Washington’s Birthday and Washington’s View

The View of Mount Vernon from Piscataway Park

by Wilton Corkern, President

In 1793 George Washington wrote that, “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this.” Three years later the noted architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, painted the “situation” that so pleased our first president. His watercolors show a lush, pastoral landscape on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Fortunately for us and for posterity that landscape as seen from Mount Vernon has changed relatively little from what Latrobe and the numerous other people who visited Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime saw. As we celebrate the annual anniversary of Washington’s birth, it is worth noting that the Accokeek Foundation’s first job was to secure and hold the core of that view “for the benefit of the people of the nation.”

A half-century ago, in 1961, Congress enacted Public Law 87-362, authorizing the creation of Piscataway Park. It was only fitting that Piscataway Park was dedicated on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1968.

On this Washington’s Birthday we look not only back to past achievements, but forward to the challenges ahead. The view from Mount Vernon still faces the possibility of despoliation. Piscataway Park protects only 10% of the entire “viewshed.” The remainder of what we see is controlled by state and local governments and by thousands upon thousands of individual property owners. It also includes some extremely valuable and diverse historic and environmental resources: breeding grounds for anadromous fish (like American Shad and Rockfish), freshwater tidal wetlands, historic buildings and communities, mature upland forests, and habitats for rare plants and animals. The challenge now is to work with those private property owners, and the governments (federal, state, and county) that represent them, to find new and innovative ways to expand and enhance the protected area.

The Accokeek Foundation’s goal now and in the future is to preserve this beautiful pastoral landscape and the richness it provides to local residents, to visitors from near and far, and even to “the people of the nation” for many generations to come. We envision a future landscape, filled not only with well-designed and well-sited houses and businesses, but also the passive recreational spaces, sustainable farming operations, public River access points, and other amenities that make this an attractive and enriched place to be. The Mount Vernon Viewshed is truly a national treasure. The Accokeek Foundation is honored to be a part of its ongoing protection.

Tobacco’s Tools

Bundles of dried tobacco plants hang from a wooden tobacco stick.

The eighteenth-century tobacco barn on the National Colonial Farm is filled with dry tobacco. Cut and bundled in the fall, the once-green plants hang down from hand-split tobacco sticks, now brown and weathered. A 1770 spring would have found colonists preparing their tobacco fields for planting. Last season’s dried plants would have already been stripped and “prized” (or pressed) into hogsheads (or large wooden barrels) for shipment across the sea to England.

But now that tobacco is no longer this region’s cash crop, our tobacco barns—so essential in curing tobacco and so central to our landscape—have fallen out of use. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2004 listed Southern Maryland’s tobacco barns among the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation. Southern Maryland preservationists have worked to refurbish these unique vestiges of our past when possible.

The eighteenth-century tobacco barn at the National Colonial Farm.

And as for the tobacco sticks? Not worth much, these sticks are now seemingly without use. But the educators at the Accokeek Foundation have discovered a carver in Tennessee who has re-purposed the once-vital tools, turning decades-old Oak and Hickory tobacco sticks into walking sticks. The incredible (and useful!) walking sticks are reminiscent of this region’s history, so closely tied to the land and the tobacco that grew from it. The sticks can be purchased in our remodeled Visitor Center Gift Shop, which will reopen on Saturday, March 5.

Decades-old tobacco sticks-turned-walking sticks, for sale at our Visitor Center Gift Shop.

Missive from the Reading Room of the American Antiquarian Society

by Lisa Hayes, Director of Public Programs and Education

In December I learned that I had been selected for a four-week Creative and Performing Artists and Writers Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, to do research for the Accokeek Foundation’s museum theater program. With our busy schedule at the farm, the only time I could come was January. So now it’s the day after a blizzard, and I’m sitting at my wooden table in the beautiful Reading Room at the AAS. Two tables over, I see James and Lois Horton, distinguished scholars here to do research for a major new work on African American history. Looking down at me is a portrait of Isaiah Thomas, the New England publisher who started the Society in 1812 with his personal collection of 8,000 books. The AAS is now home to over three million books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, graphic arts materials, and manuscripts that document the history of the United States. While my main focus has been on crime and punishment (the theme for our 2011 Museum Theater Internship Program), I have also been searching for materials related to what we interpret at the National Colonial Farm, from foodways to plants and animals. Today’s “digging” turned up an article on making cider and two articles from the January 1787 edition of The American Museum, one on an “Experiment for raising Indian corn in poor land” and the other about the “culture of carrots.”  Time to get back to “digging”!

Discover Maryland Foodways this March

In March of this year the National Colonial Farm will premier its newly developed Foodways program.  Over the years this successful program has fascinated visitors as they witness firsthand what our colonial ancestors ate and how it was prepared.  This year we plan on taking the program and the visiting public even further into the culinary traditions of Maryland.

Maryland Fried Chicken

While we will still be cooking over the fire and using all the gizmos and gadgets of years past, the format will be drastically different!  Each program will be presented much like a modern-day cooking show, where a seated audience (along with a few special guests or tasters) will watch presenters prepare a meal and discuss what makes each of these meals unique to the Tidewater area.  From Maryland Fried Chicken to Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham we want to explore and celebrate the rich, culinary tradition that Maryland offers!


Foodways Volunteers and Farm Visitors

Volunteers are needed to help with the prep work and assist during the actual “performance”.  If you are a “Foodie” at heart, love history and would love to be a part of this program please contact the volunteer coordinator for further details.  In addition to prep and set up we’d also like to set up times to test out many of the recipes we plan on doing during the season.  We hope this turns out to be one of the most enjoyable, hectic and educational experiences for everyone involved!

Twilight Tales: The Darker Side of Colonial Maryland’s History

Hog Island Sheep Grazing

At 5:00 p.m. last Saturday the National Colonial Farm was the perfect picture of a pastoral scene. Cows and sheep grazed in green pastures as shadows lengthened and light softened. By 6:00 p.m. the scene had become a spectacular 19th century landscape painting. An absolutely stunning sunset backlit house and barns with pink and orange and violet hues. But by 7:00 a chill crept across the fields as an inky purple sky sucked in all the sun’s light, and history took a turn toward the sinister. The near darkness revealed a shadowy scene where colonial ghouls lurked behind fences and spectral children played “Ring around the Rosie” and all fell – dead! Lost souls dined in an eerie tavern from which they knew they would never take leave. Nearby a ghostly farm wife snatched from the 18th century headlines told tales of her three late unfortunate husbands and how each met his fate.

National Colonial Farm as the Sunsets

“Twilight Tales,” this first-ever experiment in the darker side of colonial Maryland’s history, turned out to be a crowd pleaser. Visitors came out in numbers to be shocked and frightened and entertained. We don’t know how many made it home safely, but we heard from most of them that they liked it. Many stayed after their tours for cider and cookies.

Is this history? Real characters, recreated and embellished with a flair for the theatrical? What will they think of next?