Toddlerhood · Travel

Our Trip to Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Colonial Williamsburg

At the end of April we took Ari for his and my first trip to Virginia and Washington, D.C.! We went to visit A.’s uncle and aunt who hadn’t seen Ari since he was about 11 days old. It was also a big deal for me to do some sightseeing since I love all the colonial history on the East Coast. And once I started researching the D.C. sightseeing, my list got longer and longer! Did you know the Smithsonian is actually a bunch of different museums and the National Zoo? And they’re all FREE?!? How can you not go to ALL OF THEM???

I also had no idea that Washington, D.C. is such a beautiful city. At least it is in April when it’s sunny and warm, but not yet hot, and the trees are blossoming! I think I imagined something grittier looking, but it’s right on a river with nice jogging and bicycling paths, and there are gorgeous monuments, beautiful buildings, and nice parks all over. The part of Virginia where A.’s aunt and uncle live was beautiful green countryside that reminded me of the setting of a series of books I’m reading, so driving through there was a lot of fun for me.

Ari’s favorite place was his Great Aunt and Uncle’s house! They were incredible hosts and had borrowed a little table and chair, toys, books, and a high chair for him. I hadn’t planned to spend a lot of time at their house because I thought it would be too hard without all his toys, but they were so well prepared we could’ve just sat around there for days! They even had a little rocking horse that played the same songs as his – I think it was an older version with a man’s voice instead of the high-pitched kid voice on his, which was kind of funny. He also liked this 4-wheeler:

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Books, toys, and puzzles:

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Still, I’m pleased with how smoothly our busy itinerary worked out.

We left Saturday morning and Ari slept for two or three hours of the 6-hour flight. We arrived in the evening in D.C. and drove our rental car to A.’s aunt and uncle’s house, where they had cocktails and dinner ready for us. Ari stayed up and ate with us and then I think we all went to bed together around 10 or 11pm, or 7 or 8pm our time, which is Ari’s normal bed time here.

On Sunday, they made breakfast and then we drove a very pretty forested road to the National Zoo. We saw orangutans swinging over our heads, elephants, otters, seals, prairie dogs, and farm animals, and Ari braved the carousel:

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After the zoo, we went to the Museum of the American Indian and had lunch there at the Mitsitam Café while Ari napped in his stroller. (That was a great cafeteria-style lunch with lots of unusual and vegetarian “Native” food options, grouped by different regions of the U.S. I wanted to try everything, and they actually do let you create a plate of three sides.)

After that museum, the only other thing on my itinerary was the Museum of Natural History, but on the way there we stopped for a photograph in front of the Capitol building (covered in scaffolding) and we went inside the National Archives Building and saw the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights! At the National Archives Building there was also an exhibition called “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” where they showed comparisons of Americans’ alcohol consumption in different periods of history. I think the basic takeaway for me was that the colonists drank A LOT of alcohol.

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From there we went to the Museum of Natural History. We didn’t get to go through many exhibits slowly, reading all the signs, but we got to see everything we really wanted to. I liked how all of the Smithsonian Museums that we visited felt very “doable”. They aren’t huge and intimidating, and they’re free! Even if you have just an hour, you can go into one of them, glance around and get a sense of what all is there, pick a couple of halls to go through slowly, and feel like you had a valuable experience.

For Ari, it’s all about the elephants:

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After the museums closed, we went out for Indian food for dinner and then went back to the house, got Ari to bed around 9 (East Coast time), then we were able to visit for a while.

The next morning A.’s aunt and uncle made us breakfast again. (I struggled with getting up at a decent hour in the different time zone, but they did everything possible to help us get an early start in the morning!) We headed out for a 45-minute drive to Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s home). (Note: they have a virtual tour here!)

While waiting in line to enter, I was excited to see this “necessary” (a toilet), mostly because they come up a lot in the books I’m reading. It’s also fun to remember how relatively new indoor bathrooms are. Not all that long ago, a wealthy, prominent family with a mansion had outdoor toilets! Well, and chamber pots.

