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June 2008

In Our Own Backyard
Step Back in Time to a Simpler Life
Claude Moore Colonial Farm

By Michele Bush Kimball

Somewhere beyond the trees in McLean, it is still 1771.

A visit to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm brought our family close to what it must have felt like on an average 18th-century day. (We just ignored the jets flying overhead on approach to the airport.)

A family works the farm just as they would have in the colonial period. Visitors have the chance to wander among the fields and into the buildings to watch the work and talk about life in that era. It is a poor working farm, which puts it in fascinating contrast to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a more prosperous farm of the time.

Visitors take themselves on a self-guided walking tour, which is perfect for energetic and active kids like Joey, 5, and Gracie, 3. The farm, located off Georgetown Pike, is open from April through mid-December.

As we wandered onto the dirt path toward the grounds of the farm, we heard a surprisingly loud animal call. I identified it right away, but I thought it would be a fun adventure for the kids to try to figure out what it was.

“What do you hear?” I asked.

“A coyote!” “A dog!” Joey and Gracie yelled out simultaneously.

We followed the sound to a clearing with an old tobacco house that was used for drying tobacco and storing crops. The mystery sound was emanating from behind the house. Gingerly, Joey and Gracie crept around to the back.

Beyond a row of wattle fencing was a large pen holding three enormous birds.

“Flamingos!” Gracie announced.

Joey, exasperated, said, “No, Gracie, those are not flamingos. Mom, they are peacocks.”

They were turkeys. Note to self: We need to bone up on our birds!

The turkeys were an essential part of the colonial farm. They were herded through the tobacco fields as living pesticides; they ate hornworms that had the potential to destroy an entire crop, something the three of us did not know until we explored the farm.

From the turkey pen, we strode by a hog resting in his pen and some very vocal geese in another pen across the road. On the day we visited, a weekday afternoon, there was just one other family touring the grounds. The silence and solitude added to the feeling of going back to a simpler time.

We followed the path up a short hill and saw a one-room log building in the distance. This simple structure served as the bedroom, kitchen, dining room and storehouse, all in one. As we arrived, two sisters were washing up from a lunch of egg pie. After taking time to adjust from their initial shyness, Joey and Gracie took the sisters up on their offer to learn to wash dishes the old-fashioned way – in the yard, in a bucket, with a loofah.

While they were washing the dishes, Joey and Gracie noticed a chicken coop tucked behind the house. They dashed over to visit with the hens and rooster, and then went back to their washing.
The pens and the home were both coated in a glistening, sticky covering of pine pitch, which naturally waterproofs the structures. The kids gently touched the sticky residue, amazed at the texture and color.

As the sisters began to put away the lunch dishes, Joey and Gracie were right on their heels. They found a stockpile of toys in the corner and began to ask question after question about where the toys came from and how they worked. It seems the universal shyness alleviator is a pile of toys.

First, they played darts. They hung a ring – left from a cask – on a tree. The darts were corncobs with feather tails. They threw the corncobs through the ring to earn points.
The next activity was playing with cornhusk dolls dressed in scraps of fabric. Joey and Gracie searched through the piles to find dolls that looked somewhat like themselves, then acted out stories.
Last, they learned to play marbles on the dirt floor of the cabin. The marbles were formed from clay set into the embers of the fire to harden.

Joey and Gracie seemed to be adjusting well to 1771. The toys enchanted them, the chores kept them busy, and the size of the farmhouse was a perfect fit – with enough room for all the essentials.

Joey, who has been battling a love-hate relationship with bugs, noticed that the only window in the farmhouse had no screens. As he sat on a bench, gazing out of the window, chin in his palm, he asked one of the sisters, a bit apprehensively, what to do about the potential problem of bugs coming in the house. She told him it was just a part of life and that they were used to it.
He thought for a moment, still gazing at the kitchen garden just outside the window.

“If a butterfly comes in, that would be really nice,” Joey said. “Let him in.”

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer based in Springfield and a stay-at-home mom of two: Joey, 5, and Gracie, 3.

Things to know before you visit Claude Moore Colonial Farm:

Location: 6310 Georgetown Pike, McLean, Va.
Hours: From April through December, the farm is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.
Cost: $3 for adults; $2 for senior citizens and children ages 3 to 12. Cost may differ on special event days.
Parking: Free.
Food: The gift shop sells a few snacks and bottled water.
Phone: 703-442-7557
Handicap & Stroller Accessible: Yes

Special Events

There is much to learn on the farm.  On the average day, visitors can steep themselves in colonial farm life.  However, throughout the open season, the farm also offers special events and workshops. 

June 7: Demonstration on using herbal remedies to heal ailments.
June 10: Workshop on dancing.
June 14-15: Overnight Colonial Living Experience. Stay at the farm and immerse yourself in 18th-century life. Wear period clothes, sleep in cotton tents and cook traditional meals.
June 21: Demonstration on harvesting wheat.
July 19 and 20: 18th-Century Market Fair showcasing traditional crafts, food and music. Weather permitting.