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Young, Strong-Willed, a Revolutionary. Meet George Washington


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. George Washington won the Revolutionary War and was the first president of the United States. But can the man known as the father of his country still command attention?

This week on our program, we take you to a place where a lot of money has just been invested to make sure the answer is yes. That place is George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia.

George Washington lived in a number of homes as a boy and young man. But he spent most of his life at Mount Vernon, twenty-four kilometers to the south of the city of Washington.

He helped choose where to build the new capital city and the White House. Yet George Washington is the only president who never lived in the White House -- it was completed after he left office. When he was president, New York City and, after that, Philadelphia served as the nation's capital.

George Washington was born two hundred seventy-five years ago. His birthday is celebrated every year at his home and burial place at Mount Vernon.

The public is invited onto the grounds free of charge next Monday for ceremonies including military performances. The honor is fitting for a man who loved music and was the commander of the Continental Army.

Washington's birthday became a federal holiday in eighteen eighty-five, long after his death. Today the holiday is observed on the third Monday in February and is commonly called Presidents Day.

Entering Mount Vernon is like stepping back into the eighteenth century. It still looks much like when George Washington lived there with his wife, Martha.

Sheep still chew grass near the Potomac River. The animals are the same kind that grazed on the property when the Washingtons lived there. Farming also continues at Mount Vernon.

But Mount Vernon has recently gained many up-to-date things to see and do. About one hundred ten million dollars in changes have been made over the past several years.

The new look was in reaction to concerns among the operators and supporters of Mount Vernon. They wondered especially if a visit there met the needs of today's young people.

So the group that operates Mount Vernon used private donations to add two buildings and many new exhibits and films. The new buildings are the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. They were built mostly below ground. They opened last October.

Many Americans have an image of George Washington as a very serious older man. Artworks generally present him that way. But the additions to Mount Vernon present a younger and livelier George Washington.

A million visitors a year come through Mount Vernon, often with school groups. Wayne Howland has worked as a volunteer providing information to the public at Mount Vernon for many years. He says it will be interesting to see if the new additions make George Washington more meaningful to visiting students.

Visitors to the orientation Center are welcomed by a statue of George and Martha Washington, holding hands with two grandchildren. The entrance area is light and airy in the winter sunshine. Colorful glass windows present important times in Washington's life.

Films are shown in two theaters. In one movie, television personality Pat Sajak talks about what to see and do at Mount Vernon. He also introduces a film called "We Fight to Be Free."

It presents George Washington as a young and strong-willed revolutionary. He commands the army of the American colonies. He unites men, some of them half-starved and shoeless, to fight for freedom from British rule.

We also see him meeting his future wife, Martha Custis. Her first husband had died, leaving her with two children.

After the film, we walk over cobblestone paths to the main house at Mount Vernon. Guides describe what daily life was like in the long, white home on a hill overlooking the Potomac River.

As we look out from the back of the house, the Potomac shines blue in the winter sun. No boats are out on the icy river. The home seems to rest on the hill in perfect stillness.

The main house is three floors high. George Washington was responsible for much of the design. His office contains many of his books. This is where Washington planned the activities of the farms on his land.

George Washington owned African slaves, as did many other people. But even at that time, there was great debate about slavery. Washington ordered that his slaves be freed after he and his wife died. In his will, he left instructions for the care and education of some of his former slaves, and support and training for the children.

At the time of his death, Washington had more than three hundred slaves. They provided much of the labor at Mount Vernon. Most were field workers, sixty percent of them women. The workday lasted from sunup to sundown, six days a week.

Mount Vernon has a gallery that deals with the slavery issue and a monument that honors the slaves.

George and Martha Washington often invited friends for meals in the dining room at Mount Vernon. The Washingtons also provided sleeping rooms and food for travelers. Very few hotels existed then. So George and Martha Washington offered a place to stay for more than six hundred visitors a year.

After visiting the main house, we stop at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. Here we meet a life-size George Washington made of wax. He is riding his horse, Blueskin.

A movie in the Reynolds Center tells us about his major battles. Our seats shake as cannons fire and smoke rises. White particles fall from above. "Snow!" calls out a child in the audience.

The museum shows about five hundred objects from the Mount Vernon estate, the Revolutionary War and Washington's presidency. Through exhibits and films, we learn about George Washington as a soldier and statesman, but also as a young boy, a land surveyor and a woodsman.

Visitors crowd around a glass container.  It holds Washington's false teeth. They were made of hippopotamus ivory and human teeth. When he became president, he had only one of his own teeth left in his mouth.

       

Another popular exhibit is called "hands-on history." Bitsy Unkle works at Mount Vernon. She explains the children's clothing and toys in this room. She points to dolls made of cloth, and describes how children learning to read shaped the dolls into letters.

BITSY UNKLE: "This is how children took these -- it's like a little rag doll. They have to form the alphabet, and that's how children learned their letters in the eighteenth century."

After his victory in the Revolutionary War, some people wanted George Washington to be president for life. Or even king. But Washington said Americans had fought for freedom from such rulers.

He was elected president two times and served from seventeen eighty-nine to seventeen ninety-seven. He was offered a third term, but he refused. He wanted to return to the life he had led at Mount Vernon before the war.

Yet George Washington did not get to enjoy a long retirement at Mount Vernon. He died there in seventeen ninety-nine. Modern doctors believe he died of a severe infection. He was sixty-seven years old.

He and his wife are buried at Mount Vernon. After Martha Washington died, Mount Vernon was given to other family members. By the eighteen fifties, the person who owned it did not have enough money to keep it in good condition. He offered to sell Mount Vernon to Virginia or to the federal government. Both said no.

So the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association collected money. The group bought the property and has operated George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens to this day.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can find our program, along with a link to the Mount Vernon Web site, at voaspecialenglish.com. And we hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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