George Washington and the Problem with Replicas

Although not necessarily of local concern, the recent announcement that archeologists have discovered George Washington’s boyhood home raises important questions about objects and memory. Here is my response, which appeared in the July 25th edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Don’t build on a cherry-tree myth–again

July 25, 2008 12:15 am



–Earlier this month The Free Lance-Star joined media outlets across the country in reporting on the discovery of George Washington’s boyhood home by archaeologists working at Ferry Farm. This is the iconic home made famous by Parson Weems’ ubiquitous cherry-tree mythology.

The George Washington Foundation, which owns the site, has additionally announced its intent to construct a replica of the boyhood home as it would have appeared during the 1740s. This is not, of course, the only Washington boyhood home. In fact, nearly 80 years ago, The New York Times printed a similar story by then-director of the National Park Service Horace Albright. “Washington’s Boyhood Homes” (March 29, 1931) reminds us that Washington’s youth spanned three homes: Wakefield, Ferry Farm, and Mount Vernon.

Albright wrote specifically to announce the Park Service’s plans to erect a replica of Washington’s birth house atop its original foundations on the family’s old Wakefield plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula, about 30 miles east of Ferry Farm–the same plan, incidentally, announced by Ferry Farm’s owners. Dr. Phil Levy’s recent assertion that “what we see at this site [Ferry Farm] is the best available window into the setting that nurtured the father of our country” (“Ferry Farm Yields Secrets,” The Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2008) could have just as well been said of Wakefield by Albright eight decades earlier.

And yet, although we all know the cherry-tree story and most of us know something about Mount Vernon, why isn’t Wakefield a household name? A little more digging begins to explain why Washington’s first boyhood home has long since fallen into obscurity. Only months after heralding the Park Service’s work at Wakefield, Albright found himself taking the defensive in “Wakefield Washington Shrine Was Begun After Long Study” (The New York Times, July 19, 1931). Rumors had begun to circulate concerning the location and appearance of the replica birth house. Was it built in the right place? Did it really look like the house Washington was born in? Was it actually a replica?

Albright assured readers that it was, but whether he knew it or not, those in charge of building the replica had uncovered a previously undocumented brick foundation just feet away. Alarmed by the discovery, workers moved quickly to backfill what they called “Building X.” Who would know? It was, after all, the eve of Washington’s 200th birthday, and Depression-weary Americans were eager to feel good about something. Why disappoint them by not completing the replica in time to celebrate?


It was, however, too late. Backfilling alone was not enough to hide the long shadow cast by Building X. Over the next 30 years, vested interests battled furiously over the replica’s meaning, purpose, and destiny until the Park Service finally managed to officially recognize Building X as the actual foundation of Washington’s birth house. That today we don’t immediately count the birthplace among Washington’s various boyhood homes owes at least in part to the confusion created by our clumsy handling of it.

So what, then, might the proprietors of Ferry Farm learn from the Wakefield story? Ferry Farm has been part of the popular American historical conscience for nearly two centuries now, and is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. What’s more, historical archaeology has come a long way since Horace Albright’s time, and the work done at Ferry Farm is, by all accounts, top-notch. Even so, I wonder if building a replica of Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm is really the best way to interpret its historical meaning for the broadest possible audience. The notion is certainly tantalizing–who wouldn’t want to see the house where George chopped down the cherry tree? But, then again, George didn’t chop down a cherry tree at Ferry Farm or, as far as we know, anywhere else. Will seeing the replica house really convey that lesson or will it reinforce the myth?

The impulse to build shrines to our national heroes is strong right now, especially as we contend with ongoing military entanglements and a faltering economy. Levy’s excitement to study the “the father of our country” resonates today exactly as Albright hoped his patriotic replica would hedge against some of the hardest times this nation has ever known. Unfortunately, Albright failed to anticipate how powerfully Americans react to misrepresentations of their most sacred heroes. And because we all value Washington uniquely, any attempt to solidify his myth inevitably draws criticism.

So, rather than navigate those perilous shoals, perhaps the George Washington Foundation should dispense with its replica and make Ferry Farm a place to learn important lessons about the construction of knowledge and historical meaning. Why do the imagining for us when, after all, it’s in learning how to imagine the past responsibly that we develop the ability to think critically about our own world?

