Thanks to an interactive iPad tour, I’m taking the experts along with me on my Saturday morning ramble around Ferry Farm. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since 2008, when I heard that archaeologists had unearthed the foundation of the Washington house, where George lived from age 6 until his early 20s. Since then, scientists and historians have been slowly piecing together the most elusive side of our first president: his early years.
But because Ferry Farm has few visible remnants of the Washingtons’ time, it’s hard for tourists to relate to what life was like back then.
If you go: Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg
“There’s a disconnect between our resources, our collection and our landscape,” said David Muraca, the George Washington Foundation’s director of archaeology when I talk to him before my tour. We’re sitting at a table covered with pieces of pottery in the visitor center’s archaeology lab, where a lot of the science happens. “There are elements of the Washington landscape out there, but you can’t explain them in the 15 words that people are normally used to reading in signs.”
So in March, the foundation, which manages Ferry Farm as well as the nearby Kenmore plantation (home of George’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis), launched the iPad app “Uncovering George Washington’s Youth.” It includes 10 interactive stops around the property, many accompanied by narrated videos, photographs, old maps, paintings, drawings — even George’s geometry homework. (Alas, non-Apple people are out of luck; there are no plans to make an app for other devices.)
I picked up an iPad at the visitor center — you can also bring your own and download the app if you prefer — and started my tour in a vibrant garden just outside. It wasn’t here in the 1700s but displays the plants that a well-to-do colonial family would have grown: tobacco, cotton, potatoes, herbs, and yes, cherry trees, among others. I clicked through the app for a photo gallery of plants and their historic uses. (Rosemary sweetens foul breath, for instance.)
Leaving the garden, I looked out over the main part of the roughly 80-acre historic site, mostly a grassy plain dotted with a few buildings built after Washington’s time. I liked that the app has a “then and now” button so that you can toggle between a view of the grounds now and a drawing of what the place looked like as a thriving farm in the 1700s.
As I walked the grounds, I listened to a story about George’s father, Augustine, his sudden death from unknown causes in 1743 and the blow it was to the 11-year-old; his mother, Mary; and his four younger siblings. Suddenly without a breadwinner, the family had to scramble to make ends meet and keep up appearances at the same time. In a video, archaeologist Mara Kaktins showed me a cherry-adorned punch bowl found at the site that bears traces of glue — suggesting it had been mended when times were tight.