Ann Pamela Cunningham’s mother complained bitterly about the dilapidated state of Mount Vernon when she passed by it in 1853. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Ann Cunningham answered her mother’s question by recruiting women and appealing for donations from North and South, despite the growing political tensions between the two regions. By 1860, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association owned the house and the surrounding two hundred acres. That has become five hundred acres today.
Because of a century-and-a-half of research and restoration by the Association, about a million visitors each year are able see the house and gardens of Mount Vernon much as they were in George Washington’s lifetime. Prudent land management by the Association and agreements with neighbors have also kept the views from the house intact. The image of the portico of Washington’s
overlook of the Potomac River is one of the most recognized in the nation.
The Association draws a member from each state. Over time every state is represented, but the Association doesn’t have members from all fifty at the same time, explains Ellen Walton. She is the group’s regent, or head, and has held the post since 1999. “We live at Mount Vernon during our semiannual meetings and we just don’t have space for fifty.”
Historical research and archaeology have led the Association in a variety of directions. “We’re currently reforesting the acreage,” Walton says. “Our horticulturist noticed that there were only big trees, a common problem where you have a lot of deer. So we are planting young trees. We even have two clones of the famous Wye Oak.”
Though Washington’s house at Mount Vernon is original, many of the other buildings are reconstructions based on drawings, written records, and photographs. Washington’s grist mill has been rebuilt on its original location. The publicity surrounding the reconstruction prompted an unusual phone call. “A gentleman called to tell us he had a document we might be interested in,” explains Walton. “It was a letter from Washington to a friend about his plans for the grist mill—the quality of flour he expected to get and the kind of miller he wanted. The caller was a collector. He contacted us because his children weren’t interested in his collection but he thought we would be. It was wonderful because he gave the letter to us. Two hundred years later, documents like this are still coming to light.”
Educational outreach is an important aspect of the Association’s work. “As part of our Pioneer Farm Project, we reconstructed the sixteen-sided barn that Washington designed,” Walton says. “It’s a two-story barn for treading hay. The horses tread the hay upstairs and the grain falls through to the floor below.” The project also tries to show how the plantation would have looked in Washington’s day by using eighteenth-century tools and techniques. “I met one of our interns, a young man from the Midwest, hoeing a small crop by hand. He said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be back in a combine on ten thousand acres next week.’”
The Association distributes a complete George Washington biography lesson for fifth graders to schools in more than thirty states. “The importance of children knowing how this country was put together is of inestimable value,” says Walton.
This year the Association is in the midst of one of its largest fundraising efforts since the 1853 appeal for two hundred thousand dollars. The organization hopes to raise eighty-five million dollars for a new museum and orientation center to tell a broader story about Washington and introduce him to a new century of admirers.