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Under Your Nose: A Trip Back to 1799

Last of Major Mount Vernon Restorations Is Complete

In the years following George Washington’s death in 1799, the ownership of Mount Vernon — which at one time was an 8,000-acre plantation — changed hands among family members five times. The former president’s sprawling Virginia estate just proved to be too much to manage, especially as tourists started flocking to the “national shrine.”

By the 1830s, according to accounts, several columns on the piazza rotted away completely, forcing the roof to be propped up with the masts of old ships.

One woman took notice of this condition, found the “ruin and desolation of the home of Washington” unacceptable, and began a campaign to raise money to buy the property. This woman, Ann Pamela Cunningham, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association that she established, eventually raised enough money and purchased the mansion and surrounding property on April 6, 1858 — nearly 150 years ago for $200,000.

Cunningham’s words quickly established the mission for the association: “See to it that you keep it the Home of Washington! … Those who go to the Home in which he lived and died, wish to see in what he lived and died!” she said.

With that, the MVLA saw to restoring the estate to the way it would have been at the turn of the century. And today, the estate, which has been in an almost constant state of restoration, truly takes visitors back to 1799.

For nearly 21 years, one of the key figures in accomplishing Cunningham’s dream has been Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon associate director for preservation. Pogue, an archaeological preservationist, has directed a variety of major restoration and reconstruction projects on the estate, including a good portion of the mansion, the whiskey distillery, gristmill, slave cabin and Servants’ Hall.

The Last Piece

The last of more than a dozen original 18th-century outbuildings to undergo restoration — the Gardener’s House — will open to the public this weekend, providing one more reason to visit the already popular site.

After 233 years of serving as everything from an infirmary to a post office to most recently a security outpost, the two-story building sitting cater-cornered to the mansion has been restored to its condition in 1799, when plantation gardener William Spence lived there.

Documents date the house’s original construction back to November 1775 — a date corroborated by dendrochronological testing done recently on structural timbers. In that same time period, the mansion doubled in size and many other service buildings were erected.

Spence, a Scot who was charged with the upkeep of 6 acres of gardens, moved into the then-residence in 1797 after much work had been done on the structure to make it livable — including plastering the walls.

[IMGCAP(1)]Pogue and his team had a good amount of documentation from the era to go on, including the original specifications that were outlined in a letter plantation manager Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s half-brother and original owner of the property, wrote to the president on Dec. 13, 1775: “Buildg opposite the Store House, is to be divided into partitions — in one of your Letters you say it is intended for the Sick … The Door in the gable End to be of no Use, but Still be there, that it may in its outward appearance look like the store.”

The partition was removed at some point, but square wrought nail holes found in the beams led renovators to the original location, and it’s now back in place.

“We were looking very closely [at] the physical evidence so we [could] use that evidence to do an accurate restoration,” Pogue said. That close inspection also revealed the original position of shelving and door openings.

And, surprisingly, after two centuries and a dozen different uses, many of the original structural elements were found to be intact, including the framing, studs, roof beams, some lathing, and the brick fireplace and chimney.

This was not your typical preservation project, however. The renovators left the second floor “unrestored” in that they stripped it of the modern additions but left the 1776 lathe work, floorboards and ceiling joists exposed. Pogue said this helps viewers understand the genuine structure and leaves a form of documentation behind.

This upstairs portion of the house is closed off to the public, but the restored three-room first floor is on view as well as some surprising discoveries found during the restoration, including bottles hidden behind the walls, original shingles that had fallen into the soffit and a piece of door frame with handwriting from more than 150 years ago.

Of the “furnishings” in the renovated space, the only item actually from the Colonial era is a copper watering can believed to be one of two listed on the 1799 plantation inventory. The other homewares are reproductions based either on that inventory or archaeological findings. The books on the desk, for instance, are replicas of actual books that ledgers indicate Washington loaned to Spence.

The inventory, which Assistant Curator Christina Keyser said was an invaluable asset to the historical accuracy of the project, listed two bedsteads, one bed canopy, a walnut table and a chair as the only furnishings given to Spence for the house — and these items are the only furnishings now on display.

The grand opening of the Gardener’s House is at 11 a.m. Friday and continues with celebrations throughout the weekend, including “William Spence” telling stories of his home.

Washington’s Whiskey

As with many of the other tours and sites — including a 4-acre farm featuring rare-breed animals used in Washington’s time such as oxen and mules — that make up the Mount Vernon estate, George Washington’s distillery and gristmill opened for the season Saturday.

Rebuilt over the past decade, the distillery opened a year ago as a working 18th-century whiskey-production facility. It’s the only existing authentic reproduction in the United States and is a clear showcase of Washington as not just a political figure but as a businessman and the nation’s leading whiskey maker.

An 1814 fire destroyed the five-still building, but seven years of archaeological study, beginning in 1999, revealed the exact placement of the stills and boilers, original stone pavers and underground drainpipes.

Site manager Steve Bashore, who has a milling background and admitted he’s learned a lot in the past year about making whiskey, brought in experts from the top distilleries to help make the first batches of whiskey based on the recipe used when the facility was built in 1797.

It was in that year that Washington’s new Scottish farm manger, James Anderson, encouraged the deft businessman that using grain from the existing mill and producing whiskey on the premises would turn a quick and steady profit. Anderson was right, and within two years the new distillery adjacent to the mill was the largest in America, producing 11,000 gallons annually. It was one of the most successful operations at Mount Vernon — yielding $7,500 at its peak in 1799.

The 1771 four-story gristmill was restored throughout much of the 20th century and most recently reopened to the public in 2002. Still working daily, the mill produces the rye (60 percent of the whiskey’s dry ingredients), corn (35 percent) and barley (5 percent) that are used in the batches made next door.

This combination of grains, twice distilled, produced an 80-proof rye whiskey that Washington sold, unaged, for 50 cents a gallon. Since a good portion of his sales were in town, the joke, Bashore said, was that this clear whiskey was “aged from here to Alexandria.”

The two-story distillery building also features a historically accurate aboveground storage cellar, office and two bedrooms.

During the excavation, several artifacts were found, including original well bricks and an 18th-century copper alloy spigot, which are on display in the second-floor exhibition area. This area also features the seven-minute History Channel documentary “George Washington’s Liquid Gold,” photos of the restoration process and a display of memorabilia reflecting the history of whiskey in America.

Though no samples are given on the tour, you will soon be able to buy the whiskey produced in the restored facility. The commonwealth of Virginia gave the go-ahead just last week to sell the spirit on premises, so look for shot-sized bottles to hit the shelves, likely beginning in May.

The production site, three miles down the road from the mansion, sits on 21 acres and has a creek running through it to feed the mill. It’s almost hard to imagine the park-like setting, perfect for spring picnics, once running amok with farm animals and townspeople looking to grind their grains and maybe get a free buzz.

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