Mount Vernon, upstairs and down

Mount Vernon, near Washington, D.C. It seems I always visit a place when it's got scaffolding.

Mount Vernon, near Washington, D.C. It seems I always visit a place when it’s got scaffolding.

Chef Hercules at Mount Vernon

Chef Hercules at Mount Vernon

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,

Gardens surround the Greenhouse. And behind it are the house's slave quarters.

Gardens surround the Greenhouse. And behind it are the house’s slave quarters.

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.

A portrait of the Washington family includes at the edge Christopher Sheels, the general's personal valet his last year as president and his final years at Mount Vernon.

A portrait of the Washington family includes at the edge Christopher Sheels, the general’s personal valet his last year as president and his final years at Mount Vernon.

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.

In a village of outbuildings Mount Vernon staff did all the work to keep the great house going. You can spend hours visiting them all

In a village of outbuildings Mount Vernon staff did all the work to keep the great house going. You can spend hours visiting them all

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.

The linens are drying nearly ready for the next guests at Mount Vernon

The linens are drying nearly ready for the next guests at Mount Vernon

The women's slave quarters include a pallet with a doll, a reminder that even children were enslaved.

The women’s slave quarters include a pallet with a doll, a reminder that even children were enslaved.

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.

Memorial

A modern marble obelisk stands watch over the site of tombs for enslaved people who worked and lived at Mount Vernon.

We ended our visit with stops at the Washington family tomb and at the memorial to the slaves that spent their lives here.

The Mount Vernon Inn offers elegant surroundings for a meal.

The Mount Vernon Inn offers elegant surroundings for a meal.

Pizza, sandwiches, and more casual fare is available at the food court.

Pizza, sandwiches, and more casual fare is available at the food court.

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

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