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Here’s the view in the other direction. I think the smaller building to the right is the kitchen. All the kitchens I saw in the old homes I toured on our trip were separated from the main house because of smells, fire risk, etc.

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The siding on George Washington’s house was wood treated with sand to make it look like stone! They have to repeat the sand treatment occasionally, I forget how often. It’s called “rustication“.

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The other side of the house sits on this lawn with a gorgeous view! Ari was in a giddy mood by the time we got there and he just wanted to jump up and down:

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Next, we saw the “outbuildings,” including the storehouse, the smokehouse, and the washhouse, which were common types of outbuildings we saw again in Williamsburg. The Washingtons had a lot of dinner and overnight guests keeping their facilities – and the slaves and servants – busy.

We saw the covered “dung repository,” which was basically a big compost pile. Since they didn’t have any plastic, they basically had no trash! We got the impression that everything was recycled or reused in some way, which is really hard to imagine now.

Ari amused himself with dirt and rocks:

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And sheep! With lambs!

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When he does this pose, I call it “doing ballet.” 🙂

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Those last couple of pictures were at the “Pioneer Farm,” exhibiting some of the farming practices that Washington experimented with at his five different farms. You can see some of it here.

They were careful to point out how extensively Washington relied on slave labor. I just read this interesting fact (on their website, here): “At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799, African-Americans made up roughly 90% of the plantation’s population, with 316 slaves and roughly twenty to thirty Anglo-Americans living on the five farms comprising Mount Vernon.”

(Speaking of slavery, I read an interesting story in the National Archives Building near where the Bill of Rights was displayed. It was about an enslaved man who ran away to join the Rebels, or the Patriot soldiers, in the Revolutionary War, thinking that after helping America secure its freedom he might be granted his own. But he wasn’t, of course – he was returned to slavery. Years later, he petitioned for some kind of military pension for his service (he didn’t get it), with a letter somewhat sarcastically asking for forgiveness if he was wrong to have gotten fired up by all the talk about freedom and liberty that had surrounded him when he joined up to fight the British. I left feeling sad about his story, of course, but also with a sense of satisfaction at the perfect sarcasm of his letter.)

After a fun colonial-ish lunch at the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant (I loved their broad-planked, rustic wood floors, which you can kind of see in this picture), we toured the gristmill and the distillery. Actually, I changed a gross diaper in a nice, modern bathroom during the distillery tour (sorry, I want to be realistic in case anyone reads this as a guide for a similar trip with a baby or toddler!). But at the mill, Ari was soaking up the attention of his great aunt, so I got to scope everything out.

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After that, A.’s aunt and uncle went home and we drove another couple of hours down to Williamsburg, with Ari napping in the car.

I think most reasonable people would have considered Williamsburg too far out of the way for such a short trip, and I did regret that it took us away from visiting with family, but I’d been wanting to go there for about 25 years! More on that later. I will say that we probably should have put Williamsburg at the very end of the trip instead of kind of in the middle, and then flown home out of one of the closer airports, like Richmond. We just didn’t think of it.

Anyway, we arrived around 7pm and checked in to our hotel, then went to the pool because A. had to get on a call. He took Ari to the pool first to kill some time before his call, then I met them there and stayed with Ari while he went back to the room. It was hard for me to be patient because I was DYING to get to Williamsburg and it was the only evening we would have there, but we did have a great time in the pool. It was quite warm and comfortable, which is saying a lot from me because I hardly ever find a pool I’m even willing to get into because I always think they’re too cold. So if it was warm enough for me, it was surely warm enough for Ari! However, he was terrified at first. Every time we get him in the water it’s been a few months since the previous time and he has to get adjusted again. After A. left for his call I had plenty of time to kill so I got to feel like a good mom, slowly carrying him around the pool talking about everything we saw: the big chair that lowers people into the water and the blue thing that was covering it, all the other chairs in the room and what colors they were, the numbers and letters on the side of the pool… We bounced from one end to another singing songs, especially the one that goes, “zoom, zoom, zoom, we’re going to the moon…” and ends with a countdown and blastoff that got him really giggling and singing along. Then we progressed to splashing and kicking in the water, standing and walking on the ledge/seat under the water, and then actually counting down and jumping off of the ledge into my arms. Then when he’d had enough but he wasn’t scared anymore, he got out and said “all done” or “bye bye water” or something like that and headed for the door.

