising and selling crops.
Washington also took a keen interest in animal husbandry. He bred and sold horses, and experimented with dog breeding to develop the Virginia Foxhound.
Mount Vernon’s more than 8,000 acres required a lot of management, and Washington had obligations beyond the plantation. He was a member of the House of Burgesses, and part of the Virginia militia. In 1766 he hired his distant cousin, Lund Washington—a young man in an unsettled condition—to learn farming and help manage the estate.
Washington knew tobacco depleted the soil, so he switched to growing wheat, and tried a variety of crop rotation practices to keep the farm productive.
When the American Revolution began, Lund Washington took on most of the responsibilities for management of Mount Vernon. The two of them kept up regular correspondence throughout the war—a time when the estate was losing money and virtually bankrupt. Many of their letters can be found on the National Archives website section called Founders Online.
In 1776 Washington sent Lund instructions for replacing some trees on the estate. His letter asked for: “all the clever kind of Trees (especially flowering ones) that can be got, such as Crab apple, Poplar, Dogwood, Sasafras, Lawrel, Willow (especially yellow & Weeping Willow, twigs of which may be got from Philadelphia) and many others which I do not recollect at present—these to be interspersed here and there with ever greens such as Holly, Pine, and Cedar, also Ivy—to these may be added the Wild flowering Shrubs of the larger kind, such as the fringe Tree…”
In other letters, Washington instructed Lund to propagate some of their own trees to plant around the estate. He also discussed reclaiming swampy land to create pastures, and selling parcels of land when cash was short.
Lund didn’t care much for keeping details records—information Washington was eager to have while he was away from home. In his letters, he questioned Lund about the crops, and the animals. How many colts this year? How many lambs? Sometimes horses were sold to provide cash.
After the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, eager to restore the estate’s productivity. Lund and his wife moved to another property of their own. When the presidency took Washington away again, he hired his nephew, Howell Lewis, to manage the estate.
Through a long stream of written correspondence, Howell provided reports on the oats, wheat, corn, and barley, the horses, sheep, pigs, and dogs. But these proved much less satisfying to Washington than seeing them for himself.
When he left the presidency, Washington was deeply gratified to return to the farming life he loved. He is quoted as saying, in 1797, “Agriculture is the most healthy, the most useful, and the most noble employment of man.”