DOING CHORES can be fun in 18th-century clothes. Colonial Williamsburg bustles with kids in tricorn hats and bonnets (and 21st-century sneakers) delivering notes and watering gardens -- and flourishing a bow or curtsy as they go.
"Children get to enter into the experience of the times," said Rene Willett, domestic site manager, of Colonial Williamsburg's popular dress-up program. "It makes history come alive for them."
Colonial costume rental is but one of more than two dozen family programs at the 301-acre living history museum in Williamsburg, about 150 miles south of Washington. Girls donning white lawn dresses and boys wearing puffy shirts and haversacks receive elegant letters soliciting their assistance with several errands and extending "hearty thanks for your help this fine day!"
The children's programs certainly put an entertaining spin on the outdoor museum's longtime mission to "help the future learn from the past." At various sites, kids can help prepare a meal, play with hoops, learn mannerly deportment and practice fencing and dance moves. They can chat with Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry as these costumed interpreters stroll the restored Virginia capital on the eve of the Revolutionary War. And the friendly craftspeople in the numerous shops are always ready with insights into the period. Somehow, watching the cobbler fashion a pair of leather shoes (an eight-hour process) or hearing the apothecary discourse on the dental benefits of cream of tartar puts today's flip-flops and toothpaste in a whole new light. (Programs and demonstrations change frequently, with some available only seasonally, so check the Web site www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com or the weekly guide available at the Visitor Center for the latest listings. Most programs are included in the admission price, with an additional fee levied on costume rental and evening performances.) This weekend, Colonial Williamsburg pulls out the 18th-century stops with a host of activities celebrating July 4, 1776, the day when the colonists declared themselves free of Great Britain's increasingly tyrannical rule. Programs honoring our founding fathers and mothers include fireworks, a reading of the Declaration of Independence and costumed performances of French General Marquis de Lafayette, an early American ally, and the African American soldiers of the Rhode Island Regiment.
On a recent trip, my family began a weekend visit to Williamsburg's past at the ultra-modern Visitor Center, close to the kid-friendly Woodlands Hotel & Suites, one of five hotel properties owned by Colonial Williamsburg. We picked up our admission passes at the center, rented a costume for my (extremely excited) 5-year-old daughter, Christy, and browsed the large history section at the bookstore. We also saw a 36-minute movie, "Williamsburg -- The Story of a Patriot," which helped put personalities and context to famous historical names -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry. A bit of an artifact itself, the movie, shown daily since 1957, is the longest-running film in motion picture history. Recent digital restoration has brought back the color and clarity of the original, seen by more than 30 million viewers to date.
From the Visitor Center, we strolled over a bridge and through the Great Hopes Plantation, which began construction in 2003. The site is especially important as it shows how most Virginians lived in the 1770s. Only about 2 percent were members of the gentry living in the colonial capital. With materials and tools of the times, the various small buildings -- kitchen, house, animal shelters -- are being built even as the mid-size working farm re-creates the experience on an ongoing basis of small farmers and slaves as they chopped wood, tended livestock and grew tobacco. Christy enjoyed petting a horse here and helping to measure wood to make building pegs.
In town, Thomas Jefferson was an eloquent figure in the formal gardens of the Governor's Palace. We heard him speak -- amid great cheers -- of the importance of education, especially for women. A short walk away, a troupe of traveling players mounted a production that included sheep, a ship and a truant boy (all played by members of the audience). We popped into shops along Duke of Gloucester Street to view a printing press in action and to finger the goat, yak, horse and human hair used in the curled wigs that adorned a gentleman's head. There was food and drink aplenty at the four taverns (with a young patriot's menu for kids), but we gave our biggest thumbs up to the peanut soup and sweet Sally Lunn bread at King's Arms tavern.
We also saw kids in period costumes that weren't being rented. Manager Willett, who oversees several on-site education programs, explained that Colonial Williamsburg wants to show a broad range of Colonial experiences, including that of children. To that end, the museum employs young Williamsburg residents as volunteer and paid interpreters and as musicians for the fife-and-drum corps. At an evening performance we attended, the teenage actors were greeted with loud "huzzahs" (the 18th-century equivalent of "yay"). Their hour-long "Colonial Kids on Parade" portrayed children's entertainment of the times and included a fencing lesson, dance instruction, slave stories and a puppet show.
On the walk back to our hotel, Christy noticed dozens of tiny lights flickering in the gathering dusk. And she enjoyed a childhood pastime as fun today as in Colonial times: catching fireflies on a summer eve.
COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG -- Visitor Center, 1 Visitor Center Dr., Williamsburg. About 150 miles south of Washington, off Interstate 64. Call 800-447-8679 for lodging and tavern-dining reservations, evening performance tickets and information. www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com (visit-focused information) or www.colonialwilliamsburg.org (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation). Open daily from 9 to 5. (Hours vary by season so double-check by calling.) Colonial Williamsburg offers a variety of admissions packages, which include admission to historic sites, trade shops, shuttle bus service and free parking at the Visitor Center. Prices range from $33 to $45 for adults and from $16 to $23 for children ages 6 through 17; younger than 6 free. Numerous demonstrations, performances and children's programs throughout the day and evening. Check www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com or the weekly guide available at the Visitor Center for most updated listings (subject to change). Especially visit the James Geddy and Benjamin Powell houses to see how Colonial children lived and played. Children's costume rental for $18 per day at Visitor Center gift shop or Market Square in historic section. Tickets for evening performances are usually $12 per person; purchase in advance by calling 800-447-8679. The historic section includes 301 acres, 88 original buildings, hundreds of reconstructed homes and shops, and the Great Hopes Plantation, all operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, an educational institution that also operates the nearby DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and Bassett Hall.
Colonial Williamsburg owns and runs five hotel properties: the Williamsburg Inn, select colonial homes, Williamsburg Lodge, Woodlands Hotel & Suites and Governor's Inn. The surrounding city of Williamsburg has many hotels in a range of prices.
Independence Weekend Activities
Friday -- Revolutionary War military demonstrations at Powder Magazine from 9 to 5; black Colonial preacher speaks on liberty for slaves at Cabinet Shop pasture, 1; children's games on Governor's Palace Green, 1:30 to 4:30; "Jefferson and Adams" play at Kimball Theatre, 7:30.
Saturday -- A widow talks about running an estate during Revolutionary War at Peyton Randolph House from 9 to 5; explore galleries for images of the American flag and bald eagle and create patriotic folk art at Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 10:30 to 11:30; costumed performance of Marquis de Lafayette at Governor's Palace Gardens, noon; meet African American soldiers of Rhode Island Regiment at Market Square, 1; "Jefferson and Adams" play at Kimball Theatre, 3 and 7:30.
Sunday -- A salute to the states with Williamsburg Militia at Market Square, 10; reading of Declaration of Independence by Patrick Henry at Capitol, 10:45; demonstrations of American military during Revolutionary War at Powder Magazine, noon to 4:30; public audience with Patrick Henry at Governor's Palace Gardens, 1; African American soldiers of Rhode Island Regiment talk about liberty at Market Square, 2; concert exploring "The Roots and Branches of American Music" at DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, 2 and 4; fireworks viewed from Governor's Palace Green and Market Square, 9:15.