Mount Vernon celebrates the domestic life of our first president and his first lady, George and Martha Washington. And it is certainly a thrill to glimpse moments from their great history: the black leather chair Washington used as president, the cozy master bedroom Martha closed up after George died there, the harpsichord their granddaughter practiced at hour after hour, the bedrooms where hundreds of guests came to stay.
Everybody goes for the house tour, don’t they? But what makes a day away at Mount Vernon so interesting can be the tour of all the places that supported this grand house: the stables and kitchen, the blacksmith shop and the distillery,
The house tour is quick — fabulous, but quick as you shuffle through the grand “new” room, the dining room, the General’s study, bedrooms and the original stairway. I think we were in and out in less than an hour. So we had the rest of the afternoon to wander the grounds, stop in the shops (we found three) and have a bite to eat. We had hoped to visit the white tablecloth restaurant but since it was closed for maintenance, we settled for the food court. That was OK, too.
Big Downton Abbey fans, we were curious about the people who really ran the grand house, just as we love Bates and Anna, Carson and even Mr. Barrow. At Mount Vernon, we learned a little about Chef Hercules, spinner Betty Davis, and Christopher Sheels, Washington’s personal valet.
We peeked into all the places were the plantations staff worked and lived. They were rough places, especially the slave quarters behind the grand greenhouse. The smokehouse and the laundry, the various offices, gardener’s lodging, even paint, shoemaker’s and blacksmith shops. When it reopens in the spring, we’re going back to see the distillery and the gardens in bloom.
One activity offered way to catch a glimpse of one of these people, At 2:30 p.m., visitors can stop in the Greenhouse to “Meet People from Washington’s World.” Bravo to the young man who introduced us to Christopher Sheels. Staying completely in character Mr. Sheels told us matter-of-factly about his life. He worked 18 hours a day every day. Sure, he met people like the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson but he didn’t have time for family of his own. The architecture, the Potomac views, the history of this great family were wonderful. But I think I’ll remember the story of this young man for the rest of my life. I have the young man’s performance in the Greenhouse to thank for that.
We ended our visit with stops at the Washington family tomb and at the memorial to the slaves that spent their lives here.
Some tips for visiting….There is a restaurant and a much more casual food court on the property and a terrific museum with several videos. I counted three shops. There’s lots of parking And the route to Mount Vernon along the Potomac is picturesque with several places to stop to take in the view.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman