We met Dean in front of the Mount Vernon Inn and drove through the property in a large van with a couple additional vehicles trailing behind. Right near the Inn was the main visitor entrance which is a large gate called the Texas Gate. The gate was installed in 1899 with donations from Texas school children. Where the gate is located now was the end of the trolley line, and the original station is now part of the Mount Vernon Inn. It was popular for people to travel there on the trolley to buy eggs and fresh produce which were sold in the area. We then passed the original firehouse. Mount Vernon had been visited by Henry Ford in 1923, and he was impressed with the property except he felt that they did not have appropriate fire suppression. He supplied a fire engine which was upgraded in 1936 and was used for many years even up until the point that Dean started working there – 1969.
Our first stop was at the West Gate which was the original entrance. From the gate you have a view to the mansion house which is a mile away. The drive to the house was not direct but wove into the forest and out to clearings showing glimpses of the house as visitors approached. Dean described how Washington wanted to only use living hedges, grown from hawthorn, blackberry, and other prickly shrubs, to separate areas or keep out livestock. He would also use fallen timbers but did not wish to cut live trees. The current forest is 100-120 years old, so not from Washington’s time. From numerous large storms trees have been lost – many in the 1920s. They are currently battling the deer who eat all the new saplings or acorns and so there is little regeneration of the forest. Dean also stated that many of the fields which Washington used were also protected by ditches which were dug by his slaves.
Dean then led us into the center part of the circular drive where he explained that many of the current trees were not there originally. Washington was a student of Batty Langley who taught the Naturalistic movement which was a change from the formal gardens of Europe. He recommended placing trees so that a stroll outside always had some amount of shade. Washington would gather seeds from the trees on the property and plant them among a serpentine path up to the house. For more information on this Dean recommended Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wolf. There are a few original trees still on the property near where we were standing - two Tulip Poplars and a Hemlock. These are expected to die soon in which case the area will look more like it was at Washington’s time with less mature trees.