For two days next weekend, George Washington’s home becomes a colonial marketplace, as the 18th Century Fair comes to the grounds of the Mount Vernon Estate.
The fair, running 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 13 and 14, features artisans who sell handcrafted colonial style creations, 18th century entertainment, fair-style food, and free sightseeing cruises compliments of Spirit Cruises and the Potomac Riverboat Company.
"The primary goal of this event is to keep alive the colonial crafts. Without these types of fairs the artists lose support," said Stephanie Brown, Mount Vernon Estate’s director of marketing.
Markets such as Mount Vernon's 18th Century Fair were common in George Washington's day and ranged in duration from a few days to several weeks, Brown said. "Community members attended the fairs to exchange and barter goods as well as exchange gossip and enjoy various theatrical and musical performances."
The earliest known notation of such a fair in the Mount Vernon area was in 1752, when the General Assembly passed an act for "erecting a town at Hunting Creek warehouse" in Fairfax County — soon to be named Alexandria.
This modern fair is included in the regular price of admission to the Estate, which is $11 for adults, $10.50 for seniors, and $5 for youth six to 11. Children under six are admitted free. Annual passes to the Estate are honored at the fair. The event normally attracts approximately 14,000 visitors.
THIS YEAR, FOOD concessions will add two 18th century dishes that persist to the 21st century — turkey legs and corn on the cob. There also will be the traditional Fair fare, ranging from corn dogs and ice cream to pretzels and apple crunch. It can all be washed down by colas, lemonade, Mount Vernon Ale, or bottled water.
Those who don't want to fight through Wilson Bridge construction traffic can take a leisurely boat ride down the Potomac and spend the day at the fair, then relax as they return to the docks in Alexandria.
For drivers, there will be regular parking at the Estate. and satellite parking at Mount Vernon High School, with free shuttle service to and from the Estate, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. each day.
THERE ARE 45 crafters at the Fair. "They come from as far away as Vermont and Indiana and as close as Alexandria and Accokeek," said Brown. "In addition to the crafters, there are also entertainers and educational events, such as surveying, swordsmanship and drum instructions."
Working in tin, wood, metal, ceramics, pewter, paper, and other media, the Fair's invited artisans dress in period attire and demonstrate their colonial-style crafts. Each artisan uses traditional methods to create the finished product.
Anne Leslie, Alexandria artisan of "The Paper Paintbrush," has been a crafter at the fair every year since its inception. Leslie, who is renowned for her portrait silhouettes created by cut paper, has also exhibited at Waterford for the past 20 years as well as shows and craft fairs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
A professional biochemist, Leslie is able to look at her subject and, using a pair of surgical scissors, create their portrait. Her work is also marketed in shops throughout the Northeast, according to her husband Francis Leslie. A synopsis of her work can be found on the Internet at shadowportraits.com.
IN ADDITION to crafters, there is a wide array of entertainers on one of two stages and circulating throughout the crowd. The Martin family musicians, from Boyds, Md., have been a tradition at the fair
"We have been a part of the Fair since it began. But, we have been performing at Mount Vernon well before the Fair," said Jeanean Martin. “We started there as part of the candlelight tours.”
Known as the Martin Family Band, it is composed of Jeanean, who plays the hammered dulcimer and guitar, her husband Carl, on mandolin and banjo, their daughters Lydia and Emily, one on monitor and the other on mandolin and banjo, and their son Claude, on the fiddle.
"We specialize in 18th century music as well as Irish tunes. But we try to keep it all in the 18th century," Jeanean said. They also perform in a variety of other venues such as weddings, private parties, and other period festivals.
Those who frequent the Alexandria Farmers Market on Saturday mornings will recognize Byron Williams, who sells gourd creations and hand-woven baskets there each week.
"I'm at the Farmers' Market every Saturday unless I'm doing a craft show," said Williams of Accokeek. September 13, he'll be doing the craft show at Mount Vernon Estate.
"I try to do most of the colonial craft shows such as the one at Mount Vernon, because my craft is a traditional one." In explaining his craft, Williams said, "once I have the materials gathered and prepared for construction, each basket takes anywhere from two hours to a week to assemble.
"I dye all my own materials for the baskets. I also grow the gourds. That definitely takes longer."
"ADHERENCE TO the standards of 18th-century authenticity,” said Brown, “is one of the major requirements for both artisans and entertainers. We have some of the most qualified people illustrating the history of American crafts and entertainment right here in an 18th century market setting."
Some special highlights of the fair are Silas Moore, otherwise known as "The Rat Catcher," lessons in George Washington's chosen profession of surveying, the Itinerant Band, and the cures of Dr. Balthasar, "Miracle Medicine for Man and Beast."
Other performers include colonial magicians, strolling minstrels and troubadours, an authentic Punch and Judy puppet show, and a wide array of street entertainers that include jugglers, oafs, fortune tellers, fire heaters, and sword swallowers.
Visitors will also meet gunsmiths, candle-makers, a French lace- maker and a variety of other artisans ranging from silversmiths to cabinetmakers. Each was a staple of 18th century life.