My mother-in-law was recently in town, and I was racking my brains about things we could all together so she could be with the baby, enjoy the outdoor weather, get there by car(s) (since there are enough of us in the family now where with a visitor we don’t all fit in one vehicle), and would also feel like something very “DC” that she wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere. So I was very proud of myself when I had the idea that we should all go to Mount Vernon. I felt a little disappointed later when I was told that she’d been there a few years ago on her last visit, but it’s ok. There wasn’t an adorable baby girl with her that last time, and it turns out, she hadn’t seen everything.
So as you may (or may not?) know, Mount Vernon is the estate that George Washington lived at prior to and after becoming the first President of the United States. In the 1850s, when his descendants had allowed the estate to go into disrepair, a group of women gathered together to form the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the oldest national historic preservation organization in the country. These ladies essentially saved the house and grounds, and promoted George Washington as the national hero that we know him as today. Another awesome thing that we can thank women for doing.
But what’s there? Obviously there is the house, and as part of your entry, you can choose a time to do a “tour”. I put that in quotation marks because unlike the tours at both Monticello and Montpelier, this is not a guided group tour. I’m guessing because so many people come visit that the method they’ve found which works best is putting people in a long line, and then strategically placing docents in rooms and areas throughout the house. These docents give a short spiel that lasts just long enough where people can look at the various areas on display, ask questions, and by the time you’ve started walking to the next section, the information begins again. It’s possible to book a more intensive and specific tour that is led by a guide, but that costs more money than the general admission to the estate, and with four “adults” (ages 12 and up!), 1 youth and a baby, the cost was already creeping up. The note here is that if you are planning on visiting, and know when you’ll be going, book your tickets online because you can save a couple dollars. This isn’t a huge deal, but if you’ve got a larger sized group, that might mean the cost of lunch for somebody.
The first place that we went, and where we spent most of our time during the visit was in the Museum and Education Center. There is an extensive exhibit about the life and times of George Washington that is really well done, with artifacts and, maps, and non-creepy wax figures that show what Washington may have looked like at various points in his life. I feel like I learned a lot, and I’m an American who learned about Washington in school, and who has paid attention to various historic information I come across. Things like – something Washington did started the conflict we know in America as the French and Indian War. Washington also lost a battle, and ended up resigning his commission, and then later one re-purchased his commission, and led his troops to glory which is how we know him today. But the fact that he messed up in his early years – I had no idea! Fascinating!!! (And it gives hope to many of us that things we do in our youth may not affect us professionally forever if we can make a big splash)
There are also some terrific interactive and video presentations available as part of the museum. We managed to get in a session of “Be George Washington”, where you get to grapple with a choice that Washington made at some point in his career or presidency, and using the information from advisers he would have had at the time, vote on how you would act. We got to learn about the Genêt affair, a situation from Washington’s first term which I had apparently forgotten about or never really spent lots of time learning. There are also two large video presentations at the beginning and end of the exhibit that I didn’t have time to go visit because either there were a gaggle of visiting middle-schoolers clogging up the lines, or else we were on our way to another place and I didn’t have time to stop. Additionally, there’s a short film narrated by Glenn Close that details the life and love between George and Martha Washington.
The second half of the museum is dedicated to the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. This was a truly fascinating exhibit, and I feel guilty for not having been able to read more and stay longer, but it was during this time that the baby woke up and wanted to run around and look at everything. We are just lucky she didn’t climb up into the exhibits and pull down the tablecloth in the reproduction of the dining area. But things I know now but didn’t before – that Washington freed all of his slaves after the death of Martha (which would happen 2 years later), and provided money for them, and that she freed them earlier even than that. Unfortunately this didn’t free all the Mount Vernon slaves because many of the people were a part of the Custis (Martha’s first marriage) estate and were held in trust for her children, or else were rented from neighbors. So while hundreds may have been freed by Washington, he did not have the legal authority to free more. In any case, the exhibit is detailed and very interesting, and gives a needed perspective of the human cost that it took to run Washington’s estate.
The estate is not all buildings and museums. There are extensive gardens and grounds that we got to look at a small part of during our visit. There is a distillery and gristmill that are accessible by shuttle and are included in general admission. When the weather is nice and you have companions who are amenable (note: babies at the wiggly age usually aren’t) I could see making an entire day of it. Until we visited, the last time I had been to Mount Vernon had been decades ago. I can’t even say specifically when that was. So using the excuse of an out-of-town guest to visit a local site was a wonderful thing. I got to appreciate a local gem, and to enjoy the wonderful weather. If you haven’t been, or if you haven’t been in a while, I would definitely say that Mount Vernon is a place you want to visit.