Seth C. Bruggeman is an assistant professor of history and American studies at Temple University, and the author of “Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.”

Copyright 2008 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

Living History

The phrase “living history” usually invokes visions of chubby guys in funny costumes bent on making you taste their hardtack. There’s certainly a lot of that in and around the mid-Atlantic states, but a local news item has me thinking today about another kind of living history. George Economos of Millville, Delaware is fighting to save his century-old sycamore trees from the axe come fall 2010 when Route 26 (aka Atlantic Avenue) is slated for widening. Economos owns the trees, but it’s not their property value he’s worried about–it’s their relic value. He claims that the trees are “almost like a landmark identifying Millville as a town.” Project manager Tom Banez, who’s been charged with snaking the widened road through fifteen historic properties either listed on or eligible for the National Register, is empathetic but explains that the Delaware Department of Transportation just doesn’t recognize historic trees.

And why should they, right? After all, trees are trees and Economos is just another old grump lost in some sepia yesteryear. But look a little deeper and you’ll discover that trees hold a special place in the great pantheon of bygone objects. Take, for instance, the story of the Charter Oak. Way back in 1686, King James II sent Sir Edmond Andros across the Atlantic to firm up the crown’s authority in the colonies. In the process, Andros demanded that a handful of colonies, including Connecticut, hand over their royal charters as an act of obeisance. When Andros arrived in Hartford, the story goes, a couple of clever colonists duped him by hiding Connecticut’s charter deep inside a massive oak tree. Andros (also remembered for irritating a lot of Puritans and fleeing Boston disguised as a woman) is probobly most famous today for his involvement in this oft repeated story of proto-patriotic hijinks which, of course, is almost certainly fallacious.

But even more famous than Andros is the tree that tricked him, the so-called Charter Oak. In fact, the tree had grown so synonymous with American liberty that Connecticotians went bonkers for Charter Oak relics after a storm toppled the thing in 1856. Not only did they carve a fancy chair out of its trunk for their state house, but they also planted a miniature forest with its acorns. This is not an isolated phenomenon. All kinds of folks have been charmed by the reliquary powers of plants and trees for a long time. Here in my neck of the woods (ha…) you can visit the nation’s oldest botanical garden where John Bartram gathered together plants from throughout the colonies beginning in the 1720s. Stroll through the grounds and you’ll bump into the ancestors of flora fawned over by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. Bartram even named one of his discoveries after the good Dr. Franklin. Although Franklinia Alatamaha might pale in stature to the Charter Oak or even George Economos’ sycamore trees, they all convey to those who are looking for it, the presence of the past.

And, if you still doubt the power of historic trees to invoke strong emotion, consider the massive grassroots effort raised of late to save the diseased horse-chestnut tree described fondly by Anne Frank in her famous diary. Outraged onlookers the world wide intervened in 2007 when Amsterdam officials announced their intent to fell the tree. Consequently, a court injunction saved the tree and entrusted its protection to a foundation created just for that purpose. No, I don’t think Economos is going to deter DelDOT with threats of a global media campaign. Yet, in the mix of things and trees and memories, his sycamores keep pretty good company. Good luck, George.

Proximity Value

People love to touch old stuff. It’s like an involuntary reflex. I’m sure that at some point in your life you or somebody you were with picked up an old piece of junk at an antique store or a garage sale or wherever and whispered, “wow, this is old.” Did you really need to pick the thing up to discern its oldness? Probably not, but you couldn’t resist in part because we’re encouraged to do this all the time. Think about any museum you’ve ever been to where some woman wearing a bonnet sat behind a big spinning wheel (she works at 99.99% of the living history museums in this country) and urged you to touch a skein of wool yarn just to feel what is was like to live in the past. Every time you see a sign in a museum that says “do not touch,” you’re being told that the experience of touching this old thing is so amazing that it’s being reserved for someone much more special than yourself. If you’re well mannered, you won’t touch it, but you will get as close as you possibly can without breaking the rules. That’s because the “do not touch” sign enhances the object’s proximity value. An object’s proximity value is measured by it’s ability to draw you near. Old things have remarkable proximity value and some, like holy relics, are so strong that they reward your touch with the promise of divine favor. Bygone objects possess extreme proximity value; we are naturally drawn to them and believe ourselves bettered by their company.

