ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The cherry tree. The spring-loaded dentures. What many of us know, or think we know, about George Washington would fit on the back of a postage stamp.
What of the tall, graceful man who loved to dance? Or of the host who fed hundreds of drop-in guests at his table each year, even when he was away at war?
What of the plantation owner who knew precisely how much wool each sheep gave? Or of the man with the sweet tooth who ordered 50 pounds of chocolate at a crack?
Centuries after his strategic victory in the American Revolution and his egalitarian triumph as America's first president when he might have been king, George Washington seems heavily shrouded in the myths of nationhood. Most Americans revere him, yes, but do we really know anything about Washington?
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, the country's first national preservation organization, has a euphemism for the problem: They call it an "information gap." To help fill this gap, the association leveraged its 150th anniversary in 2003 to raise millions for a new education center and museum at Mount Vernon. The museum, with displays drawn from some 30,000 objects, is scheduled for completion in 2006.
The ladies may call it an information gap, but Dennis Pogue, the association's associate director for preservation, is much more blunt. "We've an entire generation of Americans who've lost contact with this story," Pogue said. "If you don't understand George Washington and his role, it's indicative you don't understand much about this country and how it came about."
Pogue is part of a team that works to breathe life into the details of Washington as a multifaceted man who, among his many accomplishments, was a knowledgeable farmer. Starting with just over 2,100 acres, Washington built his holdings to more than 8,000 acres and became one of the 10 wealthiest men in Virginia.
A newly excavated and rebuilt dung repository just downhill from the mansion demonstrates some of Washington's farming techniques. "Nobody thought they were composting in the 18th century, but certainly Washington was," said Pogue, who brings up other fascinating "Did You Knows" about George and Martha Washington in the context of their beloved homestead. These, plus contemporary histories and Washington's own letters, help flesh out the iconic couple and their lives of private devotion and public sacrifice.
To help fill some of that information gap, did you know:
Washington designed most of Mount Vernon. What's more, 80 percent of the buildings now standing are original structures. In the 1730s, an unknown architect built a wooden house on land granted to John Washington, George's great-grandfather, upon his emigration from England in 1656. In 1740, George's father, Augustine Washington, deeded Little Hunting Creek Plantation to George's older half-brother, Lawrence, who renamed it Mount Vernon in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon, under whom he had served in the Caribbean.
Eleven-year-old George stayed with his brother on and off after their father died, and then leased Mount Vernon from Lawrence's widow in 1754. George inherited the house in 1761, bringing his new bride, the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, and her two young children to Mount Vernon. Quickly, Washington took the house from 1 1/2 stories to 2 1/2 and then added wings in 1774 and 1776. The unusual covered colonnades connecting to the mansion were built in 1778 and 1780.
Much of the work was directed long-distance by letter to his distant cousin, Lund Washington, while George was otherwise engaged: as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, then as the nation's first president, for two terms.
"Washington wanted cohesiveness of design, for the house to fit in with the landscape and create a larger whole," Pogue said. "Many people feel it's the most beautiful estate in America, and he deserves the credit for that." The Washingtons needed plenty of dining space, because their hospitality was legendary. In 1785, they recorded 423 guests, and in 1798, more than 677 visitors lingered overnight. They owned seven sets of china, some purchased, some given, with more than 2,000 pieces. No wonder Washington once called his house a "well-resorted tavern."
Even when Washington was away preparing for war, he wanted to sustain the custom of the house. He wrote to Lund in 1775, "Let the Hospitality of the House, with respect to the poor, be kept up; let no one go hungry away . . . provided it does not encourage them in idleness."
On July 31, 1797, Washington wrote a friend about a rare Mount Vernon occurrence. "Unless some one pops in, unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington & myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty Years by us -- this is to set down to dinner by ourselves."
This tranquillity at Mount Vernon during the last 2 1/2 years of his life was indeed unusual. During the Revolution, from 1775-83, General Washington returned to his beloved home only twice. During his presidency, 1789-97, he came home only 15 times.
Even though he was away for years at a time, Washington "was a hands-on manager who was heavily involved in the daily operation" of Mount Vernon plantation, Pogue said.
In addition to whiskey from his distillery, Washington sold salted fish and slave-woven fabrics from Mount Vernon, and he exported grain as far as Portugal and the West Indies.
Today, visitors can explore some of the remaining 500 acres of the plantation and see livestock typical of the 18th century.
Washington was the only Founding Father to free his slaves upon his death.
"It is my Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom," he wrote in his will.
Emancipation was a complicated affair, however, part of "the only unavoidable subject of regret," as Washington wrote of slavery. He freed 123 personal slaves, but the remainder of the Washingtons' 316 slaves were held as "dower Negroes" in trust to Martha through her family, and neither had the power to free them. A Slave Memorial marks the communal slave cemetery at Mount Vernon.
The Washingtons left behind fascinating fragments of their Mount Vernon lifestyle.
In one of the serendipities of archeology, workmen digging to clear an irrigation head in the grove south of the house found bits of china and household items.
"Once we started, we were digging for four years," Pogue said. The find was a trash midden, one of the troves beloved by archeologists. Were the headless clay figurines cast-off toys from Jacky and Patsy, Martha's young children? Did the bone fan ribs come from Martha's broken fan? The slave quarters also yielded upper-class objects such as silver buckles, stemware, and porcelain. Why were they there?
Among all the items pulled from Mount Vernon soil, one small piece of metal may be Pogue's favorite. When cleaned, the green and corroded bit revealed a luggage plate engraved with "Gen. Washington." "That was exciting," Pogue said. "It's great when you can make the direct connection to the people."