After we got cleaned up and waited in the lobby for a bit, finally A. was free and off we went to the Colonial village! This was a really big deal for me. As a seven- and eight-year-old I was crazy about the history of the pioneers in covered wagons and I wore nothing but prairie clothes for about a year. After I ran out of books on that subject, I moved on to the pilgrims and the colonists, including the Pleasant Company/American Girl stories about Felicity, who lived in Colonial Williamsburg. When I found out there was a whole town of shops and houses with people dressed up and acting the parts of colonists in the 1700s, I decided I HAD TO GO THERE. But I knew it might be long time before I went (and it was!) because it was so far away, on the other side of the country from me. Several years ago, during college (okay, over a decade ago now), I visited A. and a good friend of mine in Boston and we went to some historical sites around there, including a Pilgrim settlement with people cooking and gardening in character, and that was fantastic, but I still had to get to Williamsburg!

I’m glad we first entered it the way we did, around 8:30 in the evening, after dark, creeping through a little garden and then a gate with an old-fashioned ball-and-chain automatic closing mechanism, then walking almost the whole length of the village along a quiet dirt road with everything closed up for the night, until we finally saw a woman in a white cap and a dress under a weak light outside the tavern we were looking for (I think it was Chowning’s Tavern). It truly was like stepping back in time! Minus the livestock wandering around. 😦 We went inside and had a great dinner in a cozy room crowded with couples playing some old-fashioned dice game and musicians who led us in a fun drinking song.

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The experience the next day didn’t feel as much like stepping back in time, but it was like immersion history. “Living history,” they call it… Each house tour focused on the people who had actually lived there, but with each one also exemplifying a certain theme or lifestyle, so that by visiting all of them you could put together a multifaceted picture of the city and the time period. There weren’t as many people out and about in character, doing things like working in the gardens or shopping or taking care of animals, as I had imagined, and the houses and buildings I toured were not occupied by anyone other than the tour groups and tour guides, although the shops had tradespeople working and explaining what they were doing, and there was one house – the James Geddy House – we didn’t make it to that was supposed to be a family home showing a family going about their daily business, where you might be invited to help with the chores. 🙂 It’s too bad we ran out of time for that one. (Another location, the Powell House, wasn’t open when we were there.) We’ll just have to go back, when Ari’s older! I suppose it makes sense that they can’t have people stomping around and playacting too much in the buildings that are original, unlike a completely reconstructed village. And they had a lot of Revolutionary War speeches and marching in the streets, and courtroom scenes, and other activities we didn’t make it to. The place is huge! But for a trip with a toddler, we saw as much as we could! Or at least I did… A. kept having to stay outside with Ari and he spent a few hours walking him up and down the streets while he napped in his stroller, which we couldn’t take into any of the tour areas. He was very gracious about letting me have my special day. 🙂

This photo was taken when we first arrived in the morning, by someone who actually lives there in a house that’s not open to the public. He was very nice and just stopped and offered to take a photo of the family loitering on his sidewalk, which he must do on at least a daily basis.

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I brought this book that I got when I was 8 or 9 as the reward I had requested for learning the multiplication tables. I worked really hard for this book!

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After viewing a demonstration of carding wool, spinning yarn, and weaving cloth, we toured the gardens and buildings behind the George Wythe House (Ari was too noisy for the tour in the house). This arbor was at the end of the very calming geometric stretch of gardens – a lovely spot to sit!

