Thursday, October 25, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 8 - Kenmore, Masonic Lodge, Hiram Powers]

In An Old Virginia Town - Part 8
Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine
March 1885, pages 601-612.
Author: Frederick Daniel

(Continued from Part 7)

There are in Fredericksburg and the neighboring counties many families who trace up their blood relationship to the house of Washington. In Westmoreland and Lancaster counties the Ball side of the house is still strongly represented. A grandnephew of the General, bearing his name, resides in Stafford, and though sixty years old, gains a humble livelihood by selling fire wood. Naturally, a relationship to the Father of his Country is proudly claimed by all who can put in a genuine patent; but there are no longer in the vicinity, as of yore, old negro women boasting of having nursed the great man in his infancy, and not a single chair in which he sat is now heard of. "Have you a chair in which the General at any time sat?" was gently queried of one of the burghers. "No," was the reply; "but we have a chair in which he would have sat had he visited at our house." According to a turf authority of high rank, the lineage of many of the horses around Fredericksburg is traced up to Washington's fine stock bred at Mount Vernon. The General truly was a great lover of horses, and raced as well as bread them.

"Kenmore" is the name of the old mansion in which Washington's sister Betty dwelt, not far from his mother's house. Betty was very anxious to be the mistress of a fine house, and so, to satisfy her, her husband had Kenmore constructed. Their son was for a long time mayor of the town. The mansion is large and well preserved outside, though the interior decorations decayed at an early date. The original frescoing of walls and ceilings, which so pleased Madam Betty's ├Žsthetic taste, was the work of an English soldier captured during the Revolution and sent for safe-keeping to Fredericksburg. The tradition in the family was that immediately after finishing his work he accidentally fell from the scaffold and was killed. The old building has recently been purchased by a gentleman from Baltimore, and he has undertaken to restore its former splendor.

"Lodge No. 4" of the Masonic fraternity of Fredericksburg is quite famous from having at various times embraced in its membership many eminent men. It was the fourth lodge established in colonial Virginia, and was organized in 1735. Among its early members was Washington, who received the first degree November 4, 1752, the second degree March 3, 1753, and the third degree August 4, 1753. The Bible used in these ceremonies still in good preservation, is the richest treasure of the lodge; it was printed at Cambridge, by John Field, in 1668. The Bible is always borne "in state" during the grand performances of the Masons. By order of the lodge, and subscriptions raised by its exertions to the amount of $5000, a very beautiful and faithful statue of Washington in white marble was wrought by the sculptor Hiram Powers, and was safely transported from Florence; ere it could be erected the war came on, when it was sent to Richmond for safe-keeping, but was destroyed there in a conflagration.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 7 - Mary Washington grave and monument]

In An Old Virginia Town - Part 7

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

(Continued from Part 6)

The exact spot of her [Mary Washington's] grave, on a rocky crag, was selected by her, as she declared, "because it never could be cultivated." There in 1832 was laid the corner-stone of the monument since erected over her grave, under the eye of President Andrew Jackson, with an imposing military and civic display. It was during his trip from Washington to Fredericksburg to attend this ceremony that the nose of "Old Hickory" was pulled for the first and last time in his life. According to the account of an eye-witness, as the steamboat conveying the Presidential party down the Potomac touched at Alexandria, a dismissed office holder deliberately went up to the President and tweaked his venerable nose. The by-standers immediately seized the intruder and had begun to pummel him, when the General, lifting his redoubtable cane, cried out: "Let him alone; I'm able to defend myself against the scoundrel!" Thereupon the "scoundrel" was hustled off the boat, and the Presidential dignity was saved.

The erection of a monument to "Mary the Mother of Washington" was proposed and undertaken by the citizens of Fredericksburg; but for some reason the job was delayed, until Silas E. Burrass, a New York merchant who was at the time courting a member of the Washington family, asked as a favor to be allowed to defray the entire expense. His offer was accepted by the building committee, and he at once furnished them with the means to proceed in the undertaking. The work was nearly completed, thanks to his liberality, the drafts made on him having been regularly paid, when his failure in business put a sudden stop to the erection, and the monument was left in the unfinished condition in which it stands to-day. At this juncture of affairs, moreover, his offer of marriage was declined by the lady. Fortunately the monument only lacked its shaft. There is no doubt that this small lacking was an advantage, from an ├Žsthetic point of view, seeing that the monument was a little gem precisely as left by the workers, and could only have been disfigured by a disproportioned shaft. It would, in fact, have been difficult to hit upon a more suitable design for a monument to the memory of Washington's mother than the one actually carried out; it's elegant simplicity and graceful proportions are entirely in accord with the canons of good taste.

