Well over 40 years ago, the director at Gunston Hall Plantation asked some members of the Washington, D.C. chapter of The Junior League if they’d be willing to help give tours. Those members decided that the historic home was too far away. The members of the Alexandria chapter, however, decided that it was of interest of them. One of those members was Effie Dunston.
“The whole thing was very informal. We all got along and were good friends,” said Dunston, who was one of about a dozen volunteers to be trained as docents some 40 years ago.
“We were trained in the library room and given several books to read,” Dunston said.
While she no longer gives tours, she was at this week’s luncheon.
“The whole place has been transformed. They can take care of a great many more visitors,” Dunston said. “Nobody could have foreseen this.”
With Dunston was fellow docent Muggs Shutler. “[Dunston] used to give tours in Alexandria. She was an architect and a lawyer.”
Shutler is a novice—she’s only been a docent for 25 years. The number of years in service varies for the other docents. Several have been doing it for a long time, but new people are signing up all the time. Diane Altenburg, chair of the Gunston Hall Docent Association, said that they currently have almost 75 docents, the largest number ever. She said that docents serve as tour guides, interpreters, cooks and keepers of the herb garden.
“I’ve been a docent for 10 years. I love giving tours—it’s a great bunch of people here,” Altenburg said.
MANY OF THOSE 75 DOCENTS were on hand for the annual Docent Luncheon that was held in Gunston Hall’s banquet room. Greeting the crowd was David L. Reese, executive director of Gunston Hall.
“I’m still on a high from all the events,” Reese said. “We had almost a thousand people at last week’s event. It’s tough to do, but wonderful when it’s over. We couldn’t do it without you. It’s a great pleasure to have you aboard.”
The event he was talking about was the Plantation Christmas Holiday Buffet, a popular Yuletide meal that was held last weekend. Docent Jacqueline Kennedy said that she usually does two tours a month, but was at Gunston six times just this past week.
“I love giving tours, I love the history,” she said.
Kennedy lives in nearby Mason Neck, but was sitting with a docent who recently moved to Fredericksburg and still continues to volunteer at Gunston. Kennedy said that she knows of a docent who travels from West Virginia, and several others who come from the Centreville, Va., area.
ALTENBURG ORCHESTRATED THE MEETING, applauding the 10 new volunteers who were recently trained in hearth cooking and taking care of other business. She then introduced the speaker, Susan Zickel, a Martha Washington interpreter. Before settling into her seat, Zickler, in character as Washington, had the men -- there were about half a dozen -- stand up and instructed them in the art of introduction. She then did the same with the women.
Then, maintaining perfect character, she answered in turn the audience’s questions about how she met Washington; how her children took to him; what her youth and education was like; her favorite dishes; whether or not she had occasion to walk the grounds and enjoy the natural beauty of Mount Vernon; whether or not she attends church services; and how often she gets into Alexandria.
After the presentation, the guests enjoyed wine and a lunch. Norma McMorrow, Judith Mandrgoc and Chris Wise came as guests of one of the docents. Mandrgoc said, “They made us feel so welcome.” While she is not ready to become a docent now, she is thinking about it.
“I’ve been here before with my friend, Charlene Little. There’s no question that I will consider this in the future. This is our community, our neighborhood.”
Altenburg said that they will hold training for new docents in the spring, and said to call Mary Kay Ruwe @ 703-281-1962 if anybody is interested in joining.
<pc>Photo by Gale Curcio/Gazette
<cl>While Gunston Hall itself is decorated moderately in keeping with holiday customs, the banquet hall is festively decorated for parties and special occasions.
<ro>More Holiday Events
<1st>CANDLELIGHT MANSION TOURS
Friday, December 10, 5-8 p.m.
Visit George Mason’s home made ready to welcome guests to an 18th-century holiday party. Enjoy the elaborately-carved formal rooms seen in flickering candlelight. Complimentary light refreshments. $9 adults, $8 seniors, $4 ages 6 - 18, free for children under age 6. Reserved groups of 10 or more: $8 adults, $7 seniors.