There is no shortage of things to see and do in the Washington, DC, area. It’s a bustling city filled with monuments, galleries and museums that are truly fantastic. But, if you travel just a bit beyond “the Beltway,” you can enter the colonial world of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
The estate showcases the political and personal lives of the Washingtons, the men and women who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, and the plantation itself. George is remembered as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but he was a farmer first, and his home leaves no doubt of his passion. It’s also a great opportunity to enjoy some time outdoors, exploring the gardens and grounds. You will want to tour the mansion, but don’t miss the opportunity to stroll through Washington’s impressive grounds and gardens.
Today’s National Landmark began as the Little Hunting Creek Plantation, the Washington family farm on the bank of the Potomac River. John Washington (George’s great-grandfather) acquired the land in 1674. By the time George inherited the land and house his father built, it was known as Mount Vernon. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and has welcomed more than 85-million visitors since opening to the public in 1860.
Fun Fact: The Washingtons once welcomed 800 guests to Mount Vernon in one year. Today, more than a million people visit their home each year!
First stop: the Texas Gate
Arriving at Mount Vernon for the first time, we headed right for the big building with lots of people with two thoughts: That must be the entrance, and there must be restrooms there. (We had just driven 90 minutes after stopping for coffee. Not the best plan.) The sound of a piccolo led us to a piper in period costume entertaining school kids and visitors. We followed him into the building, suddenly aware of the piper’s role in revolutionary times.
We found ourselves in the Shops at Mount Vernon, with a food court, gift shops, and yes, restrooms. As it turns out, this is not where your day at Mount Vernon starts. Nearby is the Texas Gate, which is the main entrance, with a ticket booth (in case you didn’t buy tickets and tours online) and the Ford Orientation Center just beyond. (You will find less-crowded restrooms here.) While it’s tempting to rush through the Orientation Center and get to the Washington’s home, it’s worth taking the time to see the exhibits.
You can’t miss the charming statues of the Washington Family, George and Martha, and their grandchildren Nelly and Washy welcoming visitors. Behind them, guest services has maps for self-guided tours, audio guides, and helpful staff. As you walk through the center, you’ll see a beautiful panel of stained glass windows from the 1950s called Moments of Truth. They highlight five key moments in George Washington’s life, including the large centerpiece depicting the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Next is Mount Vernon in Miniature, a half-million-dollar working model of George Washington’s house. The detail is nothing less than astounding: doorknobs turn, drawers open and close, and the china patterns, furnishings and artwork are exact replicas.
The 25-minute action adventure movie, We Fight to Be Free, is included with your admission. The film details battles in the French and Indian War which were defining moments that made George Washington such a vital leader in the birth of our country. It is shown throughout the day in the Ford Orientation Center theater.
Fun Fact: The Ford Orientation Center was donated by the Ford Motor Company, whose support of Mount Vernon goes back to Henry Ford’s donation of the estate’s first fire truck in 1923.
Beyond the Orientation Center
Mount Vernon is so much more than our first President’s house. As a working plantation, Mount Vernon produced crops, livestock, fish and whiskey. There were textile shops, mills, a blacksmith, a smokehouse, and more. Anything the family and its enslaved workers needed was made at Mount Vernon if possible, often from materials produced on-site.
As a result, Mount Vernon is a small industrial village! This post will focus on the gardens, dependencies, barns, and grounds that make up that village, which you can explore at your leisure. (We will devote another post to the mansion.) A tour of the mansion is included with your admission, but you need to reserve a time. If you did not reserve a time in advance, you can do so at the Orientation Center on a first-come, first-served basis. Once you know when your mansion tour starts, you can roam the grounds at will.
First and foremost, George Washington was a farmer. His plantation included five farms covering 7,400 acres on the banks of the Potomac River, including and surrounding the Mansion Farm. As you tour the estate, his passion is evident in everything, from the gardens to the motif in the mansion. In fact, the house closest to the mansion was the gardeners. No matter where he went, it was said his farms and gardens were on his mind.
