On George Washington’s childhood farm in Virginia, archaeologist Phil Levy is telling me the famous folk tale about young George confessing that he had destroyed his father’s favorite cherry tree with his hatchet.
But Levy’s nowhere in sight. It’s just me, an iPad and a whole lot of cicadas in the middle of a dewy field, which was part of the Washington family’s 580-acre estate near Fredericksburg, Va., in the mid-1700s.
Thanks to an interactive iPad tour, I’m taking the experts along with me on my ramble around Ferry Farm. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since 2008, when I heard that archaeologists had unearthed the foundation of the house where George Washington lived from age 6 until his early 20s.
But because Ferry Farm has few visible remnants of the Washingtons’ time, it’s hard for tourists to relate to what life was like back then.
“There’s a disconnect between our resources, our collection and our landscape,” said David Muraca, the George Washington Foundation’s director of archaeology. “There are elements of the Washington landscape out there, but you can’t explain them in the 15 words that people are normally used to reading in signs.”
So in March, the foundation launched the iPad app “Uncovering George Washington’s Youth.” It includes 10 interactive stops around the property, many accompanied by narrated videos, photographs, old maps, paintings, drawings — even George’s geometry homework. (Alas, non-Apple people are out of luck; there are no plans to make an app for other devices.)
I picked up an iPad at the visitor center — you can bring your own and download the app if you prefer — and started my tour in a vibrant garden just outside.
The garden wasn’t here in the 1700s, but the app displays plants that a well-to-do colonial family would have grown: tobacco, cotton, potatoes, herbs, and yes, cherry trees. I clicked through for a photo gallery of plants and their historic uses. (Rosemary sweetens foul breath, for instance.)
Then and now
Leaving the garden, I looked out over the main part of the roughly 80-acre historic site, mostly a grassy plain dotted with a few buildings built after Washington’s time. I liked that the app has a “then and now” button so you can toggle between a view of the grounds now and a drawing of what the place looked like as a thriving farm in the 1700s.
Stop 5 took me to a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock River. The house was perched here, according to the app, so that people living in Fredericksburg, just across the river, could easily see the building and the family’s prosperity.
I also virtually explored a floor plan of the house, whose large hall and parlor were once hot spots for genteel entertainment. Washington’s sister, Betty, would conduct tea ceremonies here in the hopes of attracting a wealthy suitor.
Muraca had told me that one of Ferry Farm’s goals is to “humanize George,” who over time has gotten a reputation for being as wooden as those legendary teeth.
For instance, watching the app’s segment on wig curlers — clay pieces that are common artifacts at Ferry Farm — I learned that the independent-minded Washington powdered his hair instead of wearing wigs, which were considered the “high heel” of 18th-century men’s fashion, according to Muraca.
Nearing the end of the tour, I caught up with tourists Richard and Eileen Soper of Westminster, Md., as they rested on a bench behind the house foundation. The couple told me that they liked exploring the site by tablet — “You don’t have to be a wizard of electronics to do this,” Eileen said — and that they’d done similar interactive tours in other places, such as the Vicksburg battlefield in Mississippi. Then Richard said something that yanked my head out of its digital cloud: “We’re sitting and standing where Washington lived.”
This whole time, it hadn’t even occurred to me that just being here is cool — and there’s no app for that.