The monument stands on the crag mentioned in the midst of the wide plain between two long parallel ranges of hills, one on the Stafford side, and the other on the Spotsylvania side, or at the beginning of the superb valley extending many miles down the Rappahannock River. The site could not have been more aptly selected, the view from the crag being very fine: from out of the middle of the plain, covered with rich greensward and dotted with sheep, the monument is visible as a central point of attraction within a wide area of hill and dale. Its cost was $10,000. It consists of solid, uncarved marble blocks inclosing a "filler" of cemented granite stones, the whole forming a square measuring twelve feet at the base and ten feet at the top. The blocks are so placed as to inclose broad tablets for inscriptions – though there is not a single word on them – and above these tablets small fluted columns, two on each side, extend to the top frieze. Only four of the columns remain, the other four having been broken and removed. The entire height is twenty-five feet; the quadrangular shaft which was to have "crowned the edifice," and which now lies in rough about ten feet away on the ground, is twenty feet long and four feet square at the base. Both the shaft and the blocks used in the structure were brought from Carrara.

An appropriation was recently made by Congress for the completion of the monument. Certainly no better design could be suggested than the one adopted in 1832 by the citizens of Fredericksburg – always omitting the shaft, as they in effect omitted it. The design might be carried out on a more extensive and costly scale without any very objectionable loss: but the substitution of any loud, gorgeous "pile" for the present modest memento would be a mistaken kindness both from a patriotic and an artistic stand-point. After all, the best monument to Washington, let us hope, is the veneration of each succeeding generation of Americans. There is a small private grave yard, walled in and planted with a few willow-trees, within three feet of the monument, adding to rather than detracting from its appearance. The promenade across the grassy plain to the monument is a favorite one with the young ladies and gentlemen of the town.

(to be continued)

Monday, October 22, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 6: Mary Washington House]

In An Old Virginia Town - Part 6

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

(Continued from Part 5)

The house in which Mrs. Washington lived in the town is situated on Charles Street, and is preserved almost as it was in her day. It contains only two rooms and a dark hall on the ground-floor, and one small attic room, reached by a winding staircase from the hall. The walls, thinly plastered on the inside, appear stained and dingy from age; the worn plank floors, the wide wooden mantel and fire-place, and the narrow windows carry one back at sight to the olden time. The foundation, partly of brick and partly of large stones, is remarkably solid for such a slight superstructure, clad in narrow strips of weather-boarding, lately repainted; the roof, thatched with round-pointed shingles, and over which rises a tall brick chimney, is steep on the street side, and sloping to the rear in the form of a shed over the exit into the large garden, which contains a diminutive "kitchen." The garden formerly embraced the adjoining five blocks, now built over. The modern coat of paint given the old house at first leads one to doubt its antiquity, but a closer inspection, within and without, soon attests its great age. The genuine structure has been joined to a two-story building with ample porch, from which the entry is now made to the corridor of the Washington mansion.

The house as it looked in 1783, according to a picture on an old map hanging in one of the hotels, tallies with its present appearance. It is occupied by a small family, the members of which are occasionally called upon to show its points to patriotic strangers. The present tenant's wife, when exhibiting it to us, pointed to the corner near the window in the front room and remarked, "It was right there in that corner that George used sometimes to sit on a bench and straighten out his mother's accounts." That Mrs. Washington was a diligent worker is attested by both oral and written memoirs. She attended in person to her garden and dairy, milking and churning with her own hands; but the statement that she sold milk, butter, and eggs is erroneous, both because there was no market for them in the neighborhood and because she was under no need of making money, being always kept well supplied by her son George, never more dutiful than in his conduct toward her. Before, during, and after the Revolutionary war it was his frequent practice to visit her in this famous little house. During his visits, when a young man, dancing parties were often given by his mother, and at these all the belles of the town were invited to assist. The floors, not then worn, were smoothly waxed, and the front room was large enough to hold several dancing couples at once, as they went through the stately minuet or the more lively "Virginia reel," to the music of a single negro fiddler. At one time these parties a young belle was honored with the General's hand for a dance. As he led her out on the floor he remarked, "I didn't know I had such a pretty black-eyed cousin!" This young partner when an old lady would fondly boast of this triumph, and putting her hands to her eyes, smilingly say, "And they are bright yet!" The old lady was evidently pleased to picture herself as on the day when Washington danced with her.

