History in the Night Sky

Historic Kenmore at night.

Historic Kenmore at night.

The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends.  This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way.  The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.

Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.

Imagine a clear, crisp early November night.  George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern.  George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg.  During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window.  Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today.  Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.

As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light.  On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”

Great Bear Big Dipper

This map of the constellation Ursa Major. the “Great Bear,” highlights the asterism known as the Big Dipper. An asterism is a star pattern that can be found within an officially-recognized constellation. So, technically, the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation but is simply part of the Ursa Major constellation. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially designates which star patterns are constellations. Map by Rursus,

They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations.  For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear.  Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail.  Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars.  Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.

In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw.  Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.”  Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water.  In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for enslaved people to follow when running north to seize their freedom.  The Dipper pattern can indeed assist someone navigating by the stars to find the North Star.

Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River.  Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear.  Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky.  This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.

It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky.  The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view.  Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes.  In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles.  Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky.  They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Light pollution

Milky Way from Mount Saint Helens with light pollution from Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ray Terrill

If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories.  More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern.  The same sparkling stars are still there.  We just can’t see for the light.

On Saturday, September 14, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm.  After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider.

$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Furnishings posts logo finalPreviously on Lives and Legacies, curator Meghan Budinger laid out a wonderful summary of the Colonial Revival movement.  At no point did she weigh-in with her opinion of Colonial Revival and she should be applauded for her diplomacy.  To be honest, though, many historians, material culture specialists, and decorative arts enthusiasts (among others) can get a little ‘judgy’ when it comes to Colonial Revival.

Copies of copies rarely turn out as nice as the original and, as Meghan discussed, Colonial Revival items conform more to our notion of how things looked in the 18th century than how they actually looked in the 18th century.

When dealing with ceramics, Colonial Revival copies are almost always ‘clunky’ compared to the beauties they seek to emulate.  This is because the reproductions are machine made, while the colonial originals were handmade and hand-decorated. It’s very hard to imitate that kind of craftsmanship with a machine.  Experts call it being ‘debased’.  The copy is simply of a lower quality and slightly distorted.

Take for example this, um, interesting platter made between 1935 and 1941 by The Homer Laughlin China Company. It is a hideous imitation of the beautiful shell edge decoration popular in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century.  Of course, not all Colonial Revival is quite this debased as this extreme example.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 3

This 20th century Colonial Revival reproduction made by The Homer Laughlin China Company is a ‘debased’ version of a shell edge platter from the 18th century pictured below.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 4

Some are actually pretty accurate, like this tasteful white granite pitcher or this stoneware mustard pot, which dates from 1993.  I’m pretty sure it came from The Cracker Barrel.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 2

Colonial Revival white granite pitcher.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 1

Colonial Revival stoneware mustard pot dating from 1993 and perhaps sold by The Cracker Barrel.

It just so happens that our awesome team of specialists (curators and archaeologists – a fun bunch) are currently furnishing the Washington house at Ferry Farm with reproductions the public may handle as we create an interactive house. Original 18th century objects are not an option.  Good colonial reproductions can sometimes cost as much as originals and can also be surprisingly hard to find.  Thus, despite our prejudices, we’re finding ourselves extremely grateful for the glut of Colonial Revival tea and tablewares currently on the market.

Colonial Revival pieces are often quite sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and no member of our staff will dissolve into tears if a stoneware crock with cobalt blue hand-painted decoration originally purchased at The Cracker Barrel in 1997 broke.  We might actually celebrate it.  And so we hunt for modern items that straddle the line between historically accurate and, if need be, expendable.  We are diligently scouring auction sites, thrift and junk shops, antique markets, and sometimes our own cupboards in our never ending quest for Colonial Revival.  We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress and hope you can visit the Washington House to see how we did!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Just What is Colonial Revival?

Furnishings posts logo finalYou’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

The Surveyor’s Shed at Ferry Farm

Surveyor's Shed in Spring

The “Surveyor’s Shed” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

It isn’t known when the myths about the small white building called the Surveyor’s Shed at George Washington’s Ferry Farm began, or why it was believed by so many that the structure existed during George Washington’s childhood. It was long-held myth was that Augustine Washington taught his son, George, how to survey in this building but, in truth, the structure was built after the Civil War. As with many historic structures, the years have not been kind to the little frame building. Repairs and renovations over the years have periodically exposed its architectural secrets, revealing the true story of Ferry Farm’s oldest standing building. The collection of myths about this structure, referred to as the “Surveyor’s Shed” or “Surveyor’s Office” are of equal importance to its documented architectural history. Valuable oral histories from the people who once lived, worked, or visited at Ferry Farm include their own interpretations of the land on which George Washington spent his boyhood. Collected by Ferry Farm staff, these oral histories offer insights into the myth of the Surveyor’s Shed and give us clues as to why the story has remained so entrenched, regardless of the fact that the structure was built a century after George’s mother, Mary, left the property.

The Myth

For decades, the Surveyor’s Shed was believed to be and indeed was introduced to visitors as George Washington’s first surveying office, where his father, Augustine, taught George how to survey. Having purchased the property years earlier, James B. Colbert built a large Victorian-style farm house at Ferry Farm in 1914. This farmhouse changed hands multiple times and was occupied for most of its existence. The house burned down on the morning of September 26, 1994.

