Mount Vernon

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.


  1. Jane Chandler - September 21, 2020 7:55 am

    Dear Sean, I have been to Mt Vernon. Thank you for this beautiful story. Jane

  2. Gary - September 21, 2020 9:32 am

    Thank you, Mimi. I never knew the history of Mount Vernon. Very interesting.

  3. Helen De Prima - September 21, 2020 10:36 am

    It’s true: often the best man of the job is a woman.

  4. Sherrie - September 21, 2020 11:13 am

    We visited Mount Vernon around Christmas time about ten years ago. It is a beautiful place and fascinating. Thank God for all the women’s historical preservation societies.

  5. Ella Herlihy - September 21, 2020 11:20 am

    Thankful for gutsy women who have done so much for our country and for individuals. Glad I have an amazing mama. Glad I have amazing daughters. This is why America is great – the grit, imagination, and determination of each individual added together equals awesome. .

  6. Irene Torres - September 21, 2020 11:33 am

    Thanks Sean for this story. I have visited Mt. Vernon a few times and I never heard this story.
    I start my day reading your email. You always inspire me!

  7. Earle - September 21, 2020 11:33 am

    That’s a very interesting bit of history of which I wasn’t aware. Not only are your writings enjoyable and often funny, occasionally you can learn facts from them as well. I’d be interested to know if the women performed any of the restoration tasks themselves. I would suspect so, as funding the effort was an obvious challenge. The story says a lot about what can be accomplished through unflinching determination.

  8. Jan - September 21, 2020 12:14 pm

    Another great story! A beautiful location and the history that is often left untold. Thank you!

  9. Ginger Smith - September 21, 2020 12:18 pm

    Wow. I’ve been there and didn’t know. That explains things. I just assumed the government owned it, and had applied that assumption to a house in the UK, the home of a famous Welsh man. I was not happy when the Welsh government refused to buy it when it was available. Less than a million, and carefully restored, with acreage. But they refused; not enough tourist places nearby. I got up in the middle of the night to watch the committee proceedings about it. Why did it matter? He was my uncle, I’d just found him a few years before. Now I know George Washington’s nephew had to make that decision. Wow. I should have gotten the women working on it.

  10. Dianne - September 21, 2020 12:22 pm

    I have been to Mt. Vernon, and it is a beautiful place from the land and breathtaking views, to the home, to the family cemetery, etc. Thank you for stirring up those memories and the history lesson, too.

  11. Jane Elder - September 21, 2020 12:28 pm

    Wow. As a woman I’m impressed. I had no idea that this happened. Sometimes the history we learn in school glosses over some important facts. All the more reason to be a life-long learner.

  12. Martha Owens - September 21, 2020 12:30 pm

    Wow! I have been there, too, and it is indeed magnificent. But I have never heard about the restoration of it by women. Thanks for this important information.

  13. Betty F. - September 21, 2020 12:38 pm

    Wow and thanks for educating me. Haven’t been there since childhood (60 years ago). Never knew it’s story.

  14. Bkr - September 21, 2020 12:39 pm

    I didn’t know this!! Thank you!!

  15. - September 21, 2020 12:41 pm

    Mount Vernon was my favorite attraction in the Washington, D.C. area. I loved Mimi’s history of its restoration. Land has always been man’s most significant physical asset on this earth, especially, to Southerners. I love my little 2 1/2 acres that the Lord has allowed me to tend for some 50 years now. When I am cutting the grass or raking the leaves or trimming the shrubbery that tries to “eat” the house, I am working thankfully. I am thanking God and thinking ahead about what needs to be done next. I, too, could picture George at Mount Vernon as I enjoyed that beautiful view.

  16. Phil (Brown Marlin) - September 21, 2020 2:06 pm

    Great “behind the scenes” history lesson, Sean. I confess that I never came across it, but now, thanks to you, I know “the rest of the story.”

