Many of us have visited George Washington’s famous plantation at Mount Vernon, but we were intrigued to stop in at Pope’s Creek Farm, the spot on the Potomac where our first President was born.
More interesting by far than the displays was what we found out from the ranger on duty at the COVID era open-air station outside the closed visitor center. About sixty miles by water from our capitol city, the area has remained virtually unchanged for more than two hundred years, making it possible to experience some of the sights and sounds familiar to the Washington family.
Pope's Creek Farm was first developed by George’s great-grandfather John Washington in the mid-17th century.
What makes the story particularly interesting is that the property went out of family hands and belonged to several people before the state of Virginia acquired it in 1858. The financial aftermath of the Civil War made belt-tightening a necessity, and the state donated the property to the federal government in 1882.
It sat fallow for nearly fifty years, the original homestead, called Wakefield, is long gone.
The Wakefield National Memorial Association was formed in 1923 with the intention of restoring the property. A generous donation from John D. Rockefeller and the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps saw a period-faithful planters home and several outbuildings constructed in time for a dedication by the Park Service in 1932 on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.
The entrance is marked by a scaled-down replica of the monument on the National Mall.
Pope's Creek Farm
As you might imagine, archeological techniques and methods in the 1920s were not what they are today, and modern researchers have discovered that much of the reconstruction is incorrect or misleading. The original house was quite different, and its location and foundation shape are now marked on the grounds.
The formal garden, which includes many kitchen plants (mostly herbs) is also slowly being replanted with species more appropriate to the time and climate of the Washington family’s tenure here.
We remember hearing from a ranger at the Memorial to the Battle of Greasy Grass, where George Custer’s forces were so badly beaten, that much of the battlefield has not been excavated. “We dug up some interesting artifacts,” she told us, “but we left most of the ground undisturbed, because a hundred years from now they’ll have tools we can’t even imagine, and we want them to have something undisturbed to analyze.”
It’s this ethic that drives one of the big questions at the Washington birthplace. Do we correct the mistakes made in the 30s, which involve destroying the CCC works and changing the entire feel of the estate? Or do we try to interpret the history of restoration as well as the history of the homestead?
Speaking of the Civil War, just a few miles down the road from here is Stratford Hall Plantation, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. This, too, is a place wrestling with how historical stories might best be told in this time and place.
And a few miles north is the home of John Tyler. The tenth President of the USA was known in Washington as a political outlaw and for that reason named his home Sherwood Forest. At 300 feet, it’s the longest frame house in the country and is still owned and maintained by the Tyler family.
Lots to see, lots to think about, and lots to make you wonder, here on Virginia’s Northern Neck, just off the beaten path.
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