On to Williamsburg

As we had anticipated, the heavy freeway traffic was heading north, into the Washington area. Southbound was relatively clear, so we just sailed along. Hertz had rented us a new Ford Escape, and I spent the first part of the drive getting to know it. Our Escape had a small turbocharged engine, and there was a noticeable lag when accelerating. I had to learn to plan ahead just a bit when merging into traffic or trying to overtake another car. Also, there were a lot of buttons both on the steering wheel and elsewhere, some assigned to the trip computer and some dedicated to the “Sync” sound system. I had heard a lot about Ford’s Sync system (developed in concert with Microsoft), little of it good, and I was curious to see what I would think of it. In a word, it was terrible. The ergonomics were so bad that you could get into an accident while trying to change radio stations. Whoever designed this thing should be fired; in a car, ease of use–and thus safety–needs to be paramount, and someone clearly didn’t understand that. Sadly, the radio is so bad that I would refuse to buy any car that had it. But this was just a rental, and I had a co-pilot to figure it out while I was keeping my eyes on the road. Nancy managed to get the satellite radio tuned to a station we could live with (channel 32, “The Bridge”), and we simply left it there for the remainder of our trip.

Having mastered the Escape, the drive to Williamsburg was smooth and uneventful. Once again it was interstates all the way, which made things easy. We found our way to the Williamsburg Lodge and checked in. It being 11:00am we were earlier than the normal check-in time, but because we had reserved the room for the night before (thinking that we’d actually occupy it!), it was ready and waiting for us. I happily handed the car keys to the valet and helped the bellman load our bags onto the luggage cart, relieved to be settled and looking forward to exploring Wlliamsburg’s historic area.

Our first order of business was to get something to eat. A tavern sounded like a good idea, but it was so nice out that we couldn’t bear the thought of eating in a dark room. Fortunately, we were able to compromise: Chowning’s Tavern has a backyard area where you can purchase food and drink and enjoy it under the shade of trees and arbors. As we enjoyed our meal we reviewed the Colonial Williamsburg map and program guide, planning out our next two days. Our one “must do” was coming up shortly: our niece Colleen is currently interning at the DeWitt Wallace/Abby Aldrich Rockefeller museum, and we had arranged to meet her at 1:00 for a brief personal tour. At 1:45 she was leading a program she had developed titled “A Century of Invention,” and she had invited us to tag along. Looking over the Williamsburg calendar of events, we noticed a number of guided walking tours that looked interesting, all of which were free but required a ticket. Fortunately the “Lumber House” ticket office is very close to Chowning’s and is on the way to the museum, so after lunch we headed over and picked up tickets for two garden tours and a behind-the-scenes tour. We then went off to the museum to meet Colleen.

The “DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum” is located about a block south of the historic area, at the Merchants Square end. It has been cleverly built behind the old Public Hospital, such that you enter the hospital and don’t know just when you leave the hospital building and enter the museum building. This causes a bit of disorientation when you realize that the museum you are in is much bigger than the hospital building you entered, and wonder just how the trick was done. But the museums are beautifully done and full of interesting artifacts, so you don’t give it more than a passing thought.

Colleen was waiting for us at the lobby desk, and after hugs and greetings she explained the building layout while leading us to the museum proper. In the main part of the museum she led us quickly to a couple of her favorite sections, pointing out some particularly interesting paintings and the Spinet/Piano exhibit. She then led us into the pottery storage area that, although not generally open to the public, is available to researchers. It was full of glass cases crammed full of various pieces of pottery that are periodically put on display. After we paused a moment to admire the overwhelming number of artifacts, Colleen proceeded to lead us through another door that led to a storage room that contained, among other things, her cubicle.

Colleen has done a nice job personalizing her cubicle, with prominent Harry Potter posters and such. It seemed to be a pretty comfortable place to do her research and plan out her classes and exhibits. Next to it is an area with a large set of shelves full of bins containing craft materials: bits of fabric, pipe cleaners, styrofoam shapes, etc. They are primarily used by one of the other museum workers, but I imagine that Colleen finds them useful, if not inspirational, when planning educational programs for the younger set.

After seeing her office, we headed out to where her Invention tour was due to begin. We waited with the other folks who had already gathered, while Colleen went off to get ready. The crowd kept growing; by the time she came back and was ready to start, there were probably forty to fifty people waiting. And although the program is aimed primarily towards children, probably 80% of them were adults. We had anticipated tagging along with a group of kids, but we fit right in with the crowd. Colleen began by noting that her material was mainly for kids, but she would do her best to appeal to the adults in the audience, too. With that, we were off. Making use of half a dozen or so exhibits throughout the museum to illustrate her points, Colleen painted a picture of the founding fathers as citizen scientists who were deeply interested in exploring the scientific world around them. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams…all were members of the American Philosophical Society, a group of like-minded people who periodically got together and discussed scientific findings. As Colleen noted, they likely discussed other subjects as well, including politics. She ended her talk with a fascinating analysis of the Declaration of Independence, looking at it as a document structured around the scientific method. It sounded plausible, and made us all want to rush out and re-read the Declaration in this new light.

