Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Oh Say Can You See... Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner

Francis Scott Key was always sort of a hometown hero for me: I grew up in Frederick, MD, where Key is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery as he desired, "in the shadows of the Catoctin Mountains." Thus, Fort McHenry has always been a favorite destination for me. It's a lovely place to walk along the water in the mornings, even if you can't visit the fort with your dog -- you can enjoy the outside at least.

The soon-to-be-author of the Star Spangled Banner watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a ship in the Patapsco River on 12 September 1814 -- Key was helping to negotiate the freedom of an American doctor being held captive on a British ship. Because they were already planning the attack, the British detained Key's ship from returning to Baltimore until after the attack. Key spent an anxious night watching it take place, which inspired him to write the lyrics. A key bit of trivia (get it, key??? I crack myself up) is that despite its popularity, the Star Spangled Banner wasn't officially adopted as the National Anthem until 1931.

The Brits pretty much owned the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812, disrupting trade and bringing the war to the center of the 30-year-old United States. They established a base on Tangier Island -- not sure why they didn't re-occupy Smith Island, since Smith Island was a base of operations for them during the Revolutionary War (oh, the history I've learned since starting this blog!) -- and raided waterfront towns at will.

By that September 1814, Washington was already in flames and Dolley Madison had made history in her own right by defiantly saving our national treasures, including the portrait of George Washington that hung in the White House. With Washington in shambles, our former and wannabe future colonial overlords set their sights on Baltimore. Unfortunately for them, Baltimore was prepared for the land and water attack. Although British troops marched toward Baltimore, they awaited the outcome of the attack on Fort McHenry, which guarded the city and its harbor.

Through a day and then a dark and stormy night, the British gun ships pounded Fort McHenry with rockets, bombs, and mortars. But Baltimore bravely withstood the bombardment and didn't surrender as expected. When morning came, the British inexplicably withdrew. Key, watching from his ship, glimpsed the Star Spangled Banner still flying at Fort McHenry through the clouds and smoke, and in his joy and relief, scribbled his few lines down.

Coupled with an American victory on Lake Champlain, the end of the War of 1812 was in sight and a treaty was signed in December.

The American and British explanations for the start of the War of 1812 differ -- and indeed, the Canadians and British call it the War of American Aggression, but our side of it is that the British, needing men for their huge navy and the ongoing war with France, would frequently board American vessels and seize men (calling them British "deserters"). Britain also worked with Native Americans to obstruct American expansion along the Great Lakes and Northern Frontier. Memories of the Revolutionary War were still fresh in American minds, and the tension between Britain and the United States culminated in declaration of war on 18 June, 1812.

Historians believe that the War of 1812 helped propel American into "greater maturity" as a nation, causing the states to unite again Britain, then a world superpower.

This recent visit is a good pairing with the Blog's recent visit to Montpelier: James Madison, fourth president of the United States, was president during the War of 1812. I've written about other War of 1812 sites before -- check out the post about Fort George.

The original plan for our day had been to park at Ft McHenry, take the water taxi over to the Star Spangled Banner Flag House, tour that, and head back (on the water taxi) to the fort. Unfortunately, there were two flaws to that plan:
  1. The water taxi can't sell tickets on national park property, thus, water taxi patrons must purchase their tickets on the other side of the harbor. Bummer: the free parking is at Ft McHenry. I hope the National Park system will reconsider, and that the Baltimore Tourism office will lobby for that, since this restriction caused the water taxi to lose the opportunity to sell three tickets. We drove over to the Star Spangled Banner Flag House instead.
  2. Even though it was a Sunday, it didn't even occur to me to check whether the Star Spangled Banner Flag House was open on a weekend day in the middle of summer, when Baltimore is positively swarming with tourists. Alas, it was closed. How many tickets could they have sold that day? Unfortunately, our out of town guest won't be back in Baltimore -- a missed opportunity.
As an added bonus, though, I can add another lighthouse to my list of visited lighthouses: Lazaretto Point Lighthouse in Baltimore Harbor, standing just opposite Fort McHenry. Lazaretto Point acquired its name from a smallpox quarantine hospital which once occupied the point. By the time that John Donahoo began construction of a brick tower light in 1831, the hospital was gone; the name was destined to live on in local naval lore, however, as in 1863 a depot was established around the tower for the construction and resupply of lighthouses throughout the bay. Many screw-pile lighthouses were prefabricated at the depot in preparation for erection at their final sites.

