On a day blessedly free of rain, heat or oppressive humidity, thousands of happy visitors strolled the grounds of Mount Vernon yesterday getting a taste of life in the 18th century.
More than 60 artisans and performers fanned out across the sprawling grounds of George Washington's estate on the Potomac River. Craft workers spun yarn, whittled walking sticks and cooked fry bread over a fire. A fife and drum corps marched along the gravel paths winding around the estate, while the littlest visitors were held in rapt attention by a "Punch and Judy" puppet show.
Some of the most consistent crowds of the day were drawn to the humblest exhibitions of 18th-century existence. Virginia LaMaster, who was demonstrating food preservation by drying, and Chuck Modjeski, who dipped candles in a pot of warm wax, attracted youngsters and oldsters alike.
"I love the hand crafts, the fact that people worked very hard and put out beautiful products," said Melissa Glidden of Fairfax Station. "I come every year, and I make sure my kids come, too. It's hands-on, and they get to see how history is by doing it."
LaMaster, special events coordinator for the Glen Burnie Museum in Winchester, Va., strung fat green beans, onion rings and colorful chunks of bell peppers on cotton string, which she then hung on a rack to dry. She explained that the vegetables, once dried over a hot smoky fire, keep indefinitely. What's more, LaMaster assured skeptical onlookers, the vegetables taste good after they're cooked.
"I was this age when my grandma taught me how to do things like spinning and tatting," LaMaster said, nodding toward an 11-year-old girl helping to string the beans. As a result, she said, she developed a fondness for the lifestyles of long ago.
"It's an appreciation for the old and simple," she said. "This is real. It's not a video game. It's a collaborative effort to make things happen."
There was no shortage of collaborative helpers yesterday. As soon as one child stopped stringing vegetables, another eagerly stepped forward.
"We've been here all morning and this is where they wanted to come back to," said Mike Morgan, of Alexandria, referring to daughters Helen and Joanna, who were helping prepare vegetables.
"I don't like eating them, I just like stringing them," said Joanna, 4.
Jessica Veazey, 11, worked with chunks of bell peppers as she related how the Colonial era is her favorite time in history.
Jessica said she wouldn't mind tasting the green beans. "I love green beans, but I hate peppers and onions," she said.
Sitting next to LaMaster, Modjeski carefully dipped row after row of candles in a cast-iron pot filled with melted yellow paraffin. He said his interest in the craft was spurred by his involvement with period reenactments 14 years ago.
"I was looking for something to do at the reenactments. I decided no one was doing this, so I was going to," Modjeski said. It took him a year to assemble the proper tools, including molds and iron pots. Needing beeswax, he also became a beekeeper.
"I think I'd probably buy these candles more than commercial candles because they're homemade," said Kelly Mazzella, visiting from Prince Frederick.
After peppering Modjeski with questions, Cathy Quering of Manassas said she found it interesting to see how objects that are taken for granted are made.
"Everybody has candles. You never give it a second thought," she said.
Such interest in handcrafted items doesn't surprise Modjeski.
"I wonder if our society is going to become more fascinated by this as we get more frustrated by technology," he said.
Mount Vernon's Colonial fair continues today, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $4 for children ages 6 to 11.