History Not Confined to Museums

History Not Confined to Museums

March 29, 2011 –My finger brushed over one of the many similar pock marks randomly scattered throughout the brick wall in the sitting room. “What are these?” I asked my friend Amanda Lord, who was giving me a tour of the house. “Bullet holes.” “What?!” I exclaimed. “Yeah,” she replied, “They’re from the Civil War. The front section of this house dates back to colonial times, and the back, more modern section was only added on in the past few years.”

Thinking back on that moment, I jokingly refer to it as the time that I “touched history.” It was my first day of a vacation to Fredericksburg, Virginia in late July 2010, to visit my friend Amanda, who had been a housemate of mine before I began attending college. If it weren’t for her, this destination would have had little appeal. Fredericksburg, plagued by humidity for a large portion of the year, is mainly a commuter town since a large portion of its inhabitants work in the Washington DC area. The appeal of the town as a travel destination lies mostly in its history, although there are hidden gems throughout the town that have nothing to do with its historical significance.

Originally I had planned to spend much of the two weeks of vacation time outside F-burg, as it is affectionately referred to by the locals, but the downtown area that surrounded the house I stayed at begged to be explored. Fredericksburg, located approximately an hour south of D.C. dates back to colonial times, and also has significant historical ties to the Civil War, including battlefields near its downtown district. One of my first encounters with its history happened while walking back from Hyperion Espresso after a coffee run. I happened to casually glance at a beautifully constructed house to my right, and read the sign posted in the front which read, “Mary Washington’s House.” The fact that George Washington’s moms’ house was a few yards down from a tire shop, and was on the route to getting coffee was a new experience to a Californian, used to “old” buildings being up to one hundred years old, not dating back to the founding of the U.S.

Not everything that Fredericksburg has to offer would only appeal to someone interested in historical sites. For example, a journey through downtown should begin at Hyperion Espresso and conclude with Carl’s ice cream. Those used to the loud, obnoxious music and noise at Starbucks will be pleased to find that the large lounge area at Hyperion is separate from the area where orders are taken and filled. Hyperion does not skimp on selection, offering everything from frozen coffee drinks, to smoothies and tea. They also offer “granitas,” a Sicilian semi-frozen desert that’s similar to Italian ice and sorbet.

As for Carl’s ice cream, you’ll feel as if you’ve taken a step back to the ‘50s with the retro-drive up atmosphere. Amanda quipped, “It’s the place to be on a Friday night in Fredericksburg for those who aren’t nightclub yuppies.” The menu has three types of flavors:  vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but the limited amount of flavors does not mean that anyone will be bored with the taste of their ice-cream. After one taste, which melts in your mouth, it was clear that there is no exaggeration that Carl’s ice cream is one of the best ice cream shops in the country.

Exploring the downtown area was a unique experience, since as much as possible, Amanda and I tried to avoid tourist traps. There is an endless supply of trinket and novelty shops, but hidden beneath the veneer of these stores are some true gems. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and used book stores should all be explored in depth. Unlike west coast thrift stores, there is an abundance of civil and colonial reenactment clothing in Fredericksburg’s stores. “Suzy Q’s” and “Re-run” are two of many consignment shops in the F-burg area, since it has become a fad since the beginning of the recession to shop and sell clothes through consignment.

The book stores are full of items not commonly found in other parts of the U.S., including newspapers and books dating to the 1800’s. One unique item I stumbled upon was a newspaper cartoon from the turn of the century, featuring blackface characters, the-n word, and an explicitly racist message. It had to be wondered whether a west coast state, further removed from the cultural impact of slavery and the civil war, would dare to sell that sort of item. Artifacts like the cartoon illustrate that despite the decades that have passed, it is easy enough to find the fingerprint that history leaves on towns like Fredericksburg that have been involved in war or other divisive conflicts.

Lisa Twigg, junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has lived in the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area for thirteen years, said that while those from Washington D.C. and other cities north of F-burg might think of it as a hick town, “the people who live in Fredericksburg, if they are true locals, not transients, respect and take pride in the history that occurred” here and shaped it into a dynamic town.

Some of the most famous sites in the town that helped make it “dynamic” aren’t the battlefields, but the mansions dating to colonial times. The Kenmore plantation, built by George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis and her husband, Fielding Lewis, exemplifies the architecture of affluent homes in the colonial period and is open to the public (see sidebar for an upcoming event at Kenmore). As mentioned earlier, Fredericksburg is also home to Mary Washington’s house, which was purchased by her son and first President, George. Tours are available throughout the year for those curious to see the inside of a downtown, 18th century colonial house, located near the site of the college named Mary – University of Mary Washington.

While Washington D.C. boasts some of the most famous monuments and buildings in the U.S., Fredericksburg’s history, that stretches back to the times of the first European settlers offers a variety of lesser-known sites and events. Any visit to Washington D.C. should include side-trips to the different cities in Virginia – Most especially the little town of “F-burg” one hour south of our Capitol.