Every now and again you’ll witness humans taken in by the proximity value of the strangest things. Consider two examples of this from my recent trip to the Jersey shore. Next time you’re counting cards in Atlantic City, take a break and head south down the Garden State Parkway to Cape May Point State Park. There you’ll find, just beyond the quaint seaside Victorian homes of Cape May, a lovely beach and lighthouse surrounded by nature trails and an interesting museum. Among the park’s more obscure attractions are the weather worn ruins of Battery 223, an anti-submarine defense bunker built in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When it was built, this hulking structure was hidden under a sod-covered mound the approximate distance of three football fields away from the beach where it could covertly monitor and, if necessary, fire on any German subs looking to squirm their way into the Delaware Bay. Shore erosion has long since revealed the bunker and its foundations to curious beachgoers who, from time to time, are overwhelmed by its proximity value:

Perhaps she’s a patriot. Perhaps she’s lost. It’s hard to know. But, whatever or whoever compelled this woman to spread herself out beneath Battery 223, it seems likely that the building’s pastness had something to do with it. It certainly wasn’t the pleasant scent.

Maybe you’re unconvinced–there could be any number of reasons why this woman chose to cozy up with the bunker. Let’s proceed, then, to our second example. This one I remember from my youth. I don’t know precisely when it was, but somewhere around age 6ish, my parents and I visited Cape May and made a trip out to see the famous concrete ship. Really, when people in these parts refer to the concrete ship, they mean the crumbling remains of a concrete ship that went aground just off the southern tip of Cape May in 1926. The Atlantus was one of only a few experimental concrete ships built by the United States in response to steel shortages during World War I. These were not, as you might imagine, the most efficient vessels and so after the war the Atlantus was decommissioned and put on the scrap heap. Then along came a local firm looking to establish ferry service between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware. Why not run the Atlantus aground at Cape May Point, they reasoned, and fashion it into a ready-made concrete pier? The plan faltered when a massive storm ripped the Atlantus from its moorings and drove it hard into the ocean floor just off the point. Unable to budge it, the ferry magnates abandoned the thing and for over eighty years now passers by have watched the Atlantus slowly crumble into the waves.

Keep in mind that today’s casual Cape May visitor knows little to nothing about the story of the Atlantus. Still, they keep coming just as I did with my parents years ago to gawk at the poor old thing which is really little more than a chunk off concrete jutting up above the ocean’s surface–it doesn’t even look like a ship anymore. I remember my mom asking, “what do you think” as I peered though a set of those bulky quarter-fed binoculars you find in places like this. I was impressed, but wasn’t quite sure how to express this particular kind of impression. “It’s beautiful,” I responded. She laughed at me and said something to the effect of, “It’s not beautiful, it’s just an old wreck.” She was right of course, but not everyone is immune to the concrete ship’s proximity value. In fact, during my recent visit, at least a dozen sunburnt tourists trudged down to the beach to take obligatory photos of the thing. Why? Well, not because it’s beautiful. It is old though and that seems to be reason enough. Behold, the bygone object.

The Boardwalk and Beyond

While watching New Jersey Public Television just a few days after arriving here in Philly, my wife Hilary and I discovered that the Jersey shore’s famously kitschy beach front boardwalk communities are struggling with a rash of architectural teardowns. A teardown is any instance where old buildings are destroyed to make way for new construction. There is nothing inherently bad about a teardown when necessary, but in recent years our country has witnessed a remarkable rise in the number of perfectly decent and often historically valuable structures gratuitously destroyed to allow construction of aesthetically incongruous big-ticket buildings. I know it sounds like a trivial concern, but no matter how you feel about McMansions, too many teardowns ultimately mean bad news for the environment, knock our historic neighborhoods out of whack, and make it real hard for first-time home buyers of modest means to get a leg up on the market. It turns out that New Jersey ranks first in the nation among states dealing with substantial loss of historic buildings to teardowns. And Wildwood, a New Jersey boardwalk town bred of post-war America’s love affair with tail fins and pink flamingos, is supposedly among the most at risk of losing all those wonderfully tacky dive motels of the technocolor yesteryear, a.k.a. Doo Wop architecture.

