From the outside, the Weems-Botts House looks - with good reason - like an old house. Step inside, and it becomes a time machine.
The 256-year-old house - restored and converted into a museum in 1976, a few years after its last resident died - provides a fascinating window into the lives of the people who lived there during the 18th and 19th centuries. Like other historic homes that have been preserved as museums (whether as simple as the Newsome House in Newport News or as expansive as Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County), the Weems-Botts House tells stories to any visitors who care to listen.
A small structure tucked away in a remote corner of the oldest chartered town in Virginia, the Weems-Botts House is named for two men who owned it between 1798-1811. Mason Locke Weems was a surgeon and a parson, but his lasting legacy is the biography he wrote on George Washington, which originated many bits of lore that are still repeated today. Benjamin Botts was a lawyer who served on the defense team that got Aaron Burr acquitted of treason charges in 1807.
Weems used the house as a bookstore, sometimes standing outside and playing the fiddle to draw customers. Botts used it as a law office.
Take a guided tour of the house - a bargain at just $3 for adults, $2 for kids and seniors - and you'll learn all about both men.
A portrait of Weems, not dated but probably close to 200 years old, hangs above the fireplace. Adjacent to it is a framed print of Parson Weems' Fable, a painting by the legendary Grant Wood that depicts the childhood incident involving George Washington and the cherry tree. (The original is currently on display at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.) Upstairs is a small bedroom that includes small portraits of Botts and members of his family.
Just as interesting, though not memorialized in the name of the museum, is the Merchant family, which owned the home from 1869-1968 and was responsible for the addition to the house that doubled its size. The Merchants' melancholy story reveals much about American values and traditions during those 100 years.
The Merchants' older daughter, Mamie, suffered from epilepsy and was kept hidden away in an upstairs bedroom until she died during a seizure in 1906 at age 23. The younger daughter, Violet, had a job and a fiancé but had to leave them both after her father's death, because protocol at the time called for the youngest child to care for her widowed mother. Violet Merchant tended to her mother for a half-century, then lived in the house until her death in 1968.
Described in the pages of a history book, the lives of Mamie and Violet Merchant would be mildly interesting.
But it's engrossing when you hear their stories in the house where they lived; when you see photos of Violet and her parents on the parlor wall; when you see a small doll in a child's rocking chair and realize that these were Violet's playthings; and when you stand in the small upstairs bedroom where Mamie spent almost all of her short life.
That's when Weems-Botts becomes a time machine. The furnishings and décor, while not original to the house, date back to that period. The rooms have a stark, simple look, and when you realize that you're standing on the same wooden floorboards that have been there for two centuries, its past residents - Parson Weems, attorney Botts and the Merchant family - come to life.
After Violet Merchant died, the house fell into disrepair, and in the early 1970s it was on the verge of being donated to the local fire station for a practice fire. Fortunately, some local historians discovered the house's background and persuaded the town of Dumfries to purchase it for renovation.
The back bedroom of the Merchants' residence has been converted into a one-room local history museum, with models, artwork and historical pieces telling the town's story. The museum's office, next door to the house itself, includes an extensive research library for anyone wanting to study the state's or the town's history or to do genealogical exploration. Naturally, the library includes volumes on George Washington.
If the word "museum" conjures up images of the Smithsonian in your mind, or the Virginia Air & Space Center, then the Weems-Botts House will be something different than what you expect.
It is, after all, an old house.
But once you hear the stories contained inside its walls, you won't forget them.
Mike Holtzclaw can be reached at 928-6479 or at email@example.com.
Tips for traveling
A few things to know before you visit the Weems-Botts House:
The house is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, and no reservations are required for tours., but it's best to call a day ahead - just to be sure. Like many "preserved house" museums, it's a small operation and occasionally will be closed for a day even when it's not a holiday.
When you're done touring the house itself, drive a block up the road - past the school - and take a stroll through the local cemetery. After hearing quite a bit about the Merchant family in the house, you'll be able to see their headstones.
