THE STRETCH of VA Route 3 going east from Route 301 bears green signs reading "Historyland Highway." It's worth exploring.

Within a 15-mile radius were born three of our first five presidents and two signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps the most revered ground is commonly called Wakefield, where George Washington was born in 1732 to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington.

"We try to discourage the use of the word 'Wakefield,' " says H. Paul Carson,, historian for the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. "The Washington family referred to this place as Popes Creek Plantation."

Popes Creek is a tidal creek on the south bank of the Potomac. (There's also a Pope Creek on the north bank, in Maryland.) Historians and archaeologists have reconstructed the birthplace site to the working plantation you see today. But its profound contribution to history takes a back seat to the sensory magic show around you: The fragrant cedars ringing the river banks; the clear light on the water; the whistling swans and Canada geese -- up to 1,000 strong at any given time -- honking-up a sort of natural rush hour; the crunch of mulch beneath your feet on the paths.

Our first president lived at Popes Creek Plantation until the age of 31 or 32. On and off during his youth, he returned to live there with his half-brother Augustine, with whom he was very close.

In 1816, adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis placed a stone to mark what he believed to be the location of the original birthplace house. A memorial house was then built on that spot.

However, in 1930, another foundation was discovered and excavated, and archaeologists decided this was the real birthsite. The area was not developed, but oyster shells were sprinkled in the grass to outline the U-shaped site.

Tobacco, corn and wheat covered most of the acreage during the plantation's heyday, but the owners also had to grow and harvest other basics such as vegetables, meat, hides, grains and firewood.

In 1968, a colonial living farm was established to show the everyday scenes a youthful Washington might have walked and worked.

Paul Carson beams when he describes the painstaking research given to finding ancient strains of plants, livestock and poultry, all of which are tended with colonial farm implements and methods.

"We're very concerned with authenticity," explains Carson. "We don't have an original house here or a copy of an original house. So we tried to recreate the sights and sounds and smells enjoyed by a plantation owner."

The National Park Service has consulted horticulturists and experts in animal science. Popes Creek Plantation has been stocked with small, coarse-wooled sheep that have been isolated for centuries on Hog Island off the Virginia coast. They have even tracked down real Devon cattle, first introduced to American from England in 1623 and used by the plantation owners of Washington's era.

In his cluttered office in the Visitors Center, Carson gently opens a little drawer and produces a chunk of broken ceramic; a swirl of images dances in your head:

The room fills with laughing people, the men and women who called this home, sipping tea from china painted with the gold-leaf design of the shard in hand. In the background, soft candlelight and chamber music . . .K.

In the center's steel cabinets and at this monument, 100,000 similar artifacts are stored. They represent the essence of the excavations here since the end of the last century. The 18th-century ceramics, jewelry and ornaments, glass vessels, smoking pipes and hardware have helped piece together a mosaic of colonial culture.

"I think the vast majority of the American public believes George Washington was born at Mount Vernon," Carson sighs as he escorts you into the early evening air. "Or, people will come here thinking they're in Mount Vernon. They'll ask, "Where is the big white house?" GETTING THERE -- From Route 301, take VA 3 east about 16 miles, then 2 miles east on VA 204 to the monument. It's about a 90-minute drive from D.C. The park is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Free admission, picnicking, handicapped facilities include ramps, rest rooms, parking, portable tape of park brochure, touch-box of artifacts. 804/224-1732.