At the end of Colleen’s formal presentation she took us into a room with tables and chairs and had everyone who was interested create a scientific observation journal using materials and a structure that she provided. Many of the adults skipped this part, but the kids had a great time, as did many of their parents. Colleen got a couple of really nice compliments on this, and on her presentation in general. We couldn’t have been prouder if she had been our daughter, rather than just our niece.

Colleen had to get back to work after the tour, so we hugged her and confirmed our dinner plans together. We then went out to spend some more time exploring the museum, this time on our own. Nancy went to check out the portrait gallery, while I headed off to more closely examine the Spinet/Piano exhibit. I found it fascinating: while I knew something about spinets (aka harpsichords), I hadn’t realized just how different the mechanism was when compared to a piano. The mechanism used to pluck the strings of a spinet is really quite simple, while the mechanism used to strike a piano string is far more complicated than I had ever realized. The exhibit showed both in great detail, and then of course had a wonderful display of old spinets and square pianos. Which is another thing I had never known to exist: I was very familiar with grand pianos and upright pianos having grown up with both, but never had I even heard of a square piano, which was a smaller, very shallow version of a regular piano with the keys on the left side and the strings on the right. This made for a very compact design, one that would fit into a room much as a spinet would.

Nancy and I eventually reconnected, and we went off to explore some of Williamsburg’s historic area. Although we have been to Williamsburg four or five times before, we had always been there with the larger Wilson family, and always with a purpose and with various pre-planned events. While all of these past trips have been truly wonderful, never had we been there entirely on our own. Over our two days on this trip we went on two separate, guided garden tours. One showed how gardens reflected the status and wealth of their owners. The other was designed to show how archaeological evidence and historic documents were used to recreate authentic gardens within the historic area. We also toured Charleton’s Coffeehouse, and sampled some of the coffee and hot chocolate that they served there. I had known about the coffeehouse reconstruction, having read about it in the Williamsburg magazine, but although it had opened in 2009 I had yet to see it in person. It was exciting to see this, one of the latest additions to the collection of historic houses and buildings that make up Williamsburg’s historic area.

The high point, however, of our Colonial Williamsburg touring was the “Behind The Scenes” tour we took. It took us through a number of offices and labs where historical research is done and where historic artifacts are examined and restored. We saw the TV studio where the Electronic Field Trips are produced, met with the chief editor/publisher of all of the books produced under The Colonial Williamsburg imprint, and peeked into numerous labs and the Rockfeller Library. But the highlight of this particular tour was a lengthy visit to the Textiles Conservation Lab. We (there were only four of us, so this was a very personal tour) met with Loreen Finkelstein, who is in charge of textile and costume conservancy for Colonial Williamsburg. She showed us around the enormous lab she had designed, sharing with us a number of projects that she is currently working on. For instance, she showed us two Colonial quilts that she was preparing for display in the DeWitt Wallace museum. Then, she led us to where a beautiful golden silk gown, embroidered with real gold thread, was laid out on a table. This apparently was the very gown that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who funded the restoration of the historic area), wore at a ball to celebrate the opening of the historic area to the public. The dress was absolutely beautiful, but time has taken its toll and the textiles conservation department clearly has its wok cut out for it. Finally, Loreen talked about a project that had been keeping her particularly busy of late: the restoration of a tent that George Washington used as both a residence and command center during the revolutionary war. Yes, the actual tent has survived all these years. While not owned by Colonial Williamsburg, Loreen’s expertise was called upon to help guide and perform the actual restoration. Alongside the restoration, another department within Colonial Williamsburg is making a replica to be used for their own exhibits. The actual tent will be on exhibit at a purpose-built facility in Philadelphia.

Needless to say, we were blown away by all we saw on this “Behind The Scenes” tour. I highly recommend the tour for anyone interested in archaeology or who is just curious about how Colonial Williamsburg operates.

Our stay at the Williamsburg Lodge was great: the room was very comfortable, and we enjoyed the time we spent in the lounge very much. I did spend some time looking for a shirt (either a button-down shirt or a polo shirt) with the Williamsburg logo on it, but strangely came up empty handed. Neither the Lodge’s gift shop nor the Inn’s stocked them, and the large shop in Merchant’s Square that sells the full range of Williamsburg merchandise didn’t have any, either. The best I could find was a silk-screened tee, and I don’t need any more of those. Instead, we spent our souvenir money buying–what else–books.

We also ate very well. We had two separate dinners with Colleen, both at very popular restaurants in the Merchant’s Square area that Colleen had suggested. Fortunately, we had made reservations weeks in advance, as it turns out that the day we left was graduation day for the College of William and Mary. By Friday afternoon there was a noticeable increase in the number of people on property, and our chosen restaurant for that evening–the Blue Talon Bistro–was quite full. The previous evening we had eaten at “DoG” (located at the end of Duke of Gloucester street, thus the name), and it was very crowded as well, but Colleen let us know that that was normal; DoG is a pub-style restaurant with some nice outside seating, and is a popular gathering spot for locals. And, although there is no direct connection to the name, the outdoor seating at DoG makes it a popular spot for dog owners. Colleen had brought her little dog Milo, an absolutely adorable little beagle, and he spent the evening attracting other dogs as well as dog lovers who just had to coo over him.

All in all, we had a wonderful time in Williamsburg, and we decided that we should probably visit on a more regular basis. There was a lot that we didn’t get to do, but it’ll keep for next time.

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