The old tower was torn down in 1926, replaced by a taller steel skeleton tower. This tower survived until 1954. By this time the depot had diminished in importance, and it was shut down entirely in 1958. A replica of the original tower was constructed in 1985 by the Rukert Terminal Corporation in honor of Norman Rukert, Sr., who had entertained the idea of constructing such a replica before his death. The new tower was constructed from blueprints of the original found in the National Archives. Though it sports a small white light, it is not an active aid to navigation.

Getting there: Fort McHenry is located at 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230

Hours: Park: 9 am - 5 pm; Star Fort: 9 am - 4:45 pm; Visitor Center: 9 am - 4:45 pm; closed: Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1.

Dogs: Yes, on the outskirts, but not in the visitor's center or in the fort itself.


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My Top 4 Things to do During a Government Furlough

Periodically (i.e., whenever the whim strikes me, I'll post my top picks. This is the second of the My Top Picks posts. Links to the original posts will be embedded in the text. Let me know what you think of this new blog feature!

It's 27 September and Congress has just 3 more days to pass a continuing resolution to keep the Federal government funded before the budget expires at midnight, 30 September. Although John Boehner's resignation has apparently increased the chances that Feds will keep working, time is still pretty short. Just in case Congress can't pull a CR out of its ass, here are my top 4 picks for free ways for Federal employees to fill their time while they're NOT allowed to work at their jobs:

4. Go bike riding along the Western Maryland Rail Trail!
Fall is perfect bike riding weather; I'll almost be sad if there's NOT a furlough! If you have a bike, then going bike riding is free! Check out the Western Maryland Rail Trail. Lots of convenient parking in Hancock, just off of I-70. My favorite portion of the trail is the half west of Hancock, but hey -- if you're furloughed, you have plenty of time. Explore the other half as well!

3. Explore a beautiful old garden cemetery
Almost every major city has a lovely old cemetery that hails back to the mid-1800s. These cemeteries tend to be beautifully landscaped Victorian garden cemeteries -- destinations for Victorians in their day. They treated these places like parks, even if they didn't have loved ones buried there, often bringing picnics. One of my favorite garden cemeteries is Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia.

2. Go hiking in a Maryland state park
Okay, so not entirely free. But almost. And my choice, since national parks are closed due to the government shutdown, is Cunningham Falls State Park. This park has been a favorite since childhood. And since you have the time, pack a picnic to enjoy on the rocks of Cunningham Falls!

1. Go leaf peeping
It is almost October, after all. And since federal government workers can't, ummm, work (thanks Congress), then why not enjoy the annual fall leaf spectacular? One of the best places to go -- and you can take in a lovely waterfalls at the same time -- is Swallow Falls State Park, near Oakland, MD. This state park is a perfect place to go enjoy the leaves: Every year Oakland hosts an Autumn Glory Festival, and this year it is slated for October 7-11 . Plus, it can be a pleasant drive through the mountains of western Maryland.

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gettysburg Heritage Museum Shares Civilian Experience During the Battle

The new Gettysburg Heritage Center used to be the American Civil War Wax Museum. I have to admit: I never visited the wax museum. I eschew wax museums: I find them creepy.

But having a museum dedicated to the civilian perspective of what happened in Gettysburg during that great battle sounded intriguing, and I welcomed the suggestion that we start our visit at this museum. The exhibits start by telling the history of Gettysburg, tracing its roots as a hamlet established at a crossroads to the battle, and beyond.

Samuel Gettys settled at the Shippensburg-Baltimore and Philadelphia-Pittsburgh crossroads with a 1761 tavern where soldiers and traders came to rest. As a result of its central location, a network of roads were laid out connecting Gettysburg with other towns. These roads were both a blessing, making Gettysburg a hub of local industry and commerce -- a thriving carriage industry was based there -- and a curse, since it was these roads that led the two armies to the town.

