Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Historical Pilgrimage

This past weekend, Howell Farm’s three interns and I made our pilgrimage to the Vatican of American living history, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

The instigator of our journey was Intern Matt. He heard through the grapevine that a historical farming apprenticeship is opening at Great Hopes Plantation (Colonial Williamsburg’s farm) and he wanted to put some boots on the ground in order investigate the career opportunity.

I volunteered to drive for some reason, and the other interns soon decided they wanted to go, so on Friday afternoon we set off in my 1993 Toyota Camry that has no air-conditioning and only three windows that will open.

The drive down was a windy yet hot affair, as the temperature on Friday topped out at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Driving on Interstate 95 for six hours with the windows down also exposes one to a significant dose of fumes. After a couple hundred miles of travel, the conversation in the car finally reached its peak absurdity, culminating in a debate over “If zombies attacked Howell Farm, who would you want to be stuck with as you tried to survive?” I said Blaze, the ancient horse, because he already moves like a zombie and I’d be able to ride away on his back unnoticed.

Things I enjoyed in Williamsburg:

- Watching “The Story of a Patriot,” the 36-minute video screened regularly in the air-conditioned visitors center. According to our guide, it’s the longest running motion picture in motion picture history, shown daily since 1957. The film was produced way back then by Paramount Pictures, and it was well done in the way that old movies often are. After viewing the film, I can report that I was both much more eager to visit town and much more sympathetic to the British Loyalist viewpoint. I was reminded of Howard Zinn’s claim in “A People’s History of The United States” that the average standard of living in the American colonies before the Revolution was the best in the world.

- Visiting Great Hopes Plantation, where they farm like it’s still 1770. This is the place where Matt is considering applying for an apprenticeship, so we all got a behind-the-scenes tour from Ed, one of the farmers. At Great Hopes, the most important crop is tobacco, just as it would have been during the 1700s. Tiny green tobacco worms are a big threat, and each of hundreds of tobacco plants must be hand-inspected, since they didