This post has no insight to offer towards birthplaces, presidential history and historic sites, preservation, American heritage, U.S. geography, or any of the other topical concerns around which this project ostensibly revolves. It is simply a collection of inane video footage from my trip to Virginia (has it really been two months?), found while cleaning out my trusted Flipcam.
This is the second and final post regarding my visit earlier this month to Pope’s Creek Plantation, where President Washington was born 280 years prior on land graced by chickens, Devon cattle, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (say what?) ever since. This one’s an unabridged interview with Alan, the gracious and well-spoken NPS employee I met in the visitor center just overlooking the swelling Pope’s Creek estuary. (Tangentially, I cannot for the life of me seem to determine whether or not “Pope[‘]s Creek” is spelled with the apostrophe. If you’d like to spend next summer researching topics in the grammatical history of Pope[‘]s Creek Plantation, kindly fill out your Olin application here.)
Below, Alan speaks in great depth about the history of the site, the value of knowing your history, and why the George Washington birthplace attracts far more senior citizens than students (“I’m not trying to be fatalistic or anything . . . “). Click past the jump.
“A lot of people have signs on their property that say ‘George Washington slept here,'” Carla tells me, “but we’re the only ones that can say ‘George Washington slept here first.’ That’s one of our little mottos here.” Here, actually, quite literally: pictured above are the white oyster shell fragments marking the foundations of the plantation home of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball Washington. “Here,” the historic marker reads, “on February 22, 1732, George Washington—farmer, general of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—was born.”
Funny thing is, the Memorial House, constructed on what historians thought marked the site of Washington’s birth house, actually falls 100 feet away. It was built in 1931, a year before the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth, when the Wakefield National Memorial Association scored funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to secure land for the national park site. It was another six years before archeologists discovered the actual foundations above, “hidden under deepening soil and thickening underbrush for 150 years,” and realized they’d been mistaken. Oops. That house, a “U-shaped timber frame dwelling,” burned in a fire on Christmas Day, 1779. (This, I soon learn, is an ongoing theme in colonial presidential birthplaces. Jefferson’s birth house at Shadwell turned to ash in 1770. The third president greatly mourned the loss “of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” So years later, when he made his estate at Monticello, he demanded the kitchen be separate from the main house to prevent similar ruin. Live + learn.)
Here are some observations on Staunton, VA—birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, where I spent my Thursday afternoon and, somewhat inadvertently, my Thursday night:
Staunton people know what Wesleyan is.
I spoke with so many people during my five days in Virginia. I spent time all over the state—in Charles City, Colonial Beach, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Staunton. But only two people I met in Virginia had heard of Wesleyan, where I go to school.
Spoiler alert: they both work at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, two doors down from Woodrow Wilson’s austere birth home in Staunton, VA.
Wilson taught at Wesleyan for two years during his academic career, from 1888-1890. Most notably, he founded our debate team, still called the T. Woodrow Wilson debate team, and supposedly lived in 159 High Street, what is now Earth House. (He oversaw the formation of the National Park Service as president, so I guess that’s earthy enough.)
There is a famous story involving Woodrow Wilson and D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, one that historians love to tell and retell as prime instance of the president’s notoriously unenlightened racial views. Wilson screened the movie at the White House upon its 1915 release (this much is fact) and loved it, the story goes. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” he is said to have exclaimed. “My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”
Somewhere between Coolidge and Clinton, this anecdote hardened into legacy. For nearly a century it has provided prime fodder in academia and popular history alike, for social liberals, who for years have expressed disgust with Wilson’s staunch segregationism, as well as fiscal conservatives (“this is the architect that destroyed our faith,” exclaimed Glenn Beck, who reportedly keeps a framed 1924 newspaper headlined “Woodrow Wilson Is Dead” by his desk).
Greetings from Charles City: I am presently liveblogging from Edmund Ruffin’s queen-sized bed, where I am spending the night. (That sentence has almost certainly never before been written in the English language.) I’m staying at North Bend Plantation, a 6,000 square foot estate built in 1801 for William Henry Harrison’s sister and presently run as a bed-and-breakfast inn by George Forbes Copland II, great nephew of William Henry Harrison and great great grandson of Edmund Ruffin. I am alone, in other words, on a 200-year-old slave plantation in Charles City, VA, in a bed previously slept in by a confederate madman, in a room occupied by General Sheridan during the Civil War. I am a card-carrying Union traitor, if only on fellowship.
The internet is surprisingly fast at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation because there are no other people online at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation because there are simply no other people at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation: there is me, owner Ridgely Copland, her perky Chihuahua, and 850 acres barely changed since 1830, when 80 slaves were censused on its premises. (I almost expect to see them today. The Confederate American landscapes are too shockingly vivid for 2011.) “I see you like history,” Ridgely explained, “so I got you in the most historic room in the house: the Sheridan Room.” And then, after a brief pause: “Do you eat bacon and sausage?” Ridgely is fantastic and somehow timeless, an aged southern plantation belle who seamlessly alternates between discussing her husband’s royal English lineage (King Henry II is listed as his 22nd great-grandfather) and her recent knee replacement surgery in the same distant drawl.