Friday, October 19, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 5]

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 5]

Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine
March 1885, pages 601-612.
Author: Frederick Daniel

(continued from Part 4)

The farm consisted of only 1200 acres, though his father's estate in the two counties of Stafford and Westmoreland amounted to 25,000 acres. The house in which Washington lived with his parents disappeared a half-century ago, but a frame dwelling now stands on its site and erected on the same stone foundation, its only visible relic. When this old foundation was being excavated by the present occupant of the locality a number of wine bottles and clay pipes were the sole tokens of grandeur discovered among the debris. The modern house, about three hundred yards below the railway bridge, is on the top of a hill, and is one hundred yards from the river. It is a very modest one-story building, surrounded by a few shade trees, and is kept in neat order by a small farmer, very proud of the high honors attaching to the spot, as it seemed to a party of three of us who trespassed on his premises to satisfy our curiosity. On entering his little "parlor," the eye was at once attracted over the mantel-piece to the engraving representing "The Courtship of Mrs. Martha Custis by General Washington," and as we gazed on the prim uniformed young man in top-boots seated beside the window and her two lolling children, the picture appealed to the fancy with unwonted liveliness. This was the only Washingtonian memento visible. The field surrounding the house, which is rarely visited nowadays either by strangers or natives, was pleasant to behold under its high state of cultivation.

Descending from the brow of the hill in a straight line (amidst regrets that the art of photography did not exist in 1742), we reached the ferry, which was located at precisely the same point in that year. It was here that, according to the traditional belief of the towns-people, the ten-year-old hero threw a stone across the river, though the exploit is by a few double-dyed skeptics in the town as strenuously pooh-poohed as the little hatchet affair. Biographer Weems says: "Colonel Lewis Willis, his playmate and kinsman, has been heard to say that he has often seen him throw a stone across the Rappahannock at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It would be no easy matter to find a man nowadays who could do it. Indeed, his father before him was a man of extraordinary strength." The distance across the river by the ferry-boat is now one hundred and fifty yards, but it was greater then, according to old citizens, who recollect when the stream was much wider and deeper. At the close of the last century large barks and schooners heavily laden were able to ascend a mile above, as far as Falmouth, where they received return cargoes of wheat and tobacco. Falmouth, now a decayed hamlet, was then such a thriving town that its prominent merchants furnished exchange on England to Baltimore. At the time of Washington's exploit the distance across must have been nearly two hundred yards, and hence his throw was a greater triumph of muscular strength and dexterity than such a performance would be today. A merchant standing in his warehouse on the Fredericksburg side assured the writer that, instead of a stone, the Father of his Country threw a silver dollar across the river – verily "the dollar of the daddies" – "and," added this gentleman, "they afterward found the dollar." This is an entirely new version, and our only wonder is that we do not meet it on the pages of Parson Weems. Judging from the amount of stone-throwing indulged in by the small boys at the expense of the solitary ferryman as he poles his bark to and fro, one fancies that they, at least, are fully persuaded the great man in his boyhood threw a stone across the Rappahannock.

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