As you enter the exhibit space, you notice small town facades, such as a train station, general store, and a theater marquee. The exhibit space takes visitors back to the town of Gettysburg on the eve of the battle, highlighting daily life for those who called it home. There's a basket with 3-D glasses -- make sure you grab one. I have to admit, as I did so, I sort of grimaced: this was going to be pretty hokey. But, as it turned out, it wasn't.

One of the exhibits explains that much of the photography of the day had been taken to be viewed in stereoscopic viewer, which the 3D glasses replicate. There are several photo posters in the 3D. But the real surprise are the two opportunities to see a montage of photographs taken after the battle, on the battlefield (that one is a bit gory, with some horrible, haunting images that graphically depict the horrors of battle and what bullets and cannonballs do to the human body). I'm going to go off the beaten path here a bit and editorialize: for a country that goes to war as often as we do, we should probably face head on the horrors of war. Those images are one way to do that.

After the first of the video photo montages was over, I sat there a few minutes. PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder -- was unknown following the Civil War. But I imagine that many of the surviving troops, on both sides, must have suffered from it. Knowing people, as I do, with PTSD after having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have to wonder how the soldiers handled their trauma. One of my ancestors, George Washington Spertzel, fought in the Civil War, enlisting a second time after being medically discharged. I know he saw battle, because his unit, the 21st Pennsylvania Cav, was at Cold Harbor. What horrors did he see?

The detritus of the battles -- the mess of dead bodies, horse carcasses, and broken weaponry and discarded belongings -- must have astonished (and not in a good way) Gettysburg civilians, who were faced with the massive task of cleaning up after the battle and nursing the wounded and dying -- both Union and Confederate.

The exhibits focus on how the civilians of Gettysburg endured the battle, providing personal accounts and in some ways, trying to recreate their experiences. One of the most poignant of the exhibits is the cellar experience. As the fighting began, civilians were ordered to take shelter, preferably in their cellars. The town itself became a battlefield, and the Confederates eventually occupied the town. The exhibit takes you into a recreated cellar; all becomes dark, and through the cellar windows you see a video of the battle, mostly the feet and legs of the troops, rushing by. Steps echo above your head, recreating the sounds a family would have heard as troops barged into their homes. The narration guides you through, explaining the battle as it ebbed and flowed. How much more confusing for the inhabitants, who had no explanations, nor assurances of Union victory?

The remnants of a sycamore tree are on display as well, a fun exhibit. This particular tree was a witness tree -- large enough even during the Civil War. A section of it is cut away, showing a bullet lodged within its wood.

The tour concludes with the Civil War Trust’s award-winning Battle of Gettysburg: Animated Map; a high-definition, 20-minute movie that gives an excellent overview of the three day battle, making this a good first stop before heading across the street to the National Military Park visitor center.

Getting there: 297 Steinwehr Avenue, Gettysburg, PA 17325.

Hours: March - December - Daily 9 am - 5 pm (extended spring & summer hours); fall Hours: 9 am - 5 pm (Sunday - Thursday), 9 am - 7 pm (Friday & Saturday)


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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

My Top 4 Maryland Bike Rides

Periodically (i.e., whenever the whim strikes me, I'll post my top picks on a Sunday or Monday; right now I'm aiming to post a Top Pick at least twice a month. This is the first of the My Top Picks posts. Links to the original posts will be embedded in the text. Let me know what you think of this new blog feature!

My Top 4 Maryland* Bike Rides

4. Western Maryland Rail Trail, west of Hancock
Although the east of Hancock portion is not a favorite, the half that's west of Hancock offers interesting scenery, including views of the Potomac and the C&O Canal, as well as remnants of historical buildings. It's mostly shaded and far from busy roads or highways.

3. Indian Head Rail Trail
The Indian Head Rail Trail is a lovely 13-mile paved path that goes through some pretty countryside. At the far end, there're sweeping views of Matawoman Creek. In the spring when the red bud is blooming, it's really lovely. And mostly flat.

2. NCR Trail, including the Heritage Trail continuation in PA
Since my friend introduced me to this trail, I've returned again and again and again. It's easy to ride, pleasant scenery, and I've encountered friendly bikers and hikers and dog walkers along the trail in both Maryland and PA. There are also a couple of nice wineries near Parkton, MD, which is where I usually park.

A scenic train still runs alongside the Heritage Rail Trail near New Freedom, PA.

1. C&O Canal Towpath
I'm in love with the towpath, plain and simple. I got a bike, after 20 years of not riding, just so I could ride the towpath. I'm planning a big honkin' 4-day ride in 2016. And I've ridden sections of the towpath again and again and again and again! I enjoy seeing what's left of the locks and the lockkeepers' houses and other structures associated with the canal. Although the quality of the path varies significantly, the history is fascinating, the ride is always interesting, and the scenery is lovely.

* I realized I've almost entirely been riding in Maryland. I will have to fix that in 2016! I also avoid road biking, which will not change in 2016. (However, I'd love to publish a guest blog by a dedicated road biker!!)

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting to Know the Town of Gettysburg

This is part one of a five-part series over the next 2 months focusing on Gettysburg, PA as a great day trip destination. There is so much to do there -- from strolling around the quaint town itself and eating at one of the taverns or cafes to touring the battlefields. My friend and I spent a whirlwind day up there recently, making the most of our time.

Just over an hour away from Baltimore or D.C., it's a great day trip destination!

"Suddenly we behold an explosion; it is that of a caisson. We see a man thrown
high in the air and come down in a wheat field close by. He is picked up and
carried into the house. As they pass by I see that his eyes are blown out and
his whole person is one black mass."
Mrs. Tillie Pierce Alleman

A good friend and I recently spent a Saturday strolling around Gettysburg and getting to know it. We learned some things. There are a lot of antique and boutique shops to browse. There are also a number of wineries in town. So much fun! And plenty of places to eat.

We chose The Blue and the Grey Bar & Grill for lunch, on the main square. The Blue and Grey totally plays on the battle that raged around and through Gettysburg. You can start with Artillery Fire (fresh jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) or Sharpshooter Cheese Stix (American, cheddar and Pepper Jack cheeses rolled by hand in a wonton then deep fried). Burgers are named for Union and Confederate generals and served with the appropriate flags acting like toothpicks.

In some ways, Gettysburg -- the city, not the battlefield -- is overlooked. Battlefield tourists drive right through it getting from one battle field to another, anxiously scanning the materials to ensure we're understanding the battle as it unfolded (I've been visiting the battlefields for years and still can't claim to understand the battle entirely, although major moments stand out -- The Devil's Den, Seminary Ridge, The Round Tops. And of course, Picketts Charge, and "High Water Mark of the Confederacy" marking the farthest point reached by Confederate forces during Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863. What we battlefield tourists forget, or fail to realize, is that the town itself was a battlefield.

And a few names stand out, such as Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. But what about John Burns, the 67-year-old man who joined the Union troops to defend Gettysburg? And the brave civilians who sheltered and hid Union soldiers while Gettysburg itself was occupied by the Confederates?

So this visit, I paid more attention to the civilian experience, which was brought to life by the new museum, The Gettysburg Heritage Center, and by the Shriver House Museum (more on both in upcoming posts).

"Officers dashed through the streets ordering everyone to their cellars, as the town
would be shelled; people running hither and thither, not knowing what to do
or where to go for safety. The battle had commenced. The wounded were
being brought in. Here was women's work, and they did it nobly."
-- Fannie J. Buehler

As you walk around you begin to notice things you can't from a car. Bullet holes in the brick store fronts. Plaques announcing which buildings hail from the Civil War era (those are the ones, logically, with the bullet holes). One home has a cannonball embedded.

At the time of the Civil War, Gettysburg had approximately 2500 residents, mostly women and children (since the many of the local men had joined in the Union war effort). During the battle, they either took shelter in their cellars or sought refuge with friends or relatives in farm houses away from the center of town.

As you walk around the main square, take some time to stroll down some of the streets leading off of the square. Eventually, though, you'll want to walk down Baltimore Street. Check out the art galleries and definitely check out the Shriver House Museum to get a better sense of what civilian life was like during and after the battle.

"About 4 o'clock P.M. the storm burst again with terrific violence. It seemed as
though heaven and earth were being rolled together. For better security 
we went to the house of a neighbor and occupied the cellar, by far the most 
comfortable part of the house. Whilst there a shell struck the house, 
but mercifully did not burst, but remained embedded in the wall, one half protruding."
 --Sarah M. Broadhead

Heading down Baltimore Street from the square, on the right is the Shriver House. On the left side of the Shrivers' home, at the Shrivers' Saloon & Ten Pin Alley sign, if go down the little alleyway by the whiskey barrel to get to the garden, you can see for yourself the numerous bullet holes still visible on the side of the Shriver House. At the time of the battle, the Shriver House had no buildings immediately adjacent.

A little further still down Baltimore Street is the Farnsworth House, named after Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth, who led an ill-fated charge after the failure of Pickett's charge which claimed the lives of Farnsworth and 65 of his men. The house itself dates to 1810, although the brick structure dates to 1833. The house sheltered Confederate sharpshooters during the battle, one of whom is believed to have killed Jennie Wade, the only civilian who died during the battle.

More than 100 bullet holes mark the walls of Farnsworth House. Following the battle, the house, like many others, operated as a hospital. Now operated as a Bed and Breakfast and a restaurant, in the back of the house is Sweney Tavern, a family friendly restaurant with a menu that features Pennsylvania Dutch dishes such as game pie, slippy chicken pot pie, and others. The Saturday evening we were there the place was jam-packed, and we could understand why. The food was excellent. Sweney Tavern is named after Harvey Sweney, who owned the house at the time of the battle. At Sweney Tavern, you can see a display of memorabilia from the movie "Gettysburg,"

Although we didn't have time to do it on this jam-packed day in Gettysburg, I recommend going on the self-guided walking tour of Historic Downtown Gettysburg, offered by Destination Gettysburg. During the tour, you'll learn more about life in Gettysburg before, during, and days after the fateful days of the Civil War.

Free copies of the tour brochure are available at the Destination Gettysburg Information Center or mailed by request. Please call 800-337-5015 or email [email protected]

Know before you go #1: If you're there Monday through Saturday, parking can be a problem. Make sure you bring change to feed the meters. Sundays you park free.

Know before you go #2: There's enough to do to fill several days, so why not stay a night or two? There are a number of Bed and Breakfasts and hotels in the area, but don't overlook The Quality Inn, which provides excellent, comfortable lodgings at a family friendly price! You can request a room with three double beds in it if you're bringing the whole family.

The Shriver House Museum is located at 309 Baltimore Street, Gettysburg, PA;

The Gettysburg Heritage Center is located at 297 Steinwehr Avenue, Gettysburg, PA

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Montpelier: James Madison's Presidential Retreat

My sister and I are determined to visit all the local presidential mansions: Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, among them. Montpelier is the estate of our 4th president, James Madison, and one of America's Founding Fathers. He is known for putting his lawyerly training to work by helping write the U.S. Constitution in the late 1700s (with National Constitution Day coming up on 17 September, it's the right time to make a visit to Montpelier!!). He also created the foundation for the Bill of Rights, acted as President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state, and served two terms as president himself. He is one of our more cerebral presidents. He also shepherded our young nation through the War of 1812.

Montpelier is a several-hour drive from Baltimore, through some lovely countryside in Virginia. As we drove up, we saw race horses being trained in the track on the estate, which is home for 200 horses, most retired.

Born in 1751, Madison grew up in Orange County, Virginia. He was the oldest of 12 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. His father, James, was a successful planter and owned more than 3,000 acres of land and dozens of slaves. He was also an influential figure in county affairs.

The learned Madison was more of a writer than a fighter, though. And he put his talents to good use in 1776 at the Virginia Convention, as Orange County's representative. Around that time, he met Thomas Jefferson, and the pair soon began what would become a lifelong friendship. In 1780, he went to Philadelphia to serve as one of Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress.

Recreation of a work shed and slave quarters.

In 1787, Madison represented Virginia at the Constitution Convention. He was a federalist at heart, and thus campaigned for a strong central government. In the Virginia Plan, he expressed his ideas about forming a three-part federal government, consisting of executive, legislative and judicial branches. Madison gave serious thought to the problems facing the nation and made specific proposals for devising a new constitution. He worked tirelessly to encourage the states to ratify the new Constitution, writing 29 of the 85 anonymous essays comprising The Federalist.

The slave cemetery. Underneath the groundcover ivy are rocks marking where slaves were buried, but this
burial ground starkly contrasts with the formal grave markers of the Madison family cemetery.

Madison was elected to Congress under the new Constitution, where he served from 1789 until 1797. During this period, in 1794, Madison met and married the widowed Dolley Payne Todd. She had a son named Payne from her first marriage, who Madison raised as his own. Eventually tiring of the political battles, Madison returned to Virginia in 1797 with his wife Dolley. By 1797, he described himself as “wearied with public life” and eager to “indulge his relish for the intellectual pleasures ... and the pursuits of rural life.” He looked forward to enjoying life at Montpelier. (Madison would officially inherit the estate after his father's death in 1801.)

View from the front door of Montpelier; no wonder he wanted to spend time there!

Early in his term, Jefferson appointed Madison as his secretary of state (1801-09). Responsible for foreign affairs and some domestic duties, Madison oversaw significant changes to the young nation, including the Barbary Wars, a major embargo, the Lewis and Clark expeditions, and the Louisiana Purchase, which enlarged the nation by 828,000 square miles.

Dolley would eventually become famous in her own right for saving our national treasures when the British burned the White House. Prior to that, though she was the charming and diplomatic wife of the fourth president of the United States, one-half of America’s first political power couple. Known for her signature hospitality, Dolley served as both Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s official hostess during their respective presidential terms. For 16 years, Dolley was a staple in the Washington social and political scene and is considered to be America's "first First Lady," because she essentially invented the role.

At the conclusion of Jefferson’s second term, Madison was inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States (1809-17), inheriting the unresolved issues stemming from the war between France and Great Britain -- each nation attempted to prevent its rival from trading with the United States. With England boarding U.S. ships and impressing American sailors to fight on British warships, Madison called on Congress to declare war against Great Britain in 1812.

A scene from the Annie duPont garden. Established in Madison's time, the Garden was
renovated by Annie duPont in the early 1900s.

When we toured Montpelier, we selected a tour that focused on six women who'd lived at Montpelier: Madison's mother and grandmother; Dolley (of course); Catherine Taylor, an enslaved woman; an indentured servant; and Marion du Pont. It was an interesting and informative way to tour the mansion, and provided insights into the lives of the families who lived there.

During the Madison family's ownership of the property, between the early 1700s and 1844, hundreds of African and African-American slaves supported (that seems an inadequet word for slavery) the Montpelier plantation. Five, six, and possibly seven generations of African Americans toiled at Montpelier.

A scene from the Annie duPont garden.

The house was acquired in 1901 by William and Annie Rogers du Pont. A horse enthusiast, William built barns, stables, and other buildings for equestrian use. The Du Ponts were among several wealthy families in the upper South who were influential in the development of thoroughbred horse racing in the United States. William and Annie had a daughter, Marion du Pont, and a son, William du Pont, Jr. Upon William du Pont, Sr.'s death in 1928, William du Pont, Jr. inherited the family's Bellevue estate in Delaware, whereupon he had the estate's mansion converted into a replica of Montpelier (now preserved as a state park), and Marion inherited the Montpelier estate. Marion preserved much of the core of the Madison home, gardens, and grounds as a legacy for all Americans. Marion duPont Scott died in 1983 and bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with $10 million as an endowment to maintain it. The du Pont love of horses is preserved: the estate serves as a retirement home for retired race horses that would have had few options otherwise.

On our way to Montpelier, we stopped at the old train station near the entrance to the estate. This train station is a small yellow building, constructed in 1910 by the du Pont family to serve as a train depot and post office. Pursuant to existing laws in Virginia and across the South, this building was designed and initially constructed as a segregated public space. White and black passengers were physically separated into two waiting rooms, one marked "white" and the other marked "colored." Although it seems odd to us today, the building and the estate itself still serves as a reminder of America's past and how African Americans were treated.

Getting there: 11350 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, VA 22957

A scene from two-acre Annie duPont Formal Garden
featuring formal walkways, sweeping beds, an herb
garden, and magnificent marble lions and urns.
Hours: March 31 - November 1: Open 7 days a week, 9 am to 5 pm (first tour starts at 9:30 a.m.; last tour starts at 4 pm); November 2– January 3: 10 am to 4 pm (first tour starts at 11 am; last tour starts at 3 pm). On Thanksgiving weekend (Friday, Nov. 27-Sunday, Nov. 29) & Christmas weekend (Saturday, Dec. 26-Sunday, Dec. 27), tours hours are extended from 10 am to 4 pm. Please note, Montpelier is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and from January 4-17.

Dogs: Unfortunately, but emphatically, no.


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Summer Afternoon Exploring the Loudon County Wine Trail

All my previous blogs on wineries have focused on mostly Maryland wineries. (I've visited some 17 of them over the past 2 years, some multiple times -- check out this list of places the Blog has visited.) I've also visited a few wineries on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail in Pennsylvania. All along, I've been hearing how good the wineries in Virginia are, so I decided it was high time to go visit.

I asked for recommendations on the Blog's facebook page and received a lot of recommendations. Some folks private messaged me with suggestions, and between those suggestions and proximity (I was pretty much limited to visiting wineries in Northern Virginia) I decided we'd visit Cardamon Family Vineyards, Hillsborough Vineyard, North Gate Vineyards and finally, Bluemont Vineyard. Each was recommended for different reasons; they're all within about 10 miles of each other.

Loudon County is known as horse country. What I didn't know was that Loudon County is wine country: there are more than 40 wineries and vineyards in the county, making it an ideal destination for a pleasant afternoon. You can go to one winery and hang out -- many offer live music and pleasant shaded patios -- or you can visit several, as we did, in one afternoon.

Loudon County has done a good job of grouping the wineries into clusters: Loudon Heights (which includes Cardamon Family Vineyards and Hillsborough Vineyards); Waterford, Potomac, Mosby, Harmony, and Snickers Gap (which includes Bluemont Vineyard and North Gate Vineyard).

Cardamon Family Vineyards was notable for us because of the owner and winemaker, Chuck Cardamon, who is a former Navy seal, a trained chef, a winemaker, and at heart, an entertainer. We were the first to arrive that morning, but he made us welcome and introduced us to the winery's two labs: Lucy and Guinevere.

Cardamon's focus is on helping his guests understand how wine goes with food. He helps demonstrate how food and wine compliment each other AND how one can effect the taste of the other by offering four samples of his homemade salsa (he also sells a recipe book with 86 of his salsa recipes, but more on that later).

Cardamon got started in winemaking in the sixth grade, in what he describes as an "unauthorized Boy Scout project." He took Welsches Grape Juice, yeast, and sugar and bottled it with a balloon so he could determine when it was fermented. (It produced a wine, of sorts, he said.) Two years later he was at it again, although this time, with fresh grapes but not as successfully (it exploded in his closet).

After a career as a Navy seal, he went to culinary school in California and worked with a local winery there, and that's where he first hit on the idea of pairing salsas with wine. He tried to start a winery in California, then in Colorado, but fate soon brought him to Northern Virginia.

We tasted seven wines, starting with the Vino de Miele, which, as its name suggests, is an apple wine. Unlike most apple wines, this one is a dry wine -- sort of,
as the wine list notes suggest, hard cider onu steroids. It is paired with Cardamon's salsa recipe called "Ana's Apple Salsa," a spicy concoction of chopped apples, cucumbers, onions, and chili, key lime juice and honey (among other ingredients). We took a sip, ate some salsa, and I sipped more wine, and ate more salsa -- it was really good!! I bought a bottle (of the wine).

