A REAL National Treasure: Mt. Vernon!
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The travelers: Myself - EJ (emtpej), my DW, our sons Timmy and David, along with my in-laws and my BIL Kenny.
We took a day trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s famous home and plantation and take the “National Treasure” tour. This excursion is probably best enjoyed as a full day because of all the really neat stuff to see about the “Father of our Country”. There are a couple of Disney tie-ins here as it is a stop on the Adventures by Disney “American History” Atlantic coast tour, and Disney’s “National Treasures 2 – Book of Secrets” has a pivotal scene here when Ben Gates ‘kidnaps’ the President and wrings from him the information he needs to get the ‘Book of Secrets’.
The day of our trip dawned a partly cloudy but nice 52 degrees. We had a scenic drive along the George Washington Parkway and we parked very close to the entrance and got inside before a very large youth group. They have the visitor’s experience worked out very well so that you may be oriented quickly and they provide enough information so you don’t have excessive questions.
When we got our admission tickets on-site, we also got the limited-time “National Treasure” (NT) tour and the add-on for the newly re-constructed distillery and older grist mill (which is located about three miles away). We must have had some pixie dust on us as we managed to get the very last tickets for the morning NT tour! Otherwise, we would have had to wait for the 2:00 PM tour.
They have map / introduction booklets in most every language for you globetrotting polyglots!
They have a life-sized sculpture of Washington and his family -- this is the closest we will get to a character meet and greet for a while, yet! The strapping lad on the right is my BIL Kenny. Can you tell he is a farmer? This is not a camera trick, he really is that tall! Because of our arrival time, we decided to skip the orientation film for now and proceeded to the area in front of the mansion itself, where the special tours begin. We were glad that we had our winter jackets as it was still a bit windy and cool. As we had a little bit of time before the tour, we examined some of the out-buildings (re-constructed, of course) on the way, while dodging the allure of the gift shops (another thing that the MVLA learned from Disney…hmm?).
Next up -- a little looking around before our special tour!
In Washington’s time, many people worked in many buildings to support the plantation, and that is very much in evidence here. One concept that has finally been embraced here is acknowledging the fact that Washington was a slave-owner instead of glossing things over as was done previously. He seems much more like a real person now instead of like a marble statue on a pedestal for us to marvel at. I think that makes him more of a role model and less of a legend.
On the left is the interior of a reconstructed slave quarters. On the right is brick drain grate -- there is great attention to detail here!
On the left is a model of Washington's 16 sided threshing barn that was re-created nearby. The original was much closer to the gristmill / distillery complex. On the right is a rain diverter so that you do not need something more complex over an outside doorway to keep the rain off.
As we approached the mansion from the north side of the Upper Garden you can see the cupola at the top that used to let the air rise through the building a keep it cooler. On the right is the east lawn side of the mansion.
Next up - we meet our National Treasures tour guide.
We met our trench-coated guide, John Marshall (formerly of Pittsburgh), who now works at MVLA’s customer relations, in the courtyard in front of the mansion.
This is Mr. Marshall wearing a souvenir hat, (R) will we need these lanterns?
John tells us that there really is a tunnel, a cornerstone and a vaulted room in the basement! John takes around to the river side of the mansion where you can really tell that it is on a mount in comparison to most of the surrounding countryside. He explains to us that even though Mount Vernon is only in the film for five minutes, it took three weeks for the crew of hundreds to record what they needed for the film! It was really very chilly during the shoot and the extras had to constantly be reminded to remove their coats. The exteriors were done at night, with a lot of lighting equipment, prompting many calls to the authorities about suspicious activities ranging from space aliens to illegal aliens. After obtaining the key, John led us down into the cellar so we could see what was (and was not) there. He pointed out the vaulted room that was re-created back in Hollywood as well as the cornerstone that actually has George Washington’s elder half-brother Lawrence’s initials on it (LW instead of GW as in the film). Lawrence owned the estate until he died in 1754 and ownership passed to George. The structure of the cellar would suffer if they offered tours year-round there or if a film crew worked here for weeks, so it was re-created on a soundstage.
The vault area. Right - the cornerstone.
After leading us out of the cellar and locking the door, John led us to the edge of the lawn and showed us where the spring house and the river side opening to the tunnel is located! It turns out that Washington had an ice house and this tunnel connects the mansion side and the river side to make it easier to haul ice from the river to the ice house. So, there really is a tunnel at Mount Vernon, but its purpose is not mysterious at all, but very practical for a very busy 18th century plantation that made food to support the lives of its many residents and to sell.
This is the hilltop entrance to the icehouse. On the right is the loong set of steps that we were very glad to down instead of up!
This is the river side of the ice house.
