IT IS HOT in the rough-hewn workshop despite the openings through which a hesitant summer breeze whipers fitfully. The sun beats down on the roof of the wooden shed where perspiring craftsman Barry Whitman has been repairing simple farm implements that look like relics from another era. But the handful of curious visitors standing before him are seeking knowledge of America's past--a glimpse of life as it was lived at George Washington's birthplace along Popes Creek, Va., in the early 18th century--and Whitman does not disappoint his audience.
"As far as possible, farming is done here now as it was done then," Whitman says. He is explaining why the massive wooden yoke he made for the working farm's oxen now hangs useless on one wall. Unfortunately, the piece of wood he used had a hidden knot, and when the team of animals (heavier than those in Washington's day) began plowing deeper furrows with a modern plow, the yoke split.
"In the colonial period there was an abundance of trees," the Park Service employe says wistfully. "Now it's a problem finding suitable s straight and without knots."
The attire Whitman wears lends authority to his voice and helps create an aud suitable to the place where George Washington was born on Feb. 22, 1732. Some expert might be able to point is carefully researched indentured servant's costume; but for our group the tricornered hat, white frilly shirs seem eminently correct as he shows us buttons he made from deer antlers and cow horns, and muses aloud aboutactually had a resident blacksmith along with the carpenter and leatherworker.
Washington's birthplace is a Northern Neck, that narrow finger of land jutting out into Chesapeake Bay and bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. To this fertile Tidewater area came the English adventurers, the early colonists, the tobacco farmers who built plantations, the hardy men and women who smelled independence in the air and whose descendants became the leaders in the struggle to found a new republic.
Washington lived here, first at his father's tobacco farm until the age of 3 1/2, and later as a teen-ager. The original home burned down on Christmas Day 1779 while Gen. Washington was commanding the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Now a National Monument, the site gave me a better appreciation of why Washington's first love was farming. As he wrote in 1795:
"No pursuit is more congenial wi my nature and gratifications, than that of agriculture; nor none I so pant after as again to become a tiller he plantation's location on the Potomac provides a more striking setting than found at smaller but well-preserThough that shrine retains about 500 of the original 8,000 acres, only about 20 are open to the public.)
Despite the scores of d fish we saw floating in the river due to the red tide, the dying vegetation, and the fact that swimming is ucouraged by the Park Service, it is the Potomac whose broad, peaceful vistas dominate the scene and allow the agine what it must have been like to live in the area in Washington's time before the waterway was degraded. E away at imposing Stratford Hall Plantation, the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which was our sver remains a major focal point. George Washington Birthplace, 38 miles east of Fredericksburg, behistory because George's great grandfather, John Washington, was mate on an English ship that loaded tobacco n57. As the vessel sailed to another plantation, it ran aground and sank. While the ketch was being refloated, nds with a planter, Col. Nathaniel Pope. Instead of returning to London, he married the colonel's daughter andven a 700-acre estate by her father.
John prospered and became a prominent citizen. Lawrence, his son, and son, also had distinguished careers of public service. Following in the footsteps of their English forebears, they considered it y to their country to serve in civilian and military itions. In 1718, Augustine bought 150 acres on Popes Creek, and later built the home where his first child, GeAugustine moved his family in 1735 to Little Hunting Creek Plantation, which later became known as Mount Vernoginia acquired the site where the house had burned and the nearby burying ground established by John Washington, but the Civil War disrupted plans to mark them. The state gave the property tthe U.S. government in 1882. The Wakefield National Memorial Association (the plantation is now called Wakefieg acreage and restoring the grounds in 1923. A Memorial House was constructed in 1930-31 near the original homitchen House, and a Colonial Herb and Flower Garden was planted. Title to 394 acres was transferred to the fedin 1932, with later acquisitions bringing the total to 538 acres.
All the facilities are administered by thark Service. Here, as at every NPS historic site I have visited, the presentations are handled with imaginatioand good taste, and the property has been carefully tended within the limits of the service's reduced fiscal ability (a note recently rubberstamped onormative brochures as a frugal afterthought reads: "To help us supply visitors with park folders, please returno further use for it. Thank you!").
Upon entering the grounds from Rte. 204, the motorist first sees the sshaft erected in 1896 as a monument to Washington. Parking in front of the Visitor Center, we entered and were handed copies of throchure by the park ranger on duty, who briefly explained the layout. "A Childhood Place," the short color filalf hour, was about to be shown, so we took a seat in the small theater. The movie, evoking the beauty of the seasons, gives a sense of what George would have seen as a young child. The Park Service notes:
"Furnishings of the house and kitchen, gardens of flowers and herbs, the crops in the fields, and the livestock are of types which help recagton's childhood days. From his boyhood visits Washington could recall vegetables growing in the garden, floweear the house, fruit ripening in the trees, and fields of corn, wheat and tobacco. Tilling the land, felling tn the quiet waters, hunting game in marshes and woodland, and exploring the fields and hedges were experiences he later remembered from his days at Popes Creek."
