correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for the discovery of the Ferry Farm house foundation and incorrectly said the bedroom in an accompanying photo belonged to Washington’s parents. This version has been corrected.
Many Americans are aware that George Washington lived at Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, Va., a historic site where they can walk in the footsteps of our nation’s foremost founding father, Revolutionary War hero and first president.
What’s less well-known is that Washington grew up 40 miles south of there, at what is now called Ferry Farm, near Fredericksburg, and the site — the setting for such mythical events as chopping down his father’s cherry tree and throwing a coin across a river — can be visited as well. Both locations provide a fascinating window into Washington’s life. And this year, both have something new to offer visitors.
In January, the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon completed a $2 million upgrade of its Revolutionary War Theater and unveiled a new “4-D” film focusing on Washington’s role in the war. And in May, Ferry Farm, where Washington lived from age 6 until moving to Mount Vernon at 22, opened a replica of the Washington family’s house for guided tours.
I ambitiously set out to see both of Washington’s homesites on a rainy Monday in early June. My day begins with breakfast at Mercantile, a cheerful, cozy restaurant in Fredericksburg’s historic downtown, where I enjoy some strong coffee and a delicious omelet made with chopped tomato, fresh basil, red onions, mozzarella and goat cheese.
Ferry Farm is just a stone’s throw from downtown Fredericksburg, about a five-minute drive down Kings Highway — unless you miss the tiny roadside entrance sign and have to circle across the Rappahannock River and back again, as I did.
The tour of the site — with the exception of the house itself — is self-guided. Visitors are given an iPad to take with them as they walk along a path that loops through the property. Flags mark various stops where visitors can use the iPad to watch short videos, look at pictures and listen to narration about the Washington family’s life at the farm.
The tour winds through a demonstration garden, along an area where enslaved workers lived, down a steep hill, and past Ferry Lane to the river. In an iPad video, the farm’s director of archaeology, Dave Muraca, demonstrates how easy — or not — it would have been to throw a stone across the Rappahannock at that point. (The original legend said that Washington was strong enough to throw a rock, not a coin, over the river.) Visitors are invited to try it for themselves.
Tony Stevenson, a tour guide at the reconstructed house, says that the Washingtons’ home, built on land rising high above the river, would have had a clear, commanding view of Fredericksburg. More important, the house could be seen from the city, a declaration to the bustling trade center that important people lived there.
Known at the time as the Washington Home Farm, it was a transportation hub positioned between Kings Highway and a high point of the Rappahannock, where ships brought goods all the way from Britain. A nearby lane led to a ferry across the river, so young George would have had the opportunity to encounter more worldly travelers who were passing through. Over time, it became known as the Ferry Farm.
Augustine Washington died in 1743, when George was 11, leaving his widow “land rich and cash poor,” with five children in her custody, Stevenson says. When George was in his late teens, his older half brother, Lawrence Washington, helped him secure a position as a surveyor for William Fairfax, Lawrence’s father-in-law, who was one of the largest landowners in Virginia.
This afforded George the opportunity to gain valuable insights about the land in the region, and also to invest in self-improvement — lessons and experience in dancing, card playing, fencing and billiards. The social skills he gained while living at the Ferry Farm enabled him to move comfortably in high society, Stevenson says.
After Lawrence’s death, George inherited his brother’s plantation: Mount Vernon. He moved there in 1754 and sold the Fredericksburg property 20 years later.
Over the ensuing decades, Washington’s early home was nearly forgotten. The original house had been neglected and eventually collapsed in the early 19th century, leaving few traces. It wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists found the first evidence of the house’s foundation.
In 2015, the George Washington Foundation began reconstructing Washington’s childhood house on the site of the original building. Stevenson explains that there were no paintings or drawings of the house, so the reconstruction was based on archaeological evidence, documents such as Augustine Washington’s probate inventory and houses occupied by similar families at the time.
