Westmoreland County Museum and Library

Westmoreland County Museum and Library

We set off this morning (3/27/14) in the direction of the birth places of Washington and Lee. Before heading to the Main Attractions, we stopped off at the Westmoreland County Museum and Library to pursue a few of our relatives. We have family lore of one of our ancestors was the executor of the estate of Nathaniel Pope and involved in the transaction of Mt. Vernon to the Washington family. Our quest was to discover the truth.

Pouring over the documents, we began to be of the opinion that the land in question might not be Mount Vernon after all, but rather Wakefield (Washington’s birthplace.) We were able to find documents mentioning our ancestors and their connections with the Pope family. One incredible story we unearthed was a pair of women who were able to rescue a number of our ancestral gravestones–they were on farmland, and the owner hadn’t taken care of them. These women went out and cleaned out the area and mended the graves themselves. As usual, one of my favorite discoveries was not in our family history at all. I had picked up a volume of George Washington’s letters not only to check out anything related to our family, but also because one of my novels has to do with George Washington. The first volume started simply with some of Washington’s school papers–homework, etc. But the next page was–wait for it–Poetry! Yes, our first president tried his hand at writing poems. You can read them here (Not half bad for a teenage kid): http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/prespoetry/gw.html.

Richard Henry Lee's Resolution

Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution

The Westmoreland County Museum and Library is indeed an incredible place to visit. Built in 1914 to house a portrait of William Pitt, it now contains (in addition to the documents we had examined) an impressive collection of portraits and artifacts from many presidents’ homes. I was particularly struck by one particular document on display there. On February 27, 1766, 115 men met in Bray’s Church to adopt Richard Henry Lee’s resolutions against the Stamp Act. This is over ten years before the Declaration of Independence. The Westmoreland Association, as it would become known, not only was a protest of the tax and the wrongs committed by King George III, but it also was a pledge to protect one another. Many elements of the Declaration are echoed here.

Stratford Hall

Stratford Hall

From Westmoreland, we headed to Stratford Hall. This amazing plantation makes me wonder why in all the times I’ve been to Virginia (easily 20), I had never even heard of it. The land is idyllic, the house is original, and the setting peaceful. Four generations of Lees lived in Stratford Hall, and the foundation is currently working to restore different areas of the house to represent each era of the Lee family. But the seemingly innocuous exterior hides some interesting details as well. The first is that the first home built here (farther out from the current location) was burned to the ground by the indentured servants. The family managed to get out by jumping from a second story window, but pregnant Hannah lost the baby she was carrying in the ordeal. Additionally, one of the servants died. One wonders what had happened to so incense the servants to burn down the house. Another of histories mysteries.

Stratford Hall and out buildings

Stratford Hall and out buildings

The second Lee house also experienced scandal because of Henry Lee IV. Apparently, Henry had an affair with his sister-in-law. When it was discovered, she was sent away from the home. Ironically, when Henry runs into financial trouble and is forced to sell Stratford Hall, it is purchased by William Clark Somerville, who will die four years later, leaving the house in auction to be purchased by Henry McCarty Storke–husband of the woman with whom Henry Lee IV had had the affair. She will actually live in the house for the next 57 years!

The house tour was also great! At present, one of the top floors is undergoing construction so current visitors are able to see the changes the house underwent throughout the stages of its time with the Lee’s. My favorite story from the house is one of Robert E. Lee as a child. The nursery in the house contains a fireplace depicting two cherubs and the date: 1745. What makes this particular fireplace unique is a story of four year old Robert E. Lee. When the family was moving to Alexandria, they had everything packed and ready to leave but discovered they couldn’t find four year old Robert. At last discovering him, they asked where he had been. His answer? He had gone to bid good-bye to the angels.

Stratford Mill

Stratford Mill

I too would have loved to linger at Stratford Hall, but I will hope to return another time when trees have bloomed. Leaving the Lee House, we decided to visit the Lee Mill. On our way to the Mill, we noticed loads of cabins in the woods. We had been shocked when an employee told us they hadn’t had much traffic, since the place is a gold mine. Now, nestled in the woods were several guest cabins available for stay–I was already planning how we could do a Civil War reenactment to drum up support! We do realize, though, that commercialization comes with a price, so we were torn between wanting them to make use of what they’ve got, and yet enjoying the fact that it wasn’t crawling with visitors. Alas! (Now that I’ve let you in on one of Virginia’s best kept secrets, make sure to visit. It will be well worth your time!) The Stratford Mill, though, was originally built in the 1740’s by Thomas Lee, though the current one is a renovated version built on the original property. The mill is also in need of some loving care, as I was sad to notice the water leaking out instead of flowing through the trenches as planned. Hopefully, investors will realize the great value this place has to offer!

Memorial House with corner of Original foundations showing

Memorial House with corner of Original foundations showing

From Stratford, we rushed to Wakefield since they closed at 5:00, and we wanted time to linger with George Washington as well. This, as well, is one of Virginia’s best secrets. While this isn’t the original house which burned down in 1779, it is set up as a memorial to Washington’s Birthplace. Since the house burned to the ground, only two relics from the original location are displayed in the Memorial House: A wine bottle (called an onion bottle) and a tea table.
Original Wine Bottle

Original Wine Bottle

The original house boundaries are outlined beside the memorial house which is meant as a tribute to a man who would become known as The Father of our Nation. Our guide referred to the fact that, though many men were responsible for establishing our country, Washington is given this title because he is the one who kept sight of “untold generations” when planning our government. He was not consumed with what would keep the wealthy and powerful wealthy and powerful, but rather with what would establish a nation where his children’s great grandchildren for generations could thrive. One of the things I found most interesting in this spot was the genealogy of Washington. The description of Washington’s ancestors show he came by his good character honestly. The list of roles his grandfather played include: Justice of the peace, high sheriff, lawyer, trustee of estates, guardian of children, and captain of the militia. I particularly was struck by the title “Guardian of children.” I’m assuming it means he had taken in wards, but I like that the Grandfather of the Father of our Nation cared about others.

Washington Cemetery

Washington Cemetery

In addition to the house and beautiful grounds at the birthplace, a short jog down the road takes you to two delightful spots. The first is the family cemetery of the Washingtons. There were thirty-two burials that have been found on the spot including Washington’s father, half-brother, grandfather, great-grandfather and their wives. The cemetery is also beside the site of one of the original Washington houses, though nothing remains of the house. Still, it’s fun to look around and see the view the Washingtons would have enjoyed. Definitely a neat place to visit.

Beach at Washington's Birthplace

Beach at Washington’s Birthplace

A little father down the road from the cemetery, we came across a beach. I have rarely been in a place where at best, I was alone, and at worst, there was a handful of people around. I’m sure part of it has to do with the lateness of the hour and the coldness of the weather, but ultimately, it’s a beautiful place to visit. While you are only allowed to pick up sea shells (Not rocks, shark teeth, or artifacts), it is a lovely place to explore. Wandering the beach enjoying the peacefulness, I was reminded how much each of us–even a president–needs rest for his soul. And this is the perfect place for it.

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