Especially when made real – thanks to the efforts of those dedicated souls whose mission it is to preserve the stories and artifacts of our distant past.
Last weekend, I attended a fund-raiser at “Happy Retreat”, the historic home built in 1780 by George Washington’s brother, Charles — and it dawned on me.
I live in a region that is literally steeped in early American history.
So why have I explored so little of the vast, historical wealth that is practically in my own backyard? Think of all those stories!
Complacency may be partly to blame.
It’s very easy to blindly pass ornate buildings and busy, public squares in a blur of daily scenery. How many times have I ignored the metal-engraved plaques dotting a roadside or attached to a brick-faced boutique?
Maybe familiarity breeds immunity (instead of contempt), such that it becomes easy to take things for granted, like the former New Yorker who lived a short 90 miles from Manhattan yet never once visited the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or any other monument that draws visitors from all around the world – yes, I mean me. It wasn’t until I moved to West Virginia that I became inspired to visit New York City and act like a tourist.
After visiting Happy Retreat, I felt a bit – spoiled I guess – for living in such a historically rich area that’s been right under my nose for nearly two decades, hiding in plain sight, yet invisible to eyes that were too busy looking elsewhere, or just plain too-busy.
But not last Saturday. My eyes were wide open.
I tried to imagine myself in that exact same spot, as if I had been transported back to the mid-1780’s.
I had to carefully listen for those earlier, bygone voices, to see ghostly images of workers in the fields, carriages arriving by a clatter of hoof-steps, women dressed in voluminous hoop skirts, and a center hall where servants removed outer wraps to a nearby cloak room.
Of course my effort was made even more difficult due to all the jubilant sounds of Happy Retreat’s Craft Beer and Music Festival going on all around me!
It was a beautiful September day and we had all the ‘fixings’ – friends, laughter, history, food, music, and beer!
So why is Happy Retreat such a big deal? It all started with his brother, George Washington, the first president of the United States of America.
It is a well-known fact of history that George Washington had spent the early part of his life as a land surveyor.
In 1748, when George was only 16 years old, he had surveyed what is now the eastern panhandle of West Virginia and declared the region “rich and furtile all ye way”.
By the time George had turned 20, he had purchased more than 2300 acres for himself – and encouraged his brothers to do likewise.
Thus, we have George Washington and his brother, Charles, to thank for our current, modern-day streets of Charles Town, for it was Charles who had granted the 80 acres of land to build a town and who also named the streets after members of his illustrious family. Charles Town was born in 1786.
But as Charles Town grew and flourished, Happy Retreat suffered a fate similar to those of other historic sites.
Over the course of time, the property changed owners and the once thriving estate was whittled away to its current 12.3 acres upon which the aged house and outbuildings have fallen into serious disrepair.
However, thanks to the “Friends of Happy Retreat”, a non-profit organized in 2006, they partnered with the City of Charles Town and purchased the remaining Happy Retreat estate to preserve its heritage, and revitalize it for public use.
And earlier this year (2016), the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Happy Retreat a National Treasure.
So the September 10th fund-raiser, “The Happy Retreat Craft Beer & Music Festival”, was a momentous occasion – and in my opinion, a rousing success too.
The festival featured four regional bands that filled the air with music while twenty craft brewers stood ready to pour samples from about forty different drafts of beer. Doug, a home-brewer himself, was more than ready to show his support.
There were also excellent food vendors offering things like wood-fired oven pizza, pork barbecue, and Caribbean-style chicken.
It was heart-warming to see several hundred people, all with good cheer, enjoying themselves at an event so very close to home.
Even though the sun had been especially hot that day, no one seemed to mind. The Festival planners setup plenty of tables and chairs beneath a giant domed tent, which provided a shady reprieve from the heat.
However, as I swiped perspiration from my brow, I wondered what life would have been like without the modern comforts of air conditioning, compounded by heavy layers of 18th century, required clothing.
Until I stood at the open window in the center hall of Happy Retreat. Those early builders certainly knew what they were doing when they chose a location for the house.
From its elevated position on a gently, sloping hill, Happy Retreat overlooks the village streets of Charles Town arrayed below, while enjoying a steady, cooling breeze from under the protection of towering shade trees, advantageously standing sentinel at the house’s perimeter.
I briefly toured the house, which is still mostly closed to the public since it is undergoing renovations, but I saw enough to evoke my imagination and feel the presence of history.
And that’s just the start.
I found this display in Happy Retreat’s center room. It’s the family tree of several Washington homes, all located here, within a few short miles.
Perhaps it’s time to become a tourist again, in my own home town.