Mount Vernon is nothing but swooping green hills, plump groves of tulip poplars, sycamores, and red maples. Today a clear sky hangs above a perfect red-roofed colonial mansion in the distance.
George Washington’s Virginia home is filled with hordes of historically conscious tourists, most have traveled thousands of interstate miles to bring their families here so everyone can play on their phones.
My guide is Mimi. She is a random elderly woman tourist I met at the gate. Big glasses. White hair. Mimi used to teach high school history in North Carolina.
Mimi gestures at George Washington’s mansion. “None of this woulda been here if not for women,” she says. “Women fought for Mount Vernon.”
She is using her teacher’s voice.
In the 1850s, Washington’s wooden house was in shambles. In some places it was splintering like a hobo’s shack.
The great-great nephew of George Washington inherited this place, but didn’t know what to do with it. There were ruts in the floorboards, the walls were crumbling, the place smelled like an old bowling shoe.
The nephew tried to rescue Vernon by asking outsiders for help. After all, this was a historic landmark. The Washington family had owned this land since 1674. But almost nobody wanted to save it.
Mimi says, “The only folks interested in buying Washington’s house were commercial developers.”
Today’s breed of developers would have love to get their hands on a tourist spot like Vernon, which sees about a million tourists each year. They would have already built a mini-golf course, a casino riverboat in the backyard. And a phone charging station.
When nobody seemed to want the house, the nephew offered to sell it to the Federal Government for a song, to preserve it as a landmark. But they had no interest.
So he offered it to the Commonwealth of Virginia. “Thanks, but no thanks,” was the reply. The state legislatures felt it wasn’t prudent to spend government money on something that wasn’t, for example, their own retirement packages.
And so the house George Washington’s father built turned into hooey. The siding was peeling, the roof was about to cave in, tall weeds swallowed the place.
“It was a shame,” says Mimi. “A real shame.”
It was a shame. Because Mount Vernon is not merely the pretty house of a U.S. President. Every inch of this land was preened by Washington himself. He oversaw it with the loving eye of a faithful homesteader.
He was an amateur horticulturist, a farmer, a dog breeder, a self-taught architect. He adored this patch of soil.
When I squint my eyes and look into the horizon, I can almost see Washington, riding his horse, Blueskin, over the mounded hills. Washington is middle-aged. Healthy. Spry.
I see him squatting onto his bootheels, surveying his summer wheat and tobacco pastures in the low hanging sun. A revolutionary, a thinker, a statesman who led the Free World into battle, but was more in love with dirt farming than fighting.
How could anyone let a place like this die?
Enter Louise Cunningham.
It was a cool morning in 1853. The fog was rising from the Potomac in big clouds. Sailboats played in the distance. The memory of a long deceased General Washington had faded.
Louise, an older South Carolinian, was taking a ferry ride down the Potomac. She was asleep in her berth when the boat captain sounded the foghorn. Louise leapt from her bed to see what was the matter.
The captain said, “We’re passing George Washington’s old house, thought you’d wanna see it, ma’am.”
Louise walked onto the main deck, probably in bedroom slippers. She took in one of the most magnificent sights. And even though Vernon was falling apart, the view from the river would have been pure majesty.
When the captain told Louise that nobody wanted the dilapidated house, she was infuriated. She wrote a fiery letter to her daughter, calling for action:
“If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?”
“Women,” Mimi emphasizes. “I told you, it was women.”
That same year, Louise’s daughter, Ann, gave her lifeblood to create an organization devoted to saving Washington’s house. She fought to raise funds. She wrote open letters to newspapers, and told Mount Vernon’s tale whenever she could.
Before long, Ann Cunningham had gathered influential ladies from all over the U.S. The money trickled in little by little until the small ladies’ club had enough to make a down payment.
“Remember,” says my new friend. “This was during a time when American women didn’t have the right to vote, in some places they weren’t even allowed to own or control property.”
But somehow a handful of gutsy females bucked the system. Somehow they managed to buy, own, and rescue the homeplace of America’s Father. And they weren’t bashful about it, either.
They meticulously restored Mount Vernon to its former glory. And when I say “meticulously,” I mean this place will blow your mind.
They kept the farm going. The livestock, too. They also raised enough money to buy surrounding acreage across the Potomac to preserve the pristine views.
Today, the mansion and its 30 outbuildings sit on 500 acres of undiluted Eden. The home is every ounce as spectacular as it was when the foundation was laid in the eighteenth century.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association still owns and operates the place with no funding from the government. They are the first and oldest nationwide women’s organization in the U.S.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Mimi. “But, hey, when American men were gonna let their own history disappear, it was American women who saved it.”
Mimi just thought you’d like to know that.