On one occasion during the Revolution Washington called, and, finding his mother working in the garden, went out to greet her. Looking up and discovering him coming toward her, she laughingly exclaimed, "Well, George, haven't they caught you?" His reply was to hand her a bag of silver, a commodity scarce in that era of Continental paper, and then to escort her back into the house for a chat. An old citizen of Fredericksburg who witnessed this interview, and frequently heard her give expression to her sentiments during the war, used to say of her: "She was a high old piece! George got a great deal of his character and majesty from her. She was looked upon as leaning to the Tory side in politics." Doubtless in the beginning it was as grievous in her eyes to see her favorite son in the American army as it would have been to have seen him in King George's navy, from entering which he had only been dissuaded by his high appreciation of her devoted love.

Mrs. Washington lived very happily in this little house, and within its walls her last moments were passed. Twenty years ago a military company paraded in the streets on every 22d of February, invariably commencing the day's festivities by marching to the front of the house and firing a salute. The ceremony is now omitted, of course, as there is no parade of the soldiery on that day. The death of Mrs. Washington, which occurred several years before that of her illustrious son, was the occasion of an immense turn out of the citizens in the neighboring counties and villages. The funeral was a very plain one, entirely adapted to the expressed wishes of the deceased lady, though the procession to the grave she herself had chosen – about half a mile distant on the plain – was unavoidably large, owning to the great respect and love which all classes entertained for her.

(To be continued.)

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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 4]

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

(continued from Part 3)

Washington's paternal grandfather settled in Virginia in 1657, and his maternal grandfather emigrated in the same year to the same neighborhood. Augustin, the father of George, first married Miss Jane Butler, who died after giving birth to two sons, Lawrence and Augustin. "Fully determined still," says Weems, "that 'it is not good for man to be alone,' he renewed for the second time the chaste delights of matrimonial life. His consort was Miss Mary Ball, a young lady of fortune, and descended from one of the best families in Virginia. From his intermarriage with this charming girl, it would appear that our hero's father must have possessed either a very pleasing person or highly polished manners, or perhaps both; for, from what I can learn, he was at that time at least forty years old, while she, on the other hand, was universally toasted as the belle of the Northern Neck, and in the full bloom and freshness of love-inspiring sixteen. Those overdelicate folk who are ready to faint at the thought of a second marriage might do well to remember that the greatest man who ever lived was the son of this second marriage."

Writing only ten years after Washington's death, or in 1809, Parson Weems thus refers to the famous homestead opposite Fredericksburg: "Little George had scarcely attained his fifth year when his father left Pope's Creek, Westmoreland, and came up to a plantation which he had in Stafford, opposite to Fredericksburg. The house in which he lived is still to be seen. It lifts its low and modest front of faded red over the turbid waters of the Rappahannock, whither to this day numbers of people repair, and, with emotions unutterable, looking at the weather-beaten mansion, exclaim: 'Here's the house where the great Washington was born.' But it is all a mistake. The first place of education in which George was ever sent was a little 'old-field school' kept by one of his father's tenants on the Stafford farm, an old man named Hobby, who acted in the double character of sexton and school-master. Hobby lived to see his pupil in all his glory. In his cups – for though a sexton he would sometimes drink, particularly on the General's birthdays – he used to boast that 'twas he who between his knees had laid the foundation of George Washington's greatness."

It was on the Stafford farm that Weems locates the scene of the accident to that cherry-tree, cited "as a case in point" – i.e., George's love of truth – "too valuable to be lost, too true to be doubted, and communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I was indebted for the last. 'When George,' said she, 'was about six years old he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet,'" etc. It was on this farm, also, that the father of Washington died, when he was sent down to his native place on Pope's Creek, Westmoreland, to school, and his mother moved into the house she occupied in Fredericksburg until her death. At the age of fifteen George left school, "of Latin understanding as little as Balaam's ass," quoth Parson Weems, to become a surveyor on Lord Fairfax's estate.

(to be continued)