PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
Mount Vernon is located on the hills overlooking the Potomac River just downstream of what has become Washington DC. It was George Washington's home and farm for most of his life.
He acquired the land from his half-brother's widow in 1754. Five years later, he married Martha Custis (a widow with two children) and settles in at Mount Vernon with his new family. He never fathered any children of his own.
It's obvious that the main house evolved and grew over the years as it's owner's stature evolved. George was a student of architecture and although evidence of the additions to the structure are plainly visible as deviations to the lines of the building, yet do not detract from the overall symmetry. From a distance, the mansion has a stately appearance. Upon closer review, it's easy to see the logical locations of the additional rooms.
Another interesting feature of the house was that the exterior was covered with wood planks that were cut and painted to look like stone. Unless you are quite close to the house, the illusion is quite convincing.
If one were to infer anything about George Washington's personality from his house, it would seem that he was a big thinker rather than a detail oriented person. It is, perhaps like himself, plain spoken. The main house is really quite a grand place, but it lacks the underlying grace and quality that we have seen at other estates.
When walking through the house you realize that it was both a very public and a very private place. Most of the first floor was where frequent visitors dined, played chess or cards, and discussed the issues of the day. Several places were reserved for the family, where they tended to personal matters, ate and slept. It's also where George Washington ultimately died in his own bed. After George's death in 1799 at the age of 67, Martha moved out of their bedroom up to the third floor of the estate to tend the grandchildren. They are both at rest in a tomb at Mount Vernon that was constructed after his death.
The tour of Mount Vernon made a point of describing George Washington's interest in, and success at, managing the agricultural activities of the plantation. George, first and foremost, considered himself a gentleman farmer. Several parts of the farming operation have been preserved including some fields that show how he switched from growing tobacco to raising a variety of crops so as not to exhaust the soil. The changes in farming techniques that he implemented improved the quality of the soil and increased production. The new crops also increased the amount of land that could be cultivated with his existing slaves.
One innovation that he designed himself and had constructed was a 16 sided barn where horses could be paraded around the interior to loosen grain from chaff. The grain would then fall through cracks in the floor to be collected below.
Mount Vernon stands today as a model of the independence and interdependence of people at the time. Much of George Washington's life was devoted to the self-sufficiency of the plantation and yet much of it was concerned with the affairs a fledgling nation. It's yet another example of how our understanding of the past grows by seeing where it happened with our own eyes.