  17. Anne Arthur - September 21, 2020 2:15 pm

    Great story, which makes me want to visit Mt. Vernon — with phones on “off” 😉

  18. Evelyn Terrell - September 21, 2020 3:25 pm

    Plans for today: Research Mt Vernon history. Thanks

  19. Ellouise Pennington - September 21, 2020 4:25 pm

    When we’re mourning yet another magnificent woman’s death, this is a great tribute to all the women like RBG and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association! Once again, women succeeded in preserving something invaluable for all people – men and women. Praise be to God

  20. Christina - September 21, 2020 5:26 pm

    You go Mimi and Mr Vernon Ladies Association!

  21. Marcia Kling - September 21, 2020 5:32 pm

    A beautiful tribute to those women of vision, imagination…and memory. Thank you for sharing your serendipitous encounter with a woman obviously cut from the same cloth!

  22. Mary Glynne Massey - September 21, 2020 6:19 pm

    Have visited that beautiful home and donate to it’s preservation…..

  23. G. Brown - September 21, 2020 7:47 pm

    So long as the Cancel Culture idiots don’t try to burn it down because Washington owned slaves. Probably a good thing it has no government funding, they don’t have anyone to complain to.

  24. Christopher Spencer - September 21, 2020 8:23 pm

    A wonderful story of how a group of women banded together to save Mount Vernon. A story most of us have never heard.
    Thank you Sean for sharing this piece of history with us

  25. Nellie Topalof - September 21, 2020 10:03 pm

    I visited Mount Vernon 30 years ago and loved it, but never knew the true story. A Magnificent Example of the fact that Women Make The World go Around!!!

  26. Rebecca Barnes - September 21, 2020 10:41 pm

    Mt Vernon is a real national treasure thanks to those ladies. I just pulled up their website and anyone can become a member of the Mt Vernon Ladies Association. $59 for individual 1 year and $159 for family- 2 adults and all children under 18. I think I will join. Good cause!

  27. REBECCA BARNES - September 21, 2020 11:03 pm

    Thanks Sean for sharing Mimi with us. I just joined the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association for a 2 year membership. I hope you go to Monticello while you are in that area. They give small group tours with a guide versus when I was at Mt. Vernon you walked in line with everyone else and there was only a guide in each room. Unless that has changed, a private tour of the mansion would be the way to do it. And the grounds are really nice.

  28. JACKIE REAGAN - September 22, 2020 12:13 am

    A great history lesson! Many thanks to those women who made it happen!

  29. turtlekid - September 22, 2020 12:48 am

    Learning history by your interest and sharing with us.

  30. Linda Moon - September 22, 2020 1:27 am

    My own history of recordings of Movies and documentaries from The History Channel almost disappeared with the #!!*%! internet’s lack of service today, along with some Sean of the Sean columns. So, I’m late in posting. I wish there had been lack of internet/phone service for the tourists at Mount Vernon. Mimi, I’m glad to know that women helped save George Washington’s home….and that I saved and read this post after a LONG day of internet rescue.

  31. Berryman Mary M - September 22, 2020 3:15 am

    I absolutely loved Mount Vernon. Have visited twice. Love the beautiful color of the dining room walls! Thank you for illuminating us on this history of our first President’s home which he loved so much!

  32. Joyce Bacon - September 22, 2020 12:25 pm

    I had no idea Mount Vernon wasn’t government owned and operated. Go Women!

  33. Jess Rawls - September 22, 2020 8:53 pm

    Very interesting and informative. I find it shocking that apparently there was little interest in Mt Vernon until those ladies stepped in and saved it. I’m glad they did. They knew how important it was to our national history.

  34. Katherine Kempf Jones - September 22, 2020 10:14 pm

    This is wonderful – I just learned several things I did not know re: Mt. Vernon, and am so glad that Sean D. took the time to bring this info to us in Such Digestible form. Bravo to both the ladies who worked to preserve Mt. Vernon, and to those who are still working to make it available and interesting for all of the rest of us. Thank you!

  35. Elizabeth - September 24, 2020 2:51 am

    Very cool! Thanks so much for telling us this! You bring a lot of happiness to us by your essays.


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