The replica house, a wooden structure with red paint, is modest by today’s standards. It has only eight rooms, two of which are little more than openings at the top and bottom of the staircase. Nevertheless, Stevenson says, it would have been one of the area’s finest homes in Washington’s time.
The house is sparsely furnished, and little attempt has been made to make it appear lived-in. Two bed frames lack mattresses and bedding, and some of the rooms are mostly empty. The tour does give visitors a sense of the close quarters in which the Washington family lived, and offers a striking contrast to the luxury of Mount Vernon — my next destination.
Although Mount Vernon is only an hour’s drive up Interstate 95 from Ferry Farm, it seems like a world away. The contrasts between the two attractions are immediately evident as I approach the entrance and pass one tour bus after another, lining the road. First on my agenda is a 20-minute, self-guided tour of the mansion. To control the crowds, only a certain number of visitors are allowed to start the tour every few minutes. As I wait for my timed entry, I explore the gardens, grounds and slaves’ quarters, and look on as historical interpreters in period costumes chat with visitors.
There are similarities between the Mount Vernon mansion and the house at Ferry Farm — both were riverfront homes on plantations once owned by Augustine Washington — but the tour experiences could hardly have been more different.
At Ferry Farm, I had been joined only by a couple from New York for an in-depth, 40-minute guided tour of the reconstructed home. At Mount Vernon, guides were stationed throughout the mansion tour, repeating one-minute spiels as dozens of visitors shuffled past, pausing briefly for questions before starting their spiel again. As a former tour guide, I felt a little sorry for them.
We see the central passage, the oldest part of the mansion, which contains the only original furnishing we are allowed to touch — a polished wooden banister. We also walk past a guest bedroom, the New Room (main event hall), two parlors, a dining room, the Washingtons’ bedroom, and — in separate structures — the kitchen and a building where the guests’ servants stayed.
The mansion at Mount Vernon is immense in comparison with the house at Ferry Farm. It has 21 rooms, including nine guest bedrooms. There are no bathrooms, however, and no indoor plumbing. Instead, the Washingtons and their guests used chamber pots and outhouses. A guide says that strangers sometimes shared the guest rooms when the Washingtons had more guests than rooms for them.
In the private bedroom, where George Washington died, we see the original bed shared by the Washingtons during their 41-year marriage. In the kitchen, we learn that, late in life, the president only had one tooth. His dentures were mainly for presentation, not eating, so he mostly ate soft foods.
When the tour ends, I head to the Museum and Education Center to see the film and spend the remainder of my time browsing through the exhibits. I realize then that one could easily spend a full day at Mount Vernon. A visit of two to three hours merely scratches the surface.
The impressive, 17-minute film in the Revolutionary War Theater gives viewers an immersive, up-close look at Washington’s wartime experience. The new, wide-aspect-ratio screen and surround-sound system are enhanced by close-up shots and special effects that draw viewers into the battles. Lights flash and our chairs shake when cannons are fired, and fog and snow appear at times to simulate the weather.
Even though we know how the movie will end, the film does a good job of building suspense by showing the immense challenges Washington and his troops faced — and overcame — to defeat the mighty British forces and gain independence for the colonies.
Mount Vernon’s food court and the highly regarded Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant are popular with visitors. However, by the end of my visit, I’m ready for a change of pace. I decide to check out Su Pollo, a Peruvian chicken restaurant just 10 minutes away, in Alexandria. The spicy, roasted chicken is as good as its reviews suggest — crispy, juicy and full of flavor. The rice and black beans are also moist and tasty.
It’s a meal that latter-days George Washington could only have enjoyed in his dreams.
Barnes is a writer based in Leesburg, Va. His website is notesnletters.com.
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The estate where Washington lived most of his life is at the southern end of George Washington Memorial Parkway in Fairfax County. In addition to mansion tours and the Museum and Education Center, it offers tours of Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill, gardens and groves and Washington’s tomb. Other special tours focus on first lady Martha Washington, the enslaved people who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, and music of the Revolution. Mount Vernon also has special activities for children.
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