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On Virginia’s Potomac Shore

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

“George Washington is America’s first and greatest hero,” said Supervisor Park Ranger John
Frye at Virginia’s George Washington Birthplace National Monument. “He was the commander of
the Continental Army and took a group of untrained militia and molded them into a fighting
force that would stand against the strongest military power at the time, the British
Regulars, ultimately winning the Revolutionary War. And, significantly, at the end of the
Revolutionary War, he gave up power, which caused King George III to remark that
[Washington] was the greatest man of his age.” Most visitors to the national monument,
located in Westmoreland County near the western shore of the Potomac River, will know a
good deal about the “father of our country” before they arrive. Yet grade-school history
books generally mingle myth and morality, creating an inspiring icon but obscuring the man.
George Washington Birthplace National Monument does much to set the record straight —
without tarnishing the world-changing figure who is so worthy of hero status. “As first
president of the United States,” Frye added, “[Washington] set the model for the office.
His character shaped that office and established the standard future presidents would
follow.” Today, travelers can tour the grounds, known as Popes Creek in Washington’s time,
wandering through groves of mature trees and past farmland. Historic buildings, such as a
Kitchen House and Farm Workshop, help re-create the feel of an 18th-century Virginia
tobacco farm. Living-history interpreters explain farming techniques, give cooking
demonstrations and handle livestock representative of the colonial period. The house that
George was born in burned down in 1779, but an oyster-shell outline of the foundations of
the original house and its numerous renovations marks the location today. Unlike the
schoolbooks, the monument does not sugarcoat the fact that Washington owned slaves. “His
last act was an act of freedom,” said Frye. “He came to understand through the Revolution
that slavery was wrong … he set his slaves free in his will, and hoped that others would
follow. He always tried to set an example. Unfortunately, that example wasn’t followed
quite readily.” Not far downstream from the national monument, a testament to the
pernicious legacy of slavery stands in the form of Stratford Hall Plantation. Virginia
planter Thomas Lee purchased nearly 1,500 acres on the “Clifts” that overlooked the
Potomac, and soon tobacco — green gold — filled the fields. Convicts, indentured servants
and slaves made up the majority of the workforce; eventually, only slaves worked the
fields. Stratford Hall Plantation thrived. Accented with gardens and vineyards and
dominated by the Georgian Great House, the plantation was the boyhood home of Thomas Lee’s
sons, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only brothers to sign the
Declaration of Independence. Robert Edward Lee — the future general of the Confederate
Army during the Civil War — was born in Stratford Hall on January 19, 1807, then moved
with his family to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1810. Today, visiting motorhomers can take a
guided tour of the Great House, with its Flemish bond brickwork and antique furnishings;
study the Lee-family timeline in the visitor center; wander the nature trails; visit the
gristmill; and hunt for souvenirs in the gift shop. RVers should not visit Westmoreland
County primarily for its shopping, however. This thickly forested area called the Northern
Neck — also known as “The Cradle of the Nation” because Washington, the Lees, James Monroe
and other important historical figures had ties to the land — offers a sprinkling of
boutiques, galleries and wineries, yet not a single public movie screen exists within the
county. Residents generally drive the 45 miles to Fredericksburg to stock up. In fact,
roads themselves are a fairly recent development, since the numerous rivers and the
Chesapeake Bay served as commerce routes for centuries. What may be an inconvenience to
locals, however, becomes a major drawing card to RVers: rustic isolation. And few places
offer this sought-after camping nirvana the way Westmoreland State Park does. Located
between George Washington Birthplace and Stratford Hall Plantation, the park sits atop the
bluffs that overlook the Potomac River — yet also includes 1-1/2 miles of beachfront among
its nearly 1,300 acres. This sandy river access allows anglers to ply the waters, with
rockfish (stripers) generally ranking highest among the game fish. A fishing pier juts into
the river, and boat owners can launch their vessels from a boat ramp. Visitors can rent
rowboats, paddleboats or kayaks at Potomac River Retreat and Boat Rental. An Olympic-size
swimming pool allows guests to beat the summer heat, and hikers can wander the six miles of
trails that cut beneath the forested green canopy. Birders can spot bald eagles,
kingfishers, ospreys, great blue herons, green herons and wintering waterfowl. And,
surprisingly, campers can hunt for sharks’ teeth on the banks of the Potomac, the area
having been a spawning ground for sharks millions of years ago when this section of the
country was covered by a vast ocean. The prize among shark choppers is a tooth from a
Carcharodon megalodon, a giant beast that grew to 50 feet long. If a tooth hunter finds
one, he’ll know it. Fans of large, shaded campsites should find the 133 campsites (43 with
water and electric) to their liking. In addition to the 26 cabins and clean facilities,
Westmoreland State Park has a camp store, dump station, amphitheater and picnic area.
Summer interpretive programs include fossil hikes, a Friday-night campfire/orientation,
moonlight kayak trips and night hikes. Along the Westmoreland County section of Virginia’s
Potomac shore, RVers will obviously find plenty to keep them busy. Outdoorsy travelers can
keep in shape while admiring the water-dominated scenery. Fans of architecture can tour the
halls of a mansion that speaks to a bygone era. And history buffs will learn that George
Washington was, indeed, a great man — who never chopped down a cherry tree.

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