A Visit from Austrians

Elisabeth, Peter, Hermine, Joel
Elisabeth, Peter, Hermine, Joel

Editor’s note: My brother Joel is keeping his own blog of his fantastic 65-day trip around America with his wife Elisabeth, Elisabeth’s brother Peter, and Peter’s wife Hermine. Peter and Hermine live in St. Veit an der Glan, Austria. It was a real pleasure to have them stay with us for six days, an opportunity to return the extraordinary hospitality extended to me in Austria during the summer of 1965. Here Joel recounts Day 22 of their travels:

On Tuesday June 11th, our last day at Martha’s, I scheduled a riverboat trip to Mount Vernon. It was a nice sunny morning despite the forecast of rain.  Hundreds of students from Conroe TX were aboard and we swept down the wide river, watching planes at Reagan National, past Alexandria and the pointed George Washington Masonic Tower.  Farther south after about an hour we could see the handsome mansion on a hill overlooking the river.

Mother Osprey protects her young
Mother Osprey protects her young

As we docked we were treated to a natural phenomenon.  An osprey, the raptor of the shores, had built a nest exactly on one of the pilings at the dock.  The ship approached closer and closer to her and she flew up from the nest frantically.  We could see that she had a young one, about half grown, and she was determined to protect it.  Hers was a large nest of sticks and fluffs of softer material and several sparrows were taking advantage of it too.  So we got a close up view of motherhood in nature and it was beautiful.  And we left her, the nestling and the nest unharmed.

Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon

A shuttle took us uphill to the mansion where our visit began. We had a tour of the house and the first thing we learned is that the house looks like it is made of stone,  but it really isn’t.  It is made of wood. GW himself used a technique of “rustification” that makes the wood like stone.  First the planks are chiseled to look like stone blocks separated by bands of mortar.  Then they are painted a color of the local stone and while the paint is still wet, dry sand is cast against the paint, giving a finish that looks like and feels like stone when it dries.  Sure enough the appearance was quite realistic.  Then we went inside the wood mansion and there were ten bedrooms!  This number was necessary because so remote a rural family was expected to provide hospitality to all comers.  Indeed this almost bankrupted Washington.  But there were no toilets.  They used bed chambers and during the day went outside to “necessaries” that were small huts built in the gardens where they could be emptied easily and the contents used for compost.  GW was an intensely ambitious farmer who wanted to develop and teach new agricultural practices to the people.  After finishing his second term as president in 1797 he returned to Mt Vernon, unwilling to accept permanent higher office.  This set a strong precedent for his followers to voluntarily leave office and not become dictators.  This basic democratic principle owes much to Washington.  But he died of “quinsy” (strep throat) only two years later.  His wife Martha followed him in about two years.  He was survived only by step children born to Martha in her prior marriage.

We also toured the grounds and gardens that are beautiful examples of growing vegetables, fruits, flowers and decorative plants.  The place is tidy, interesting and well run, entirely at private expense.  Martha says it is as good as any of the presidential libraries she has recently visited.  Returning up channel we again passed under the majestic and beautifully engineered Woodrow Wilson Bridge that carries Interstate 95.

Steve and Martha on front porch of Mount Vernon on their 47th wedding anniversary
Steve and Martha on front porch of Mount Vernon on their 47th wedding anniversary

This day was the 47th wedding anniversary for Steve and Martha.  Since I was in their wedding those long years ago in Borger TX, I felt privileged to celebrate it with them and Steve took us all out to a fine supper at Washington Golf and Country Club.

Stephen as George
Stephen as George

Martha again: Inspired by our stories about visiting Mount Vernon, Shelby and her family visited Mount Vernon just five days later, on the last day of their annual visit here. Stephen at 5-1/2 is especially interested in US Presidents and loves to read about them. Here he is in costume.

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