Many of Cardamon's wines are named after family members, and as he pours, he shares stories about them. Three other wines were paired up with salsas -- all very good. I left with the salsa recipe book too! In addition to the apple wine, standouts (for me) of the winery's offerings include a brash vidal blanc with strong citrus tones, named G3, and Peter Pie, a flavorful blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Of the wineries we visited that day, this one was the homiest and most intimate. Chuck is an enthusiastic fan of Northern Virginia wineries and the wines. If you have to choose from several wineries, make sure this one is on your list: Chuck has plans for future catering onsite, enlarging upon the emerging theme of Mexican food and his wines, and dinner wine tastings. In addition to his salsa recipe book (which I've enjoyed browsing through and look forward to

Our next stop, not too far away (none of the wineries are very far away from each other), was Hillsborough Vineyard. The tasting room is housed in a renovated 1840s stone barn, a cool respite during the dog days of summer and cozy by the fireplace in winter. From the terrace outside, visitors experience Hillsborough’s luxuriant gardens and trickling fountains, framing the view of the Loudoun Valleys below and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. This winery is much larger than Cardamon, and the parking lot was packed, with multiple limousines, which struck us as an excellent idea: have a driver so you can enjoy the tastings without worrying about getting a little tipsy.

Hillsborough, like most of the wineries, offers food that you can purchase onsite (from a caterer), the winery also allowed you to enjoy your own picnic in some of its outer picnic areas and on the lawn itself -- both lovely spaces where you can sit and enjoy the view. If  you want to bring a picnic (which I recommend so you can spend your $$ on the wine itself), bring a blanket in case you can't snag a picnic table.

Loudon County bills itself as "DC's Wine Country," and indeed, there were a lot of folks from DC and communities closer in to DC, including Alexandria, Potomac, and McLean, at Hillsborough (and the other wineries) enjoying the countryside.

Our next stop was North Gate Vineyards, a "green" vineyard -- and I don't mean just the leaves on the vines. Solar panels on the roof of the wine tasting room provides 100% of the winery's electric needs. I give this two thumbs up -- my husband and I are about to have solar panels installed, and like all newly converted, we're now solar zealots!

Like Cardamon, North Gate Vineyards offers a food pairing. For an additional $5, you can choose a chocolate pairing with locally made truffles from The Perfect Truffle, in Frederick, MD. Available for tasting were the winery's Rkatsitell, noted as one of the oldest vinters grape known. We also tried a 2014 Viognier, a 2013 Merlot, a 2013 Chamboourcin, as well as a 2013 Apple, which wasn't quite like biting into a fresh juicy sweet apple (as the wine notes suggested) but still a refreshing fruit wine.

Bluemont Vineyard sits high on the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, almost a thousand feet above sea level. The winery takes full advantage of the views, with two seating areas that invite visitors to linger to sip wine and enjoy the view. The afternoon we visited there was live music playing on the lower deck, and guests filled both decks, enjoying both the wine and food purchased at the winery.

Bluemont offers a varied line-up of wines for tastings that includes its slightly sweet Vidal Blanc, named "The Cow"; a Farm Table Red that's predominently a Bordeaux blend with a "touch of" Chambourcin (I thought the Chambourcin was strong in it); a Merlot, "The Ram"; and "The Pig," made from Norton grapes, which are native to North America.

I'm not going to say the wines weren't enjoyable -- I purchased a bottle of the Farm Table White, a dry crisp blend of Vidal Blanc, Petite Manseng, Chardonnay, and Viognier grapes, and a close runner up was the Farm Table Red  -- but our server wasn't very knowledgeable about Bluemont's wines, nor did he have the time to really discuss the wines with us because of the crowded tasting area. Unfortunately for me, chatting with servers about the wines is one of the highlights (for me) of visiting wineries (vice going to the more crowded and frantic wine festivals). So from that perspective, Bluemont was a disappointment. It's a very popular place, though, and the views are well worth a visit!

Know before you go: If you avoid purchasing wine and pack your own picnic, this is a budget-friendly day trip!

Getting there: Cardamon Family Vineyards, 12226 Harpers Ferry Rd, Purcellville, VA 20132; Hillsborough Vineyards, 36716 Charles Town Pike, Purcellville, VA 20132; North Gate Vineyard, 16031 Hillsboro Road, Purcellville, VA 20132; 

Hours: Cardamon Family Vineyards is open weekends but check the website or call to ensure they're open; Hillsborough Vineyards is open daily 11 am to 5 pm ; North Gate Vineyard is open Thursday through Monday, 11am to 6 pm; and Bluemont is open Wednesday through Monday, 11 am to 6 pm.


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