Before you go - if you're taking the kids - visit the Web site at timetravelers.org. It's a statewide school program in which students can earn points by visiting museums and historic sites. The staff at the Weems-Botts House can stamp your Time Traveler "passport" so you student gets credit for the visit.
If the weather is nice, take advantage of Merchant Park, on the grounds of the museum. It's not so much a park as it is a nice, spread-out yard. But it's quite pretty and peaceful, and there's a small gazebo that makes an ideal place to sit for a spell. Plan ahead and pick up some drinks and snacks, and you can have a mini-picnic.
Looking for an interesting place to eat on your day trip to Weems-Botts? Barely a mile up Route 1, you can stop in at The Globe and Laurel, a fascinating little pub run by a 30-year Marine Corps veteran. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell frequently eats there, and has written about it in her books. The Marine Corps memorabilia makes the restaurant feel like a museum by itself.
Food and lodging
Eats: The Weems-Botts House is in its own remote corner of Dumfries, but on the way there (or on your way back to the highway), you'll pass several fast-food places. If you're looking for more, the museum's staff can recommend a few casual dining places nearby, including Tiziano's Italian restaurant. For a truly unique experience, grab a bite at The Globe and Laurel.
If you want to spend the night: Depends on which direction you want to go. If you're going to head home in the morning, there are plenty of hotels in Fredericksburg with reasonable rates. If you are heading up toward D.C. or farther north, you can continue up to Northern Virginia, where the hotels cost a bit more.
For information: (703) 221-2218
When someone says "preserved house museum," your first thought isn't "Boy, the kids would love that." But you'd be surprised at how accessible the Weems-Botts House is for school-aged children. The museum does plenty of tours for local schools and scout troops, and the staff is very good at using props and anecdotes to help younger guests understand how life in the 18th and 19th centuries was different from today. A typical tour of the house takes about a half-hour, so it's not overly long for the little ones - plus, the museum has a small (and moderately priced) gift shop with trinkets and keepsakes that the kids will enjoy.
Take I-64 West toward Richmond, and then use I-295 as a bypass before picking up I-95 North (at exit 43A). Get off at exit 152 and veer right onto Route 234. Turn right onto Route 1. After you pass the Town Hall and Community Center (on your left), turn right onto Duke Street. The museum is two blocks up, at the corner of Duke and Cameron streets.
Distance from the Peninsula: About 145 miles
Estimated driving time: With no traffic, you can make it in under 21/2 hours. But beware: The D.C. commuter traffic starts to get heavy around 3 p.m. on weekdays, so your trip home could take a bit longer.
More house museums
Looking for other day trips to other historic house museums? Check out some of these destinations.
Agecroft Hall in Richmond. A preserved house on a larger scale. A 15th-century mansion from Lancashire, England, it was purchased at auction in 1925, then dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic and carefully reassembled in Richmond. The gardens are worth a day trip by themselves. Information: (804) 353-4241 or agecrofthall.com.
Weston Manor in Hopewell. A three-story mansion built in 1789. Much of the original interior has been preserved, and the history of the Gilliam family - who arrived in Virginia as indentured servants and came to own several plantations - offers a fascinating look at the area's history. Information: (804) 458-4682 or historichopewell.org.
Historic Hope Plantation in Windsor, N.C. The restored home of North Carolina Gov. David Stone, who voted for ratification of the state's Constitution in 1789 and was instrumental in the establishment of University of North Carolina. Information: (252) 794-3140 or hopeplantation.org.
About the series
This is a continuing series of stories, running every three weeks, exploring day trips for Hampton Roads residents and families looking for a quick getaway. Each featured destination will be a one- to three-hour drive each way, and each installment of the series will offer complete information on that location as well as similar alternatives in the region.
Up next: On June 18, we check out semi-pro baseball, focusing on Deltaville's boys of summer, the Deltas.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times