A small plot not far from the main house, called the Botanical Garden, was Washington’s workshop. He tended to this garden personally, and used it to test new plants and methods. As the owner of a large and successful plantation, Washington felt a duty experiment in his own garden, knowing that if something failed, it would not lead to financial failure.
Adjacent to the Botanical Garden is the upper gardens and greenhouse, a marvel in George Washington’s time. The General was a planter first and foremost, but he was not concerned only with cash crops. He redesigned the upper gardens, once home only to nuts and fruits, to be at least partly for pleasure, where family and guests could enjoy flowers and sculpted hedges. Being stubbornly practical, the decorative flowers and plants surround beds of fruit and vegetables for the mansion’s table.
At the same time that Washington transitioned the upper gardens, he added the most advanced greenhouse of its time. The structure was completed in 1787, and is the second largest building at Mount Vernon. A fireplace at the rear forces warm air through a flue system beneath the floor and up the back wall, heating the building during cold Virginia winters. Floor-to-ceiling triple-sash windows opened at the top and bottom to help regulate the temperature in warmer seasons. The greenhouse was a showcase for unusual tropical plants from around the world, and citrus trees provided exotic oranges, lemons, and limes.
Across the bowling green is the Lower Garden, which was tended to by Martha Washington. This was her kitchen garden, and contained herbs, fruits and vegetables grown for the household. While it was not intended as a “show garden,” its layout is beautiful and functional, with espaliered fruit trees along the walls. Further down the hillside is the fruit garden and nursery, and finally, at the bottom of the hill, Washington’s Pioneer Farm. Interpreters at the farm give an overview of farming and livestock operations at Mount Vernon, and one of the estates most unusual buildings is here. Washington’s 16-sided barn accommodates horses on the second floor, treading over wheat to separate the grains. The wheat falls through the floorboards and is collected on the first floor. It’s as much machine as it is architecture.
Mount Vernon’s Industrial Outbuildings
More than a dozen outbuildings, or dependencies, line the paths to either side of the mansion. This is where the work of the plantation was done, from spinning and weaving, to blacksmithing, to cooking. Several buildings were for storage, such as the icehouse and salthouse, while others were living quarters for slaves, workers, and livestock.
Two wings were added to the greenhouse in 1792. These were slave quarters in Washington’s time; one half was the men’s dormitory, the second half was for the women. Here, the estate’s enslaved workers cooked, worked and raised families. Displays in each show artifacts from the slaves’ daily lives, including tools, fishing poles, utensils, toys, and more. In between the dormitories is the fire room, where slaves stoked the greenhouse fires all day and night.
Following the pathway towards the mansion, the next building we came to was the Blacksmith Shop. The forge and building are not original, but match plans and evidence found on-site. It is a working shop with frequent demonstrations. The blacksmith shop was a vital part of working plantations, where farming tools and household items were made and repaired.
More of the plantation’s necessities were made in the Spinning House, one of several outbuildings that are original to the estate. Fibers grown at Mount Vernon were spun into threads and woven into fabrics here, then made into clothing, aprons, draperies and more. Part of the building served as the Overseer’s House, where the Mansion Farm’s manager lived. It was an important role, often representing Washington on errands. One of the overseers, John Fairfax was sent to Boston to bring back a gift of a donkey from the King of Spain. Within a few years, donkeys and mules were prolific at Mount Vernon – Washington had determined they worked harder and longer than horses and required less feed – and the father of our country also came to be known the Father of the American Mule!
Other outbuildings included kitchens, a smokehouse, a wash house, barns and stables, but the most unusual is the Dung Repository. Mount Vernon was a plantation, and where there are gardens and fields, there is fertilizer. In George Washington’s day, that was…well, poop. And there were plenty of animals to contribute! But to simply say all that dung was collected in this building is an understatement. Washington was meticulous about farming, and keenly interested in anything that would make his fields more functional and profitable. He actually tested manure from every type of animal on the farm, finding that fowl dung was too liable to burn plants, and that horse manure was second only to the “black mould” pulled from creeks around the property. On our visit, we found the Dung Repository was good also for instigating “crappy” puns. (Pun intended!)
The Heart of Mount Vernon
There are several other areas of note around the estate, including the pier where guests arrive from Alexandria, National Harbor, or Washington. It’s close to the Pioneer Farm, and emphasizes the importance of the river in Mount Vernon’s operations. Goods were shipped to and from the plantation by river, and fish from the river often brought in more money than crops.
But the heart of Mount Vernon for many visitors lies about halfway up the hill back towards the mansion. On a shaded bluff once known as the Vineyard Inclosure (as named in Washington’s will) and surrounded by obelisks representing Washington family members, is the tomb of George and Martha Washington, and the family vault.
As you may know, the Washingtons were interred in the Old Vault, a location that George considered ill-sited and in need of repair. In his will and papers, the President left designs and instructions to build a new tomb, of brick, in a better location, and large enough to accommodate his family and future generations who might choose to be buried there, several of whom have been. The markers in front of the tomb today represent Bushrod Washington – George’s nephew – and his nephew, John Augustine Washington, both of whom inherited Mount Vernon after Martha’s death. To the side are two more markers, representing Martha’s granddaughter Nelly, and one of her daughters. Surely, for a celebrated General, Founding Father, and successful farmer, there could be no better place to rest than amongst the gardens he so loved.
When You Go
Our recommendation is to make a day of your visit to Mount Vernon. While you could easily see the whole estate and tour the house in just a few hours, you will want to take time to see and explore all of the buildings and gardens. In addition to what we mentioned, the Gristmill and Distillery, located a little further away from the mansion, are open seasonally. A half day visit will suffice, but you won’t be disappointed if you plan to stay longer.
Getting to Mount Vernon
The estate is in the greater Washington-Baltimore-Alexandria area, and we drove to Mount Vernon from northern Virginia, and found it easy and enjoyable, and parking was close and convenient. If you’re not a drive-it-yourselfer, there are many tour companies that will take you there, as will taxis and Uber. There are also fantastic directions for getting to Mount Vernon from Washington using public transportation.
If you like to bike, there are several companies that rent bicycles to take on the beautiful Mount Vernon Trail, which runs 18 miles from Washington, through Alexandria, and to Mount Vernon. We also love that you can visit Mount Vernon by boat, with seasonal ferries from National Harbor, Maryland, Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
Mount Vernon is open 365 days a year, with special tours and activities during the holidays and other times. Admission is $20 for adults, and $10 for children from six to eleven. You can save a few dollars when you purchase tickets online in advance . There are also discounts for Military, Seniors, and Members of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Admission includes a tour of the mansion, but there are several specialty tours that focus on different elements or themes – such as the popular National Treasure tour which explores themes and scenes from the movie.
Be aware that visitors are limited to a single bag or backpack, which can be no larger than 16x16x8-inches (40x40x20cm).
Getting a Bite
There is a casual food court in the Shops at Mount Vernon. For something more authentic, the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant offers period fare in an elegant atmosphere. However, there are no dining options on the estate grounds themselves. Guests are not allowed to bring in food or beverages, except for water.
Getting the App
George Washington may be big in history, but Mount Vernon is big on technology! Before your visit, download the app (for Android and iOS) and you’ll have everything you need right in your pocket: Interactive maps, games, guided tours, and even a ticket office. You can see the day’s schedule, and even check out upcoming events. You’ll see signs with numbers all around. These correspond with “Points” in the app, which to turn a walk around the estate into a self-guided tour. And it will keep the kids entertained with games and even a scavenger hunt. By the way, Mount Vernon has free Wi-Fi throughout the grounds!
Have you visited Mount Vernon? We would love to hear about your visit! Tell us what you liked most, and what suggestions you have for visitors. If you haven’t been there, let us know what questions you have, and what you are looking forward to seeing. We always love comments and questions!
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