History Comes Alive at Washingtons’ Mount Vernon


Mary Wiseman plays the witty and charming Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I’ve always had a great time visiting museums. As I amble along my mind races ahead creating in my mind’s eye what life would have been in the past. But this time around my mind could take a back seat  view and wallow in the theatre that was unfolding at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s much-loved estate.  Here, I  traced George Washington footsteps along lantern lit pathways.  There was square dancing to watch,  champagne to sip, and a born again First Lady Martha Washington holding fort on the porch Washington loved overlooking the Potomac .

It was a balmy evening, a sprinkling of a drizzle, not that good for photographs I noted but the ambience of the evening, softening into night was all enveloping.  Washington’s presence was everywhere, in this estate he had inherited from his brother Lawrence in 1752.  Growing up, Washington apparently had an irregular formal education and at the age of 16 started work as a surveyor.   He was immensely proud of his estate and wrote to an English correspondent “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this…”

Washington thought farming the “most delectable of pursuits. “it is honorable,” he wrote, “it is amusing, and with superior judgment, it is profitable.”

The storehouse was kept under the watchful eye of Washington and his Manager. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

The first person we met was Dr. Craig who only said he looks after the estate — we should have found out whether he was a medical doctor or a vet but in our rush to see the house, we didn’t.

Dr. Craig at Mount Vernon. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

Well attired, politeness personified Craig put out his hand and said  “ Maam, whom shall I say is calling?”

William Lee @ Mount Vernon. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

Encyclopaedia Britannica says “His care of slaves was exemplary. He carefully clothed and fed them, engaged a doctor for them by the year, refused to sell them – ‘I’m principled against this kind of traffic, in the human species’ – and administered correction mildly.”  

He worked hard to expand his estate to 8000 acres. The first glimpse of the house he had worked tirelessly to improve and landscape was picture postcard perfect.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Residence. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

As we walked up the  path to join the visitors to see the inside of the house we met the rather grim-looking violin player.  The music he turned out flowed melodiously but my friend Delores and I could not figure out why he had such a dour face.  It was in complete contrast to his music the tinkling laughter interspersed with shrieks of joy that came from  the visiting children playing games from the past with maids in period dresses on the lawn.

The Violin Player at Mount Vernon. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

Inside the rooms open to the public we saw the dining room, where visitors from near and far were entertained and the guest bedrooms. Encyclopaedia Britannica says “It has been computed that in the seven years prior to 1775, Mount Vernon had 2000 guests , most of whom stayed for dinner if not overnight. Up in the bedroom where he died we heard how Washington was stricken by “Quincey” (acute laryngitis) after being out on horseback for several hours in the snow.  But reading about what happened to be a deadly case of laryngitis, I discovered  medication administered to him was to say the least most strange.  “He was bled heavily four times, and given gargles of molasses, vinegar and butter,” and a blister of cantharides ( a preparation of dried beetles) was placed in his throat.”  That treatment might have killed a healthy man even, but Washington  faced the end with characteristic serenity saying “I die hard but am not afraid to go.” Martha never slept in that room again but moved to a room on an upper floor, that we did not see, till her death a couple of years later.

Washington is described as a majestic figure and he was one of the richest, largest and most industrious of Virginia planters.  He insisted on the best clothes – coats, laced waistcoats, hats. Coloured silk hose bought in London and  loved dancing, playing cards, picnics, barbecues, house parties and afternoon tea on the Mount Vernon porch.

Porch at Mount Vernon. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

At the right end of this famous porch a handsome couple, produced the music setting the scene for the imaginative tableau.   At the other end Mary Wiseman, played Martha Washington, with admirable panache.

Muscians recreating history on the porch at Mount Vernon. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

Mary Wiseman as Martha Washington having tea with Natalie Fairchild who plays Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

 Wiseman’s conversation in unscripted. She is comfortable carrying out a conversation with the visitors and responds to their queries with information about her life with Washington. This is the piece  de  resistence — Wiseman revels in her in depth knowledge of Martha as the witty clever woman who Washington  married,  the good wife, the constant companion, and the good hostess.

As guests move in and out of the seated circle around her, and the evening turns chilly, Nelly asks Martha whether she should get her a shawl.  Martha declines and Nelly tells her grandmother about a young man paying her attention.  Martha turns, picks up the cup of tea, shakes her head and says “I have told you before not to fill your heads with romantic notions.”

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3 thoughts on “History Comes Alive at Washingtons’ Mount Vernon

  1. How perfectly you captured the magical evening I would have missed had you not suggested attending. Your photographs and comments are perfect reminders of a perfect evening including the lesson in chocolate making.

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