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Ari could have watched the small, heritage-breed chickens all day:

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Next, we visited the gardens behind the Governor’s Palace:

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The boxwood maze:

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Back in the gardens:

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Apparently I didn’t photograph all the colorful flowers in those and other gardens. But I did take pictures of some of the brightly colored paint inside the buildings! These next photos are from the Thomas Everard House. That tour highlighted the lives of apprentices and indentured servants in Colonial times.

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A lot of homes had these painted “floor cloths”:

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I loved the plain wooden floorboards and brightly colored paint and textiles throughout the rooms I saw.

The little rooms off this bedroom and the next one would have been slaves’ quarters. For some reason I didn’t photograph them; I guess there wasn’t much to see.

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The Peyton Randolph House focused more on the experiences of slaves in Williamsburg. Here’s a picture of me with my group, waiting for our tour to start:

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The Peyton Randolph family didn’t sound very nice, although they were prominent figures in the Revolution. But I did like this blue color on the walls:

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The story that stuck with me the most from that tour was about Johnny, Peyton Randolph’s personal attendant slave. He attended to Peyton Randolph’s personal needs 24/7, being at his side helping him get dressed in the morning, serving him throughout the day, and then sleeping on the floor next to his bed at night. He could have no family or personal life of his own. It was common for that type of man to have a slave like that – they showed us the folding bed outside Peyton Randolph’s bedroom where Thomas Jefferson slept when he visited, with a pallet for his own slave to use on the floor next to him – but sometimes when those men died they would free their slaves. Not Peyton Randolph! He “gave” Johnny to his younger nephew. At that point, Johnny ran away, which they know because of an ad published by the nephew offering a reward for his return, and there is no evidence that he was captured, so there’s a chance he made it safely to freedom! Mrs. Randolph’s slave Eve attempted to run away but was returned, then later sold away from her family by Mrs. Randolph as punishment for “bad behavior.”

In general, people around the city were careful to talk about the contributions of the “enslaved” people of Williamsburg, and to point out that they constituted more than half of the population there.

After that tour, we headed for a late lunch at the same tavern where we’d had dinner the night before, but this time we sat outside. Ari woke up just in time to eat with us! Then we toured another tavern, set up to show how the people who ran it lived there and what the conditions were like for their guests. (Short version: very little privacy! On the higher end, you shared a room with other guests, and on the lower end, you might share a bed with a few other people! A few other men, really, because women didn’t stay in taverns.)

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One of the higher end rooms:

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The main hall was set up for a lecture by a visiting scientist:

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The building was used for a lot of different things before it was restored for tours, and I enjoyed the old graffiti on the fireplace:

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Some final pictures before we left. Another nice guy, in a suit this time and probably on his way home from work, offered to stop and get us all in the shot!

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Then we drove to D.C. with a grumpy toddler and settled in to our hotel room for the night.

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The next day we went for a walk to see the White House and some monuments. These pictures were taken behind the White House:

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At the end of the Reflecting Pool, opposite the Lincoln Memorial. We were too hot and tired to walk to the other end!

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The WWII Memorial:

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From there, we walked by the Washington Monument and then spent an hour in the Museum of American History (I wanted to see the First Ladies’ dresses!), then met A.’s aunt and uncle in the Sculpture Garden for an amazing picnic lunch they brought us! After that, we drove to the airport. Near the end of the flight home, we got this beautiful mountain view!

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And that’s it! I can’t wait to go back and spend more time visiting with our family there and showing Ari the sights again when he’s older.

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2 thoughts on “Our Trip to Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Colonial Williamsburg

  1. Thank you for taking the time to describe the things you saw and places you visited so well. It really helped me picture it all and imagine what it must be like to be there. Great photos, too! Ari is certainly an animal lover, isn’t he?!

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