Ten Well-Known Visitors to Historic Kenmore

Since its transformation into a historic site, Kenmore has drawn its share of prominent and recognizable visitors including a vice president, a congressman, and numerous First Ladies of the United States. Indeed, the ladies of the Kenmore Association, who worked to save, restore, and operate the historic home during the 20th century, made it a point to reach out to First Ladies and, in turn, several of those First Ladies visited the auspicious brick home of Patriot merchant Fielding Lewis and wife Betty Washington Lewis, sister of George Washington.  For that matter, even during the days that Fielding and Betty lived in the home during the late 1700s, important figures in colonial Virginia and of the Patriot cause occasionally came to Kenmore.  Here is a list of “Ten Well-Known Visitors to Historic Kenmore.”

10. Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958)

Louise du Pont Crowninshield surrounded by other members of the Kenmore Association.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield surrounded by other members of the Kenmore Association.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield was president and chairman of the board of trustees of the Kenmore Association from 1940 to 1954.  An active historic preservationist, she was also a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Mrs. Crowninshield was born into the prominent Du Pont family and grew up at Winterthur, the family estate in Delaware. The home is now a museum and holds some of most important collections of Americana in the United States.  She helped save and restore Kenmore and visited many times during her term as president.

sol-bloom-portrait

Sol Bloom in 1923. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia

9. Sol Bloom (1870-1949)
Sol Bloom was an entertainer, music publisher, and congressman from New York.  He was the biggest producer of sheet music in the U.S. before taking up politics.  Bloom was associate director of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and came to Kenmore for a luncheon with Emily White Fleming and the Kenmore Association.  In 1936, Bloom made a $10,000 bet with Walter “Big Train” Johnson, former Washington Senator’s star pitcher, that Johnson could not throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River as legend said George Washington had done.  Bloom lost but refused pay the money.

elizabeth-monroe

Elizabeth Monroe, unknown date and artist. Public domain. Credit: John Vanderlyn / Wikipedia

8. Elizabeth Monroe (1768-1830)
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe was First Lady of the United States from 1817 to 1825.  Elizabeth was born in New York City and married James Monroe in 1786.  She spent time in France and Britain during her husband’s ambassadorship and was even invited to be part of the American delegation that attended Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation.  Mrs. Monroe actually lived at Kenmore shortly after her marriage to James.  Her husband left town on business and, since they had not yet set up a home in Fredericksburg, she stayed with Betty Lewis until James returned.

 

edith-wilson

Edith Wilson. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia

7. Edith Wilson (1872-1961)
Edith Bolling Wilson was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson and served as First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921.  Some historians argue that Mrs. Wilson became the de facto president after her husband’s stroke in 1919. She did, it seems, act as the only conduit to and from the president and decided which matters important enough to bring to her husband’s attention while relaying his decisions to those who needed to know.  Long after her time in the White House, Mrs. Wilson came to Kenmore for a luncheon in October 1946.

6. Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman (1885-1982)

bess-truman

Bess Truman in front of the fireplace in Kenmore’s dining room with Robert Porterfield, founder of the Barter Theatre, and an unidentified woman.

Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman was First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953.  Elizabeth Wallace was born in Independence, Missouri and had known Harry Truman, her future husband, since they were children.  They married in 1919.  Mrs. Truman detested the lack of privacy and disliked the social and political scene of Washington, D.C.  She was relieved to move back to Missouri.  Mrs. Truman visited Kenmore multiple times and was pictured in front of the mantel in the Dining Room with Robert Porterfield, founder of Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, in Abingdon.

5. Lou Hoover (1874-1944)

Lou Henry Hoover was First Lady of the United States from 1929 to 1933.  Lou Henry was born in Iowa in 1874 and married Herbert Hoover in 1899.  She majored in Geology at Stanford University, was fluent in Chinese and Latin, assisted in the Belgian relief during WWI, and worked a great deal with the Girl Scouts of America.  Mrs. Hoover, as First Lady, toured Kenmore in September 1930.

4. Colonel Sanders (1890-1980)

Colonel Harland David Sanders founded the restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in 1930.  Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890 and, after a number of jobs, he started selling fried chicken at a roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky during the Great Depression.  The restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, was a success and, in 1952, he started franchising across the country.  In 1964, Sanders sold the company and used his stock holdings to create several charitable organizations.  He promote these organizations as well as KFC by touring the country dressed as the Colonel.  He came to Kenmore and took a tour in the summer of 1977.

calvin-coolidge

Calvin Coolidge (left) enjoys gingerbread at Kenmore.

3. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)
Calvin Coolidge was born in Vermont in 1872.  After college, he became a lawyer and went into politics becoming the governor of Massachusetts from 1919 to 1921.  He was the 29th vice president under Warren Harding and the 30th President of the United States from 1923 to 1929.  Vice President Coolidge came to Kenmore in July 1922 to launch a fundraising campaign aimed at raising money to purchase the house and make it a historic site. He enjoyed some gingerbread during his visit.

 

eleanor-roosevelt-portrait

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia.

2. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady of New York from 1929 to 1933 and First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945.  She was born in New York City to the socially prominent Roosevelt and Livingston families and married Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1905.  After her time in the White House, she chaired the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in the late 1940s and early 1950s and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.  When she was First Lady of New York, Mrs. Roosevelt visited Kenmore on several occasions with various groups who came from the New York state capital of Albany.

1. George Washington (1731-1799)

houdons-george-washington

Bust of George Washington (c. 1786) by Jean-Antoine Houdon and based on a life mask of Washington. Public domain. Credit: Dallas Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

George Washington was the first President of the United States (1789-1797) and the older brother of Betty Washington Lewis.  Construction of Kenmore was complete late in 1775. George would not stay in the house until 1784.  Including this 1784 visit, Washington stayed at Kenmore at different times during the years 1785, 1787, 1788, and 1791.  The final visits in April and June 1791 were the only times he stayed at Kenmore while serving as president.[1]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. The American History Company, 1998: 216.

Advertisements

George Washington, Baseball Player?

I find that February, though it has the fewest days, can be the longest month of the year. The novelty of winter has worn off and, often, I simply seem to be enduring until the first glimpses of spring in March. I do, however, look forward with excitement to two moments in February: George Washington’s Birthday and the day that Major League Baseball’s pitchers start their spring training. In a way, these two events are connected by more than their close proximity to one another on the calendar.

After the familiar cherry tree tale, the second most popular story about George Washington’s youth is the story of him throwing a rock the size of a silver dollar across a river. This legend has changed several times over the years but it may have some truth.

The earliest version appears in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, who notes that George’s cousin remembered seeing him “throw a stone across [the] Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg.”[1] George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s son, provides a bit more detail for this toss, noting that the rock was actually “a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side.”[2] Archaeologist Phil Levy estimates “that could have been a distance of anywhere from a staggering 440 feet (professional baseball fields vary from 390 to 435 feet at the centerfield wall) to an impressive 340 feet.”[3]

We’ll never have the evidence historians need to say with certainty that young George actually threw a rock across the Rappahannock. It is a plausible story, however. So, each February at Ferry Farm’s birthday celebration, visitors try and duplicate George’s feat, provided the day’s weather or any lingering snow on the ground doesn’t prevent us from traipsing down to the river.

A visitor attempts to throw a rock across the Rappahannock River during the George Washington Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm.

The feat has actually been duplicated, most famously by Walter “Big Train” Johnson, celebrated pitcher for the Washington Senators, on a Depression-era February day in 1936. Officials in charge of that year’s birthday celebration at Ferry Farm challenged the retired Major League right-hander, raising the ire of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who believed the story of Washington’s toss, to be “preposterous.” Quoted in the February 18, 1936 edition of The Free Lance Star, Bloom felt the feat “physically impossible” because “Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.” Perhaps, he forgot that George lived at Ferry Farm well into his late teens?

A few days before the celebration, reporters found Johnson training for the toss by throwing a coin at the barn on his Germantown, Maryland farm. “‘Maybe I can’t throw that far,’ he drawled, ‘but there’s one thing certain—if George Washington did it, I can too.’”

Walter Johnson poses as if in mid-throw on the icy bank of the Rappahannock.

Finally, the day came. On the front page of the February 22, 1936 edition, The Free Lance Star’s banner headline trumpeted “‘Big Train’ Duplicates Washington’s Feat.” Standing on the Ferry Farm side of the river at 2:30 p.m. that day, Johnson took two practice tosses. The first plopped into the water just five feet short of the bank while the second made it across. Then, he attempted the official throw. Johnson “drew back his famous right arm and with a powerful heave let fly a silver dollar that sailed high into the air, spanned the 273 foot stream and plunked on the opposite bank.” Bloom graciously wired his congratulations and invited Johnson to stop in Washington and celebrate with him on his way back to Germantown.

Front page of The Free Lance Star, February 22, 1936

The attempt became something of a national sensation with newspapers in Michigan, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and beyond reporting the story. A live radio program on the Columbia Broadcasting System beamed a description of the throw into countless homes across the nation.

Although it doesn’t garner the attention it did in 1936, the Stone Throw Challenge remains a centerpiece of Ferry Farm’s annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration when the weather allows it. On that day, which is usually about the time that today’s aspiring Walter Johnsons are starting to prepare for their seasons, I think of a day during the Great Depression when a big league pitcher added to his own legend by duplicating the prodigious feat of the most legendary American of all. As I watch our visitors attempt their throws, I think of the “Big Train” and I also always wonder just what kind of ballplayer George Washington might have been.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Join us at Ferry Farm on Saturday, February 14 for our George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, when – weather permitting – we’ll see if anyone else can throw a stone across the Rappahannock River. Along with the Stone Throw Challenge, enjoy crafts, games, exhibits, live history performances, and birthday cake! Visit www.kenmore.org/events.html for more details about the Birthday Celebration along with Archaeology Day on Monday, February 16!

[1] Mason Locke Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Macy-Masius Publishers, 1927: 39.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Philadelphia, J.W. Bradley, 1861: 482.

[3] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 226.