Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summer on Stratford Hall's Beach

This post is by Lin, our beach security person. I've posted it for him.


This was one hot summer sitting on the beach keeping people from coming onto the beach from the river. Since Stratford is situated on top of 150-foot-high cliffs on the Potomac River, I have to keep people from going up to the cliffs, which could seriously injure people if there were any cliff slides. I’ve had some very interesting experiences with a variety of people coming along the Potomac. While most of them simply don’t realize they aren’t allowed to look for fossils in this area because it’s so dangerous, there are those boaters who come back time after time—but they seem to have finally learned that I’m posted at the beach!

Along with some difficult situations with boaters, I’ve also had some funny incidences. I have fallen down, over, and into more things than you can imagine. Once, I fell from the top of a ridge and rolled all the way to the beach, lost my name badge, and—to top it off—rolled through a nest of ticks. I must have made a lot of noise going down because by time I got to the bottom the people I was going to talk to were long gone. The first thing I did, as most of us probably would, was to look around and make sure that nobody saw me fall. Then, of course, I continued nonchalantly down the beach. After the multiple falls I’ve had, I finally made the decision to bring my jet ski to patrol the beach. That makes the several-mile beachfront much easier to traverse!

While working on the beach, I’ve experienced several severe thunderstorms. The worst one was this past Saturday, the 22nd—the sky got very dark and it began to pour so hard that it was coming down sideways. I sat in the guard shack on the beach until the worst of the storm had passed, or at least so I thought! I began heading back to Westmoreland State Park on my jetski, but little did I know that the wind kicked up the water so much that the waves were between 2 and 3 feet high. A couple of times I went under a wave and then popped back up only to be broadsided by another wave and almost capsized. I finally made it to the ramp at Westmorland Park. After my experience working on the beach, I have a list of things I’ll never do again, and that happens to be one of them!

In the end, though, I’ve met quite a few nice families who come to Stratford Hall’s beach to look for sharks’ teeth and other fossils, or just to relax for a few hours. If you haven’t been to our beach, remember to visit me down there the next time you come to Stratford Hall!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Curatorial Intern at Stratford

My project this summer, as Gretchen’s intern, is to research the Lee family silver at Stratford to learn more about the Lees by way of the serving tools they used and the silver purchases that they made. As only a few pieces of Stratford Lee silver are known at this point, one of my main tasks is to find Lee silver in other collections, both public and private. This will help us develop a fuller picture of the original silver used by the Stratford Lees. At this point, word is out, and several institutions have responded noting that they have Lee pieces that may be of interest to Stratford. In late August, I will travel to Lee Chapel to research the Lee silver in that collection, and I am currently corresponding with Arlington House to learn more about their silver collection. The Society of the Lees of Virginia has also generously offered to announce our research effort in the upcoming August newsletter. Our hope is that Society members might notify us of other Stratford Lee pieces. In addition to my detective work, I am investigating the pieces within the collection—in particular the makers—to learn more about the buying patterns of the Lee family. I have also been rifling through Lee family letters, wills, inventories, and such to find mention of silver objects to determine what specific items the family owned and used.

The staff at Stratford has made the intern experience both educational and interesting, and has offered opportunities for us to meet with other professionals in the field. Recently, the interns took a field trip with Phil to Colonial Williamsburg to visit with conservator Susan Buck. I will return to Colonial Williamsburg in a few weeks with Gretchen to meet with the textiles curator, Linda Baumgarten.

As this is my first trip to Virginia and I am far from my home in Texas, I have been exploring the area on weekend trips, such as the battlefield at Fredericksburg, George Washington’s birthplace, and Mount Vernon. Just a few weekends ago, Kat, Kate, Abby, and I glided along the Potomac on kayaks from Westmoreland State Park. I realize that the new will eventually wear off, but I still squeal when I see a bald eagle, one of the many deer grazing at Stratford, or a raccoon peering in the window. (I have been squealing quite a bit, actually, because the insect population here in the Virginia woods is abundant, and the specimens are large!)

From researching Lee silver to touring the Northern Neck and more on the weekends, I have appreciated the opportunity to live and work at Stratford. While here, I have learned much about the Lee family and am developing a better understanding of the historic house museum as an institution. I look forward to my remaining weeks here—it has been a great pleasure to collaborate with the personable and professional team at Stratford.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Summertime for the Lees

Historic house museums offer unique challenges. We want to keep the displays dynamic and entice visitors to come back and not just say "I've seen it already". One of the ways we try to keep the rooms exciting is by changing them periodically to reflect the seasons or a particular story that we want to tell. Although we are halfway through summer, we will be installing summer scenarios on Friday morning that will allow our interpreters to talk to visitors about seasonal habits and housekeeping tasks in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

At my house, summertime means cranking up the air conditioning. For the Lee family, however, summertime would have meant doors and windows were left open to invite cross-breezes; heavy wool carpeting was removed in favor of bare wood floors or grass mats; gilded frames and mirrored glass were covered to protect the delicate surfaces from fly specks (debris left by the flying pests); and fireplaces were cleaned out, andirons stored away, and the fireplace opening either closed up with a decorative fireboard or used to display a potted plant.

Faux (fake) foods have recently arrived from Henri Gadbois in Houston, Texas for use in these new scenarios. Henri is a skilled artist who makes faux foods for museums out of materials that are safe for use with historic objects - earthenware, resins, and acrylic paints. I recently contacted Henri to help with our summer installations and he sent a wonderful collection of fruits known to have been at Stratford during the 18th century: pomegranates, figs, and plums (pictured below).

Summer fruits were eaten out of hand, cooked in puddings and cakes, or preserved or pickled for later use. In the Kitchen we'll be illustrating the ingredients for a pudding recipe found in Amelia Simmons' American Cookery (1798): “Put into paste, quartered [plums], lye in a cloth and boil two hours, serve with sweet sauce.”

I can just imagine the joy that must have accompanied summertime at Stratford - the longer days, warmer weather, and plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables. Summer fruits like pomegranates and figs are mentioned in multiple Lee family documents, such as the diary of Lucinda Lee, who records on October 3, 1782 during a visit to Stratford: “sat about two hours under a butifull shade tree, and eat as many figs as we could...”

Like today, gifts of food were also common in the 18th century and Stratford mistress Ann Carter Lee makes such a gift to Mrs. Richard Bland Lee in 1799, writing: “You will receive three kinds of Plums, they are remarkably fine, particularly the red plum...”

We hope that you’ll come and visit to see Stratford as it would have appeared during those hot Virginia summers the Lees knew so well. Come take a walk around our gardens and orchards; take a tour of the house and see if you can spot the figs, pomegranates, and plums!