Later we studied the displays of 18th-century artifacts--implements, ornaments, ceramics, smoking pipes, glass vessels and hardware--turned up during excavations; genealogical information on the Washington family, and maps. Then we went outside to begin our walking tour of the plantation, always close to the wide Potomac.
foundation lines of what was the main house are marked with oyster shells. The Washingtons were part of the Virginia planter aristocracy, thus the Memorial House is designed to illustrate horately wealthy, upper-class family lived in that period. Most of the furnishings are more than 200 years old. House, built apart from the main residence as was the custom because of the risk of fire, is equipped in typishion.
We hiked through shaded groves, skirting the river, and paused to listen to Whitman in his workshop nial Living Farm. The brochure reveals the reality behind the plantation economy:
"Slaves worked the fieldse crops that provided the necessities of life: grains, dairy products, and meat. Slaves also furnished many skills: carpentry, blacksmithing, coopering, spinninIt was the work of the Africans which made the plantation largely self-sufficient."
Demonstrations of sheep, dyeing, blacksmithing, soapmaking and fireplace cooking are given at various times during the summer. Wheat shed. There also are plowing, hoeing, planting, weeding and ox-driving demonstrations--all as staffing and weather permit. Remaining events scheduled for this season:
From 2 to 5 p.m. today, visitors can hear lute and recorder music of the pre-Revolutionary period. Sunday, Aug. 7, spinet music will be performed from 2 to 4 p.m. by Jennifer Strobel of Fredericksburg. Saturday, :30 to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., there will be demonstrations of candlemaking and blacksmithing. Sunday, Aug. 14, a 2 p.m. herb gardll examine uses of herbs in the 18th century. Sunday, Aug. 28, 1:30-4:30 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. James C. Roberson of Fredericksburg will perform colonial songs and spinet musday, Sept. 3, 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-3:30 p.m., blacksmithing. Saturday, Sept. 10, the costumed First Virgin begin an overnight campout around noon, continuing their camp-life demonstrations on Sunday. Straonial plantation that once covered 30,000 acres, now consists of a 1,580-acre working farm that dwarfs Washings the home of the illustrious Lee family, built originally for Thomas Lee, president of the Council of Virginie of five of his six sons and one of his two daughters. Sons Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee were sigation of Independence. Later Stratford became the home of their second cousin, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, one of's favorite officers and the father of Robert E. Lee.
The trees and shrubs, the gently rolling meadows, comention with the massive, beautifully proportioned 250-year-old Great House that sits commandingly on a bluff. which can be glimpsed from the house and at various points around the grounds, maintains its dominant role. ricultural methods used to grow tobacco exhausted his soil, Thomas Lee had to acquire other land up the river.supplanted by lumber and other products, and Stratford landing was filled with English ships unloading British tea and manufactureods.
Today, even the most lively imagination would have serious trouble envisioning how the Northern Neck--despite its admitted natural chm--could have been considered "the Athens of the New World" in colonial times. But certainly the completion of ouse in the 1730s, with its two clusters of four chimneys each and its four dependencies (outbuildings), was actural and cultural accomplishment. According to a handbook produced for the Robert E. Lee Memorial Associatiothe property in 1929: "Probably no house in America besides the White House has more intimate associations witomen than Stratford Hall."
Take the half-hour tour of the Great House, as we did after driving and walking estate, eyeing the cattle, school house, stables, gardens, mill, and a tiny strip of beach, and seeing the shoe show in the visitor center. It is well worth the time even if you have no special interest in antiques or architecture. The house is steeped in history, and the various women in od costume who will guide you through all the rooms downstairs and upstairs are knowledgeable and personable.
Note the bright bedspreads e colored with vegetable dyes in 1740; the sturdy brass hardware, 75 percent of it original fittings; the furniture, none of it made later than 1800; the nursery in whoseron fireplace can be seen two winged cherubs dear to the heart of young Robert E. Lee; and the Great Hall, terst beautiful rooms in this country.
Restored Stratford, thanks to the efforts of the women who formed the nssociation as a tribute to Gen. Lee, continues to produce and thrive. Archeological excavations a few years agmation about its past. And the triumphs and tragedies of the Lees still can be remembered where their story began.