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DESTINATION: VIRGINIA

Young George's World

Going back to old Virginia, where the preserved riverbank sites of Washington's two boyhood homes help illustrate how the first president's life was shaped

February 18, 2001|JAMES T. YENCKEL | James T. Yenckel was formerly the chief travel writer for the Washington Post. He is now a freelance writer specializing in mid-Atlantic destinations

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Nobody today really believes the old tale about George Washington, the mischievous lad who chopped down a cherry tree on his father's farm in Virginia and then 'fessed up to the misdeed because "I cannot tell a lie." And yet, as I stood among the wild cherries growing there last month, I wasn't quite so skeptical. Perhaps there's truth to the story--or at least it's fun to think so. After all, the Father of His Country did earn wide admiration for his honesty. And what about that legendary stone young George tossed across the river that flowed past his boyhood home? As I walked along the grassy bank of the Rappahannock River at the farm, it didn't look all that wide. A strong lad, he could have done it.

As you read this, let me ask you a question. What is the name of the farm where these youthful antics are said to have taken place? Watch out; this is a trick question.

If you answered Mount Vernon, the home that is so prominently featured in history books, you're wrong. George inherited Mount Vernon, his magnificent Potomac River mansion and farm outside Alexandria, Va., as an adult. Until then he lived at two lesser known Virginia plantations that his father owned nearby--Popes Creek Plantation (also called Wakefield) on the Potomac, where he was born on Feb. 22, 1732, and Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock, where his father moved the family when George was 6.

Although Mount Vernon is the most important of Washington's homes, it doesn't tell the full story of his life. For deeper insights into the man George became, add Popes Creek and Ferry Farm to your Washington itinerary. Both can be toured on an easy day trip from, appropriately enough, the city that bears his name, Washington, D.C.

At Mount Vernon, 18 miles south of the nation's capital, a visitor learns about George the farmer, the soldier and the statesman-- an imposing man of laudable qualities, not the least of which is that he was a gentleman.

At Popes Creek and Ferry Farm, preserved like Mount Vernon as a tribute to Washington, we see the two boyhood homes outside Fredericksburg that helped shape his life. On these farms he learned to ride and hunt, and he was instilled with the virtues that thrust him into leadership. Martha is not yet on the scene; rather, we get to know his kindly father, Augustine, and especially his strong-minded mother, Mary, who mostly raised him after her husband's early death. His great-grandfather John, an English merchant seaman who established the Washingtons in Virginia in 1656 or '57, is buried at Popes Creek.

Mount Vernon treats George as the lofty icon of our nation's birth. At Popes Creek, 90 miles south of Mount Vernon, and especially at Ferry Farm, a bit more than halfway between the two, we learn about George the kid, who got into embarrassing scrapes. Once, when he went for a dip in the Rappahannock, two Fredericksburg women stole his clothes. We know this because Spotsylvania County records indicate the culprits were caught and punished. Picture George scampering home au naturel, and the Mount Vernon icon descends from his pedestal and becomes more human, more approachable--and, I think, all the more interesting.

We've all read about young George tossing a stone--or a silver dollar, as it's sometimes told--across the Rappahannock. Like the cherry tree fable, this story was popularized in the 19th century by Mason Locke Weems, an Episcopalian minister, in his "Life of Washington." On Ferry Farm, George, who grew into a large and powerfully strong young man, had ample opportunities to pitch that stone. (Always thrifty, he wouldn't have wasted a dollar.) Though channeling has narrowed its path, the Rappahannock's original banks remain evident. "Contests have proved," says a signboard in Ferry Farm's small museum, "you can stand on the bank and throw a stone across the river." I doubted my skill, but any visitor might give it a try.

I have been to all three Washington plantations on numerous occasions as an amateur student of Washington's life. I too was born on Feb. 22. My parents almost named me George. Sharing his birthday--formerly a national holiday--I made him my personal hero, someone I would try, however feebly, to emulate. My admiration has never dimmed, although I would challenge him sharply for keeping slaves.

Popes Creek, which officially is called the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, is maintained by the National Park Service as an 18th century working farm. A pair of Devon oxen grazes in the field, and a trio of turkeys struts the farmyard. Situated on Popes Creek, a broad inlet of the Potomac, the 550-acre park offers visitors a detailed look at George's early years.

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