We then made our way down to river’s edge and saw the garage that was built into the hill to house the chemical fire truck that was donated by Henry Ford in 1923 because he was concerned about the mansion burning down before other equipment could arrive and extinguish a fire. Even though the mansion looks like it is made of stone, it is actually made of textured wood.
Left is the garage for the fire truck. Ford with the aforementioned chemical 'engine'.
Because of the placement of this structure, the illusion of a secret tunnel is reinforced, but again, it is of mundane purpose. John had to end our tour there at the river edge, but our experience today has shown us that Hollywood can do a very good job of making something mundane into something mysterious!
John with the key to the 'National Treasures', right is the mansion from the riverside (I think that the sky is 'Carolina Blue' -- maybe Scarlett knows?).
Next up -- more interesting sights at Mount Vernon, and maybe some 'lunch'.
Today’s Mount Vernon is very beautiful, is well preserved, and has many newly reconstructed buildings like the 16-sided threshing barn. This building was designed by Washington to make the threshing of grain more efficient. It wound up being practically circular, so it was very odd for that era. I did not get any good photos of it so:
Left is the model, right is an old photo of the original.
Animals would walk on the stalks of grain and then the kernels would fall through the slatted floor to the lower level, where it was collected. The surplus of grain allowed him to make money from the production of flour and whisky (more about that later).
Left: Da-aaad! Did we have to come all the way to Mount Vernon to see COWS? Right: If you get to feeling tired out, they have a shuttle bus from the agriculture area back to the museum.
Before continuing, we went to the food court which had some basic choices, but about like selections you would find at a mall. How does Karen (aka mattnkattsmom) put it – scrummy? A combination of scrumptious and yummy? Well, here it was just crummy. We did not have the time or the $$ to eat at the real restaurant here – the Mount Vernon Inn, so youse takes what youse can gets.
Left: This is food? Right: David comments on the often imitated - never duplicated Mrs. Fields Cookies
We then went back over to the Ford Orientation Center and watched the orientation film that was introduced by Pat Sajack. The film about Washington’s life was very exciting and we enjoyed seeing that some of the action used locations in Williamsburg, VA, where we have visited many times in the past.
This is the family in front of the stained glass. Of course, my DW was in the gift shop right then (sigh). Incredibly, I managed to get them all to smile at the same time.
We then went to the mansion (yes, we are going in circles) and were pleased to find that even though the queue was much longer than it was earlier, it moved quickly because all the visitors have to keep moving through. One thing they enforce is no photographs inside the mansion. Imagine what would happen if everyone stopped to get a picture of everything? Their shops have books with very good photos anyway. Well, we went through the mansion and it was very well furnished, like some homes in Williamsburg and also like Liberty Hall in Philadelphia. After being rushed through the mansion, we walked back to the museum building again. They have the BEST museum on GW anywhere. There are several cinemas and a kids interactive area and many other displays. The detail and quality is astounding. I did not get any photos of it as my party was in a hurry to get to the main gift shop because they were making up for lost time. Shortly, we packed up and drove over to the gristmill and distillery which is about 3 miles away on Dogue Creek.
In order to produce the flour and whisky, Mount Vernon had a gristmill, a distillery, a cooperage, and a barley malting operation located at Dogue Creek, three miles from the mansion where there was better terrain for the water-powered operation. This was the area of the original threshing barn, also. This site was recently placed under the operation of the MVLA after being part of the Commonwealth parks system.
L: Joel Nichols, the miller, with the gristmill behind, and the 'millrace' to the left. R: Some of the gears, that are made of wood.
The gristmill (reconstructed in 1933) is very interesting because it can grind both wheat and corn because it has two sets of millstones. It makes a lot of noise and vibration when in operation, but it is ingeniously designed with mostly wood parts that can be replaced. The moving parts were restored in 2002. The millrace is kind of funny looking, because it dead-ends into the parking lot! What you cannot see is the water pump that re-circulates the water for the demonstration. The waterwheel is undershot (and inside the building!) and in this configuration turns counter-clockwise. It was highly automated with grain elevators, etc. and required only two men to run it!
The distillery was reconstructed in 2006 and it turned out a small batch of whisky in 2007. They have six copper stills and in the last year of operation, in Washington’s time, it produced 11,000 gallons of whisky. It was the largest in the country. Samples were not available during our visit, but they will be making commemorative products soon. The distiller told us that it was not aged, and therefore we would probably not enjoy the taste of it. It sounded more like rubbing alcohol!!
L: the distillery with watercourse for the cooling of the condenser coils. They use wellwater for the whisky! R: The Master Distiller.
The whisky was 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley malt. It was run through twice and stored in barrels and was not aged prior to being consumed. The leftover mash was fed to cows and pigs onsite. The reconstruction was accomplished with the help of the Distilled Spirits Council of the US and the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America.
Some of the sponsors -- I guess they knew it would not be any competition for them!