James B. Colbert

James B. Colbert

It is believed that Mr. Colbert began the Surveyor’s Office myth, since the building was not referred to by that name before Colbert owned the property. In Where the Cherry Tree Grew, Philip Levy, describes the relationship between J.B. Colbert and the Ferry Farm myths:

“Was it Colbert’s idea to serve up these stories in aid of his own ends, or were visitors bringing their beloved Washington tales with them? There is no way to know for sure,  but J.B. was orchestrating these stories- adding to them, accommodating them, making the most he could of them, and seeking ways to profit from them. He may not have set this Ferry Farm Weemsian renaissance in motion, but he certainly kept it rolling along and was its principal beneficiary.”[1]

In an oral history interview, Charles Linton, a later resident of the home, remembered that Belle Colbert — J.B.’s daughter — came to pay her respects once a year at the Surveyor’s Office.

The Linton family continued to share Ferry Farm’s most famous myths with visitors to the property during the 1940 and 50s. While the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm, tourists were welcomed. Charles Linton recalled two or three guests showed up unexpectedly in a single day. The family kept a guestbook inside the Surveyor’s Office and greeted anyone who showed up to visit. When guests arrived, they were offered a tour that included the Surveyor’s Office and a cherry tree stump purported to be descended from the tree George cut down with his little hatchet. This stump was revered by visitors and treated as a shrine.  The Lintons never questioned the authenticity of the shrines.

Boy with Cherry Tree Shrine

A young boy stands proudly by the cherry tree stump. The rear of the Surveyor’s Shed is visible in the background.

Additionally, a trunk of a cherry tree was housed inside the Surveyor’s Office, and the Linton children cut off pieces of its bark to sell as souvenirs. Charles Linton remembered in his interview, that when one trunk was used up, he and his brother, Tayloe, crossed Kings Highway to cut down another cherry tree and sell parts of that trunk, as pieces were in such high demand.

Paul Millikan moved into the Colbert house with his wife and children in 1962. He recalled during an oral history interview that upon moving in, most of the downstairs of the home was used as a museum and the upstairs was the family’s living area. He also noted that the Surveyor’s Office had surveying equipment on display, although the equipment was not of the Washington’s era. Like the Lintons, Millikan did not immediately question the authenticity of the Surveyor’s Office at first. Over time, he began to question the possibility that the building was not of Washington’s time, but remained inspired by those who revered this land and its shrines as authentic Washington era relics.

The Truth

The Surveyor’s Shed was officially listed as “George Washington’s First Surveying Office” in the Historic American Building Survey of 1935 but this listing was accompanied by a note stating that the claim was not supported with written proof.  In 1972, the Surveyor’s Shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form (PDF) described the building as a 13’ x 12’ frame house sitting on loose stones, 20 feet to the south of where “George’s mother’s house stood”.  While the structure was referred to as “George Washington’s surveying shed” on the NHRP application, this document clearly stated the building was not of colonial origin.

In reality, the construction of the shed likely began when the Carson family owned Ferry Farm in the late 19th century; a full 100 years after Mary Washington left the property.  To build the structure, the Carsons used materials from other structures owned by the family on the property. Machine-cut lath in the original plaster walls and ceiling, the cut nails holding the structure together, and the platform framing are all evidence the building was constructed after 1870. The onslaught of the Civil War and the occupation of Ferry Farm by Union soldiers would have almost definitely caused major damage, if not complete destruction, of a small building like the shed if it had been standing pre-war. The war’s destruction was immense as evidenced by letters and photographs of Ferry Farm from the Civil War show a land denuded of trees or wood of any kind. Soldiers used every scrap of wood they could find to fuel fires for cooking keeping warm.

Surveyor's Shed in Winter

The Surveyor’s Shed in winter.

Nevertheless, the Surveyor’s Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was again carefully recorded and repaired by historic preservationists after suffering damages from weathering, aging, and even wildlife.  Ferry Farm’s oldest building, while not from George Washington’s times, is still an important part of George’s boyhood home, and is considered an important American shrine by Fredericksburg locals. The myth of the structure being from the Washington era has been dispelled, but the little building is close to its sesquicentennial year as a symbol of the importance of the property it sits on. The myth behind the Surveyor’s Shed has become valuable in its own right, similar to the Cherry Tree Story. Both myths have affected the way we look at George Washington’s formative years. Had it not been for this little white building, and J.B. Colbert propagating these myths as facts, the narrative of the Surveyor’s Shed might not be as well-known, and Ferry Farm itself might not have been saved and protected as it is today.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

[1] Levy, Philip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2013: 148.

 

Photos: Washington Memorabilia

 

washingtons-birthday-sign

A poster from the late 1800s announcing that no business will be conducted on Washington’s Birthday, which was then celebrated on his actual birth date of February 22. Credit: Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, George!! Two-hundred and eighty five years ago today on February 22, 1732, George Washington was born.  Americans have commemorating his birth and his life for centuries, since he rose to prominence as the commanding general of the Continental Army and the nation’s very first president. For centuries, his likeness has been added to plates, glasses, and bottles, carved in stone, etched on coins, used in advertisements, and printed on clothing to create unique memorabilia celebrating the man who was eulogized as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The 1932 celebration of Washington’s 200th birthday especially led to increased demand for Washington memorabilia.  The George Washington Foundation has a small collection of both this bicentennial and a few commemorative objects from even earlier. To mark George’s birthday in 2017, Lives & Legacies shares photographs of this memorabilia!