Interpreters with costumes representing 18th century British colonists welcome visitors along the very streets where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once walked, making it easy to imagine what it was like in the mid 1700s. And some of the structures are the actual buildings from that time period with the same facades and wooden floors.
Thanks to support from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. starting in the late 1920s, 88 restored original 18th and early 19th century buildings stand today, with others reconstructed on actual foundations. They include the Capitol with its upper and lower houses of the legislature, Governor’s Palace, Courthouse and original 1715 Bruxton Parish church.
Taverns were community centers of sorts as venues for lectures, plays, dining and private gambling and parties. I visited the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern and the original Wetherburn’s Tavern, which served as an informal town hall. Also original are the Wythe House where Jefferson studied law under owner George Wythe, and the maroon-tinted Peyton Randolph House, where you can see the very room where Washington, Jefferson and patriot Patrick Henry sat down for dinner. Other prominent buildings include the Courthouse where visitors can watch mock court cases. Cannon firing demonstrations take place outside the more than 300-year-old Public Magazine which has an impressive weapons collection.
Costumed interpreters also explain how tradesmen and women were a part of everyday 18th century life – blacksmiths, cabinet makers, tailors and printers. The wigmaker’s shop, for example, displays powdered white wigs and others made from human, horse, yak and goat hair. Silversmiths demonstrate how such colonial-era workshops made common everyday wares.
What I found particularly informative was a tour led by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington – actually, a historic interpreter portraying Mrs. Washington around the mid 1700s when George Washington served as an elected representative. “We have a tendency especially with our Founding Fathers to cast them in marble, and we forget they’re real people,” says interpreter Katharine Pittman, dressed in a yellow colonial-style dress and a flat-crowned hat. “With Mrs. Washington, one of my goals is to make her human… and that she wasn’t this very stoic person you see in a portrait.”
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