Living history is one of the best ways to spark interest in our country's past, and five colonial farms nearby you can observe how people lived and worked during the 18th century. But they're endangered species: Turkey Run Farm in Virginia was slated to be closed, and only quick action by a private group, "the Friends of Turkey Run Farm," has saved it temporarily. The new Godiah Spray Plantation's summer living-history weekend programs have had to be cut back for financial reasons.
This is a good time to visit colonial farms in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the differences in architecture, crops and methods of farming make the comparison especially enjoyable. The five colonial farms show life at different economic levels. While Turkey Run Farm in McLean is a dirt farm with a crude log cabin, for example, The peter WENTZ FARMSTEAD in Pennsylvania is one of the nicest farms in the area. In fact, George Washington, following his custom of staying at the best home available, slept there the night before the Battle of Germantown -- or at least he tried to. One of the unusual features of this German farmhouse is the "op art" effect of the painted walls.
Washington's room was painted a bold red with large white polka dots, as were the living room and downstairs hall. But this is a mild affect compared to another upstairs bedroom where it appears the painter ran amok. The room has black painted dots with red diamond stripes and red tadpole designs. Skeptical 20th-century visitors just can't believe this is the original 18th-century pattern, so portions are left unrestored to show that this is "as it was."
Recreating the farm as it existed in 1777 is the theme at the farmstead, near Center Point, Pennsylvania. On Saturday afternoons it has a colonial craft program where such old-fashioned arts as scherenschnette, or scissor cutting, are demonstrated. An audio-visual show further acquaints visitors with farming in the 1700s.
Weekend craft demonstrations are also held at THE NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM in Accokeek, Maryland, a living-history farm where costumed staff till the field and prepare farm grown food in the 18th-century kitchen.
The staff are always happy to sop their work and show visitors their large herb garden. Under their watchful eye you can smell, taste and feel the herbs that were used by the early settlers for medicinal, cosmetic and culinary purposes. If you want to experiment with some in your own kitchen, there's an herb shop in the main barn where many of the farm-grown herbs are for sale.
But the most part, this looks as it would have when Washington stood on the porch at Mount Vernon and looked across the Potomac to this rolling country area. The one concession to modern visitors is to reverse the colonial custom of fencing the gardens and letting the animals roam free. No longer do rambunctious turkeys and horned rams forage freely.
The National Colonial Farm, being under the auspices of the National Park Service, is influenced by federal budget cuts but is not presently in jeopardy. This is due to the large role played by private backing from the Accokeek Foundation, which underwrites half of their expenses.
Another Maryland farm, just opening this year, is The godiah spray PLANTATION in St. Marys City, which will be running a soap opera that won't appear on TV. It's a continuing ten-year saga of life on a Maryland farm in the 1660s. Information for this program has been garnered from an account book Robert Cole kept, detailing the first decade of settlement in Maryland's first town. Each year visitors will observe changes in the farm family, house and fields corresponding to entries in the account book.
This year the living history will focus on Dan Clocker's farm as part of the summer weekend productions offered free on the grounds of the reconstructed State House of 1676. Cutbacks in funding have forced St. Marys to cut the number of performances, but this still provides an enjoyble window on colonial life. This weekend there's a Children's Festival, with quoits, hazard, puppets and a maypole; the weekend of July 25 and 26 there'll be an "early American crab feast," with English and Irish music, actors costumed as Governor Calvert and early feminist Margaret Brent, contradancing and, of course, crabs. But just about any weekend in July you can drop in on such activities as feeding the pigs, grinding the corn, playing quoits and dancing around the maypole.
Another farm where active involvement is encouraged is The colonial PENNSYLVANIA PLANTATION. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in at this 1770 farm. You can help card wool, drip candles, cut the curd for cheese or just offer some advice on planting next year's crops. The major difference you'll notice here is that the farm doesn't grow tobacco as the ones in Maryland and Virginia do.
The farm buildings have been standing since the 18th century, but this is not a museum. Unlike many rstored historical buildings, these are not filled with antiques but with newly made furniture painted just as it would have been in colonial days. TURKEY RUN FARM, the last of the five colonial farms, is struggling for its existence just as its tenants did two centuries ago. It was slted for closing by the National Park Service, but quick action by private citizens has provided a reprieve. The are still working to raise money to ensure that this innovative living-history farm will be able to stay open throughout the summer.
It's rare to see life recreated on a dirt farm: Most reconstructions deal with free-holders or, more commonly, plantations. But the dirt farms were far more numerous and show how the average farmer lived during the Colonial period.
Interstingly, the London Company forced the first settlers at Jamestown to adopt a communal system of agriculture. Communism at America's first settlement may sound like heresy, but it did exist -- it just didn't work.The company found that if it wanted the settlers to produce, they had to have the incentive of their own land. It's this desire to work one' own land that these colonial farms reflect and bring to life.