We didn’t arrive in Colonial Williamsburg in the handsome carriage picture above, but thanks to the generosity of Acura rolled into town in a stylish and thoroughly modern MDX. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t immerse ourselves in the colonial experience! In fact, we spent one full and two half days visiting and could easily have filled up several more (in fact, another visit is definitely in my family’s future). Colonial Williamsburg is an educational, fun, and fascinating place to visit with school-aged children. Although we didn’t get to see everything Colonial Williamsburg has to offer, we did cover a lot of territory. Here are our highlights, including the five favorite things chosen by Teddy and Tommy, my six- and nine-year-old sons.
1. Visit the Great Hopes Plantation. It can be easy to miss this important exhibit, since it lies outside the main town that most people arrive in Williamsburg expecting to see (it’s also off the shuttle route). But if you walk from the Visitor Center into town you pass right by the entrance. As the interpreters here and elsewhere point out, the plantation represents what life was like for 98 percent of the population of Virginia in the 18th century (as the woman talking to us as we entered the plantation explained, the houses we toured in town were more like the equivalent of where “Bill Gates would live” than what most people ever experienced). Slavery is addressed in a sensitive and realistic way as it is throughout the sites in Colonial Williamsburg, with an emphasis on humanity and day-to-day life and an acknowledgement that slave labor is what made colonial life (and probably the American Revolution) economically viable.
The interpreters here did a phenomenal job of helping the boys understand what life on the plantation was like. They got to sit on the hard bed in a one-room shack that probably housed seven to twelve people – and then wondered that most of the people had to sleep on the even harder dirt floor. They took their turn grinding corn into flour by hand. They handled the precious gourds that were shaped into tools and bowls. They saw how much work the slaves had to do to have enough to eat – and were told that they had to tend their garden or make their tools only after they had finished their other work in the fields for the day. They looked at tobacco drying in the barn and hams being smoked in an open-air shack. They saw the kitchen and asked what plantation dwellers ate for dessert. (The answer? Probably pie, although no one is totally sure since this was not a population that recorded recipes.) They saw that the slave garden grew plants like okra and sweet potatoes while the plantation owner’s garden was full of herbs. And they learned that even though life on the plantation was unquestionably much harder than city life, the slaves there tended to escape much less often thanks to their lack of education and finer clothing that might enable them to pass for freed blacks.
2. Rent a costume. All of the interpreters at Williamsburg are in costume, and kids who like to play dress up can join in the fun as well. Daily costume rentals for children are available at the Visitor Center and at the small open-air market in the middle of town. Teddy was thrilled to wear his loose shirt and canvas bag and to carry a wooden rifle (hats are available for purchase).
Children who rent costumes are given a letter of introduction, inviting them to do various things around town. These include visiting the post office, learning the proper form of greeting (a “courtesy” for boys and a curtsey for girls),
3. Play some games at the Kids’ Corner. We took a break from the houses and museums at this small cabin where kids can play with colonial games and toys, write on slates, and explore exhibits designed to help them understand the objects and history they are looking at in all the other sites.
4. Check out the Governor’s Palace. It’s hard to believe that this building is actually a 1930 recreation of the original, which burned to the ground in 1781. Built on the original foundation, it is a grand and impressive representation of the British monarchy’s wealth and might, and even if it failed to cow the colonists, it makes for a fun tour. The interpreter here pretends to be one of the maids working there on the day of a large ball hosted by Lord Dunmore, the last British governor. Tommy’s favorite was the bright blue ball room, although I think Teddy liked the entrance hall with its impressive display of weaponry.
5. Make bricks. Did you know that making bricks by hand involves stomping around in a big patch of muddy clay? Neither did I, but I can tell you that the boys loved helping to make the material smooth enough for use.
Once they had rinsed off their feet in a big barrel of water (word to the wise, they weren’t exactly clean when they were done) we moved on to seeing how the bricks were formed in molds. The boys then got to help carry the molds over to the drying area and turn the perfectly formed bricks out to sit in the sun, a task that would actually have been performed by children in the 18th century.
In the process, we learned a great deal about how bricks are made and fired, including the fact that variations in color are due to the bricks’ placement in the oven (those at the bottom nearer to the heat are darker; up near the top they are lighter and less durable, more suited for use indoors than out).
And brickmaking isn’t the only trade that kids can see in action at Colonial Williamsburg. Tommy watched in fascination while the blacksmith made nails and Teddy was offered a job at the wigmaker’s shop after he asked the mistress there questions about all of her tools. A scribe shows children how to use a quill pen at the post office and the cobbler hangs the shoes he makes in his window. There are gardeners, gunsmiths, cooks, printers, carpenters, barrelmakers, and bookmakers all demonstrating what they do and offering children the chance to ask questions and often to touch tools or help out. At the cabinetmaker’s shop, Tommy sat for 15 minutes and played his Bach recital pieces on an actual harpsichord that was built there.
Williamsburg is a great weekend road trip from any number of Mid-Atlantic locations including Philadelphia; Washington, DC; and Raleigh. We drove there from Northern Delaware in just over five hours in the happy comfort of an MDX loaned to us for the trip by Acura, big believers in family road trips. They also covered all the expenses of our visit. I’ll be posting about Williamsburg all week – and as usual, you can count on me to express my own opinions or let you know if I got something for free.