The Washington Times
February 22, 2000

Mount Vernon provides close-up look at history

By Michael Farris
The Washington Times
February 22, 2000

We “celebrated” President’s Day yesterday with trips to the mall (shopping, not federal) and a spate of annoying car sale ads. The original idea behind the holiday was to honor and remember George Washington. Perhaps the exchange of countless $1 bills engraved with his likeness counts for something.

Honoring Washington has a purpose far greater than veneration of a long-passed hero. If we want our children to rise above mediocrity and aspire to greatness, exposure to the lives and characters of great men should be a key component of their education.

A trip to Mount Vernon is a far better way to inspire and teach our children than a “chop-chop-chop our prices sale” at some department store, and it can be taken any time this spring. Because we live in the Washington area and we home-school, the trip need not be planned for a date set weeks in advance. Instead, make a mental note that on the very next beautiful day we have, you will get the children into the van and head to Mount Vernon for a field trip and history lesson.

The trustees of Washington’s home have recently completed a series of critical restorations and upgrades. If you visit on a really warm day, you will be pleased to find that air conditioning has been added. This is not just for your comfort; it also helps to preserve the building and furnishings from the ravages of heat and humidity.

The content of the tour has been changed recently and includes more interesting stories from Washington’s life. While you are looking at an interesting lamp, interpreters tell how Washington penned his famous inaugural address by its light. The tour also includes the story of Thomas Jefferson’s visit to plead with Washington to serve a second term as president.

Don’t end your outing with a quick look in the famous home. A five-minute walk from the mansion will lead you to the pioneer farm site and 16-sided treading barn. Starting March 1, hands-on activities there will give children firsthand glimpses into agricultural practices of Washington’s day. In the newly re-created 16-sided barn, horses and mules walk the circular second floor treading on wheat to separate it. The wheat falls to the first floor, leaving only the straw above.

The cultivated area includes eight fields, and illustrates Washington’s advanced farming practices and crop-rotation scheme. During the summer, the period-attired staff members demonstrate the farming techniques Washington advocated: conserving the soil, using a range of fertilizers, controlling erosion and working with farm animals.

In the newly refurbished museum, you and your children can see an array of historic objects from Washington’s presidential residence (originally housed in Philadelphia, the nation’s second capital; New York City was first). Among the unique items on display will be Washington’s last will, on loan from the Fairfax Count Circuit Court, and a one-of-a-kind terra-cotta bust of Washington cast in 1785 at Mount Vernon by the renowned French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon.

Until March 9, “Colonial Days,” offered weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., include special presentations geared toward children of elementary school age. Home-schoolers are welcome to join other school groups for tours. Special arrangements must be made in advance by calling 703/799-8604.

Starting April 1, Mount Vernon will offer a 45-minute cruise of the Potomac River at 11:15 a.m Tuesday through Sunday. The cruise gives visitors a history of the Potomac while they enjoy perhaps the most scenic way to see Mount Vernon and environs.
Also beginning April 1, there will be a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb at 10 a.m. daily—a solemn event that may provide just a bit of an antidote to all the cheesy car ads that exploit our nation’s greatest leader.

Mount Vernon also offers a number of concerts and musical tributes throughout the year. Call 703/780-2000 or on the Web site ( for details.

Like my family, you may get lulled into a sort of “local oblivion” where we rarely take advantage of the treasures surrounding us. Get out of that rut this spring. And it will be a great break for home-schooling parents on that beautiful day when you just wish you could get outside. Mount Vernon offers a guiltless escape with rich lessons for all.

Admission to Mount Vernon is $9 for adults, $8.50 for seniors and $4.50 for children 6 to 11 accompanied by an adult. The fare for the Potomac cruise is $7 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 to 11 and free for children 5 and younger.

Michael Farris is the father of 10 home-schooled children and president of the
Home School Legal Defense Association

Copyright 2000 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit our web site at