If you have a sixth sense for ghosts, the Weems-Botts Museum, a historic house in Dumfries, Va., may set off your detector. More than once, docents have arrived in the morning to find linens and quilts strewn across the upstairs bed and curtain rods flung to the floor without explanation. Just a few years ago a young girl reported seeing a Civil War soldier standing in the adjacent park. Those knowledgeable about the house's history suspect the roaming spirit -- or spirits -- to be deceased members of the Merchant family, the last owners of the house. But that's getting ahead of the story.
First owned by Quantico Church, the original two-room building was purchased by Mason Locke Weems, George Washington's first biographer. Weems's book, "Life of Washington," took time to find an audience when it was first published in 1800. It fared better after the author added to the 1806 edition the famous, if apocryphal, "I can't tell a lie" tale in which young George confessed to his father that he had chopped down a favorite cherry tree.
In 1802, only four years after Weems purchased the structure, he sold the house to Benjamin Botts. A Dumfries native, Botts was the youngest member of the team defending Aaron Burr during his treason trial. The next owners, the Merchant family, bought the house in 1868, added four rooms to the structure and resided in it for precisely a century. Historic Dumfries Virginia, Inc., a nonprofit organization, opened the house to the public shortly after taking possession of it in 1974. The museum is the only historic site preserved as such in Dumfries -- the oldest continuously chartered town in Virginia.
Cherry wreaths adorning the doors of the two-story olive-colored frame house and holly shrubs lining the front porch hardly suggest ghost territory. The adjoining three-acre Merchant Park has a large gazebo, several picnic tables in a pavilion and a cooking facility. The popular grounds can be rented for parties and receptions.
The tour begins in what was once the Merchants' dining room, with a brief spiel on the history of the house and of Dumfries -- a small town with a big history, as curator Jeanne Hochmuth puts it. Then a docent accompanies visitors through the house. Only the floors, ceilings and staircases are original; 18th- and 19th-century pieces, donated to the historical group, furnish each room. For children, a "touch table" sits in the middle of the sitting room, full of pottery, cooking utensils and seed samples from the period. In what was once the summer sleeping room, the museum rotates displays of historical objects, such as lighting fixtures or Civil War clothing, lent by local antique dealers.
Historic Dumfries hosts a number of programs in Merchant Park throughout the year, including Revolutionary War and Civil War reenactments, an antiques and collectibles show and a Christmas parade. The museum also contains Prince William County genealogical sources, which the public can use by appointment.
If you plan to arrive at the museum around noon, call first: often only one person is on duty and he or she may have stepped out for lunch. And come spook-proofed -- you may witness books flying through the air and other friendly gestures by the restless souls inhabiting the Weems-Botts house.
-- Margaret Hutton