So, with all of this in mind and with a few days to spare, Hilary and I set out in search
of the bygone object along New Jersey’s imperiled coast. I had spent time in these parts previously and so had a pretty good idea of what to expect. For Hilary, however, who hails from considerably further inland, it was her first time amid the gaudy surf shops, greasy spoons, and candy-striped tourists that all distinguish a motif I call boardwalk gothic:

Despite the teardown problem, there is still plenty of Doo Wop to go around in Wildwood and it appears that some effort is being invested in preserving a handful of these places. And, even though I imagine that developers might make a decent buck off some flashy new high rises, it doesn’t seem to me that Wildwood devotees are particularly troubled about shelling out $100 a night to stay in shabby old motor inns with names like Starlux and Casa Bahama. Isn’t that, after all, the point?

It’s hard to deny the carnivalesque magnetism of places like this. Maybe it’s something in the cheese fries, but stroll down the boardwalk on any given summer night and you’ll be amazed by the throngs. We encountered people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and origins enjoying a place that, if it weren’t for the beach, would resemble some kind of funky Happy Days red light district. Wildwood means something to them all and, judging by the atmosphere, that something has something to do with some notion of the past. But this is not the Wildwood of yesteryear. Scattered across the aged stage set are extreme bungee rides, cell phone shops, and a human diversity not permitted in this place forty years ago. There is plenty of new here, but the bygone object beckons loudly and tourists from miles around come to gobble it up like pieces of salt watter taffy.

"Does anyone here object to this marriage…"

I’ve seen a lot of reenacting in my time. From the summertime kepi brigades of my Pennsylvania home to the weird guys in tricorn hats that lurk nearly everywhere in Williamsburg, VA where I spent my grad school years, I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin for this kind of thing. But I must admit to have being caught off guard upon learning of Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross’s impending nuptials. What luck to arrive in Philly just in time to see Ben and Betsy tie the knot! This is no joke. The performers who interpret these two icons for passing heritage seekers evidently became smitten after discovering that they shared–brace yourself–a “mutual love of history and education.” One thing led to another until, just yesterday, in front of Independence Hall and accompanied by the Philly Pops, Mayor Michael Nutter presided over the wedding of Ralph Archbold (Ben) and Linda Wilde (Betsy). “The rest,” as they say, “is history.”

Or is it? Historical anachronism is so commonplace in this country that I can’t help but believe that amid all of the retro cars and renaissance fairs and battle reenactors that we’ve grown remarkably unaware of the power of historical meaning. I’m certainly not the first to voice this concern. With Jean Baudrillard’s ghost lurking from my previous post, it is perhaps wise to recall his characterization of postmodernity as the result of a procession of simulacra wherein copies come to be accepted as acceptable substitutions for the various realities they replicate. In other words, what happens when we begin to accept PT Cruisers as really being like 1950s hot rods? Is there any problem with buying a ye olde Coke at the renaissance fair? Civil War battle reenactments are just good fun, right? Sure. I, like lots of other folks, enjoy all of these things more or less. I especially enjoy them because, unlike their “real” counterparts, the PT Cruiser doesn’t pester me with the burgeoning socioeconomic conflicts of Cold War America; I mustn’t contend with the bubonic plague at most renaissance fairs; and as for Civil War reenactments, well, you get the picture.

Perhaps we should congratulate ourselves for having become so adept at finding the good in history. Returning to Ben and Betsy’s wedding, consider how powerfully the image speaks to our willingness to forge common ground in public celebrations of the past. Here we see Ben Franklin, that notorious cad, putting aside his old ways and embracing Betsy as an equal partner (not property) in marriage before the authority of a respected man of color and power. The bygone object shines brightly here. It is in the redeployment of old things with new meanings that we find ways to repair the lesions of history while preserving a common narrative. But that old question still lurks–does it matter that this particular narrative is a complete fiction? Does it matter that, in the (re)writing of this story, there is no voice to remind us that white and black faces neither would nor could have mingled in this way? Does it matter that, had Ben and Betsy actually married (their chronologies did overlap even if briefly), their reasons would have likely had nothing to do with shared passions?

I think so. As fun and as comfortable as reenactment may be, it is imperative that we recreate with caution. At a time in our own history when the manipulation of official memories–from restrictive legal controls of federal communications to willful misremembering by our elected officials–has become all too common, never has the responsible maintenance of the link between representation and reality been of greater importance. Ben and Betsy, I wish the best to both of you but, please, next time leave the histrionics at home.