Colonial Williamsburg

A living history park

Williamsburg, VA.

October 26 - November 2, 1999

"So, what is the most significant historical preservation in this great country?" This question came back to me over and over again as I looked at the pile of crumpled paper in the wastebasket. I normally just bang out a line of prose, diving into a subject with little thought of where I am going or where I will end up, but this was different. Colonial Williamsburg was the most sprawling and complex historical presentation I had ever experienced. Its 173 acres with its 88 original 18th century buildings, among its 400 some odd structures, created an unparalleled experience. With literally thousands of employees, a carefully choreographed format unveils before the unsuspecting visitor. It all started routinely enough, with a visit to the public relations manager of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Lorraine Brooks was an energetic woman who's warm smile discharged any feeling of formality associated with such necessities. Our candid conversation, as she piled up a stack of press releases, was the first indication that behind this enterprise was something special. Later, as I perused the Foundations August/September Journal, I noted Chief Executive Officer Robert C. Wilburn's comments about a three point mission. Of equal importance is the preservation, presentation and institutional strength. As I would travel through the park over the next several days, I would see each of these points in action. Following Lorraine's suggestion, we proceeded to the visitor's center. There is a $5 fee for those who don't buy one of the three tier tickets. Inside we were entertained by the short movie "The Story of a Patriot" starring Jack Lord of Hawaii 5-0 fame. The show, which has been running for some 40 years now, is believed to have been seen by over 32 million people making it a major contender for the most seen motion picture of all times. The film and the park are both set in the time leading up to the Revolutionary War. The calendar of events page on the inside of the "Visitor's Companion", free at the center, will advise of the actual date being portrayed at the park for that day. The dates change daily. On this particular day it was April 29, 1775, several days after the "shot heard round the world", was fired in Lexington, Ma. The publication, in addition to a complete schedule of events in the park, has a large centerfold map of the area. Although the streets of Colonial Williamsburg are still part of the city, and as such are open to the public at no cost. Vehicle traffic is prohibited during the daytime, and parking in the area is just about impossible. We left our car at the visitor's center and rode the Red Line bus which connects the visitor's center to the park. The Blue Line bus will then take you to all the various attractions around the area. There is no charge for the bus ride. The price of admission is in line with other major theme parks. From the drop-off point on the Red Line, we walked up a short path to where we met Betty Oliver who was our guide for the "orientation walk". This is a great help as it acquainted us with the ins and outs of the area. She told us that Williamsburg had a population of around 2000 people at the time of the Revolution. Betty further explained that as the Colony was still under British rule at the time, small British flags have been placed in front of each building where entrance requires an admission pass. There were a lot of flags. Betty continued the introduction as we wandered down the Palace Green toward the Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg, named for King William III of England, became the colonial seat after it was moved from Jamestown. It would remain the center of Virginia government until Thomas Jefferson, serving as the second governor after the Revolution, moved the Capitol to Richmond in 1780. The town fell into obscurity after the Capitol was moved; and by the end of the Great Depression of the 1920s the old section had been reduced to not much more then a run down shanty-town. In 1926 the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, pastor of the Bruton Parish Church formalized a dream he had nurtured for decades. The restoration of Williamsburg as a historical showplace. For this he would need strength, dedication and literally millions of dollars. No easy task coming at the end of the greatest depression in the country's history. It would take someone with extraordinary determination, and wealth. That man was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The two men would form a bond which would see thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars poured into an aggressive program to preserve, restore, or re-create an entire 18th century town. Their efforts would eventually take the form of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who today continues those original goals and more, having acquired all but one house within the historic district. Having completed the orientation walk, we continued down the Duke of Gloucester Street to our first British Flag in front of the original arsenal and magazine building. The magazine was erected in 1715 to store the arms and ammunition dispatched from London for the defense of the colony. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood requested the construction, personally advanced the necessary funds and may have provided the unusual octagonal design for the building which supported military operations as far west as the Ohio Valley. The building played a prominent position during the Revolutionary period when, in the early morning hours of April 21, 1775, a week after the battle of Lexington and Concord, British Sailors and Marines from the H.M.S. Magdalen, secretly removed most of the gunpowder from the building but were discovered by the night watchman as they made their escape. The royal governor, Lord Dunmore had ordered the removal hoping to prevent open rebellion in Virginia. Instead his action pushed enraged Virginians to the brink of war. Williamsburg's citizens and the city fathers marched on the governor's palace to petition for the powder's return but Dunmore refused. Twelve days later Patrick Henry lead a 150 man armed volunteer company to the outskirts of the town, demanding the return of the powder. Dunmore relented by paying some 300 Pounds for the powder. This defused the incident but the spark of rebellion continued to burn brightly and in early June, Dunmore moved himself and his family onto a British ship moored in the York River. He would never return. We continued our stroll toward the Capitol, stopping at the wig shop to talk to Mistress Lyons as she finished up a powdered white wig. When I turned down her offer for a new wig, in her best British accent, she offered Russian bear grease guaranteed to make my own hair grow. The sale fell through when she found out I didn't have English Pounds to pay with. At the Capitol we met the distinguished Thomas Nelson, a prominent merchant in town who had taken the afternoon off to show us around the Capitol. We stopped by the House of Burgesses, the oldest governing body in America. Made up of two representatives for each of the eight surrounding towns, it first met in 1619. Such historic figures as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson were representatives. Although it served at the whim of the Governor, the House of Burgesses was charged with regulating those things found necessary that were not of concern to the British Crown. It formed the nucleus of the State Government once independence was declared. Mr. Nelson also showed us the colonial courtroom where the most serious of crimes, such as murder and treason were tried. Williamsburg also had a City Government and its own courthouse which heard the lesser cases such as fighting and petty thefts. In departing the Capitol building we stopped by a minstrel show and listened to the songs of the time. This was part of the continuing activities that abounded about us. It gave the entire area a feeling of reality. The only element that kept me from falling into the moment was the massive amount of tourists that were everywhere. Outside the courtyard, the Williamsburg militia was encamped. Corporal Hector had the picket duty for the day, and we quickly engaged into conversation over the advantage of different kinds of muskets. In making his point, he loaded up the musket he was carrying, demonstrating each component, as he tore open a paper cartridge wrapper with his teeth, then poured the power in the barrel before he primed the gun. With a thunderous bang and cloud of white smoke, he fired the musket down range.

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