Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Colonial Williamsburg - The Revolutionary City

Colonial Williamsburg is a step back into the 18th century. The capital of Virginia from 1705 to 1779, it is presently a living history museum. Strolling along Duke of Gloucester Street, which FDR called the “most historic avenue in all America,” you may meet a slave pondering his post-war life, a young couple whose romance is in peril due to families with clashing political allegiances, or George Washington rallying his troops before the march to Yorktown. All this accompanied with the rhythmic clopping of horse hooves pulling carriages. The authenticity of the world you step into is spectacular!



Colonial Williamsburg
Taking a cab

There are daily programs of tours and reenactments based on specific topics. An example was “The Old Order Collapses, 1775 – 1776.” The day began with a group of angry townspeople gathered outside Royal Governor Dunmore’s palace in response to stolen ammunition. Calmer heads prevailed, but as we took a tour of the residence, a housekeeper was distraught as Dunmore had fled during the night. Throughout the day, tensions were apparent as news spread of British aggression in the north and Patriots radically attempted to squash Tory loyalty. The day concluded with a live reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by a fife and drum march, musket shots, and cannon blasts.


Courthouse
Troops rallying at the courthouse

Throughout town, you can enter buildings and see live demonstrations of colonial trade craft. Some of the trades we witnessed were a wig maker, blacksmith, gunsmith, cabinet maker, shoe maker, and weaver.

Most of the jobs required a 5 to 7 year apprenticeship. With no scientific measuring, experience was needed since work was all look and feel. The gunsmith would not know what temp was needed to shape barrels, but instead when it turned just the right “white hot” color.

Cabinet maker
Building piano keys


Wood working also required extreme precision. Most of the original chairs were so complex that x-rays were necessary to understand how to assemble the elaborate designs when developing replicas. The high cost of antiques suddenly made sense!

Looking at pictures and paintings of colonial figures often shows a prominent head of hair. Well, that is most likely fake as wigs were worn to show status, and the larger, more detailed the wig, the more expensive it was and more status it represented. Wigs worn by the most elite would sometimes take 4 to 5 weeks to make and could easily cost more than the average annual wage! A large reason for the expensive nature of the wigs in Colonial America is because a lot of the hair had to be imported, since the humid weather in Virginia dried out hair that was not conducive for wig making. 

Imagine this now, a lot of what you see touring Colonial Williamsburg was made internally, using these techniques! A carriage could take several months to produce. Not like the factories today.

Colonial Williamsburg
The restored area is not entirely a tourist playground though. Some of the homes are private residences, which comes with a commitment all its own. TVs must not be positioned to be seen through windows and any modern toys must be carefully stored or hidden from views. Most often, we saw blinds remain closed so as not to show off any element of the modern world.

Another facet of colonial life we experienced was the tavern culture. They were popular spots to gather, converse, and maybe even conspire a little. If only those walls could talk! A couple of ales are brewed locally and only for sale in the historic part of town and drinks such as the rummer (dark rum, apricot brandy, and peach brandy) were original colonial concoctions.


Colonial Williamsburg
Outside Raleigh Tavern

King’sArm Tavern was easily my favorite. We were seated in the green room, where high profile politicians ate and apparently where Thomas Jefferson liked to gamble (the tavern owner stopped by to share local gossip and news). The menu was traditional colonial food and drink, and we ordered absolutely savory beef pot roast and chicken pot pye. Though I am guessing these foods have evolved a bit compared to 1780.  

So how does this colonial city exist in its current form? Thanks primarily to Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr., it began in the early 1900’s with the quiet purchase of a few original properties. A monumental effort followed as hundreds of modern buildings were destroyed and the historical area reconstructed as accurately as possible. This devotion to recreating the past is a much longer story that is worth reading about. 

Outside of the main historic area are several other things to do. There is a modern shopping/dining area, with some great restaurants including the delightfully inexpensive and gourmet The Cheese Shop. The campus of William and Mary is also right there and worth a walk through its beautiful campus. 

Many early American ideas and historical icons took root in Williamsburg and its motto is “That the future may learn from the past.” It is an incredibly engaging immersion into the tumultuous early years of America. This is a destination for all ages if you enjoy this kind of history. Logistically, everything is close enough to walk, but a convenient trolley circles the historic area if needed. We stayed about 10 minutes away (nothing is far apart in this area) and ended up here for about 3 days of our trip, making it a highlight of the vacation for me.

Possible Christmas card this year???

Next post will cover the rest of the trip, including Jamestown, Yorktown, and Busch Gardens!

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