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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for traveling
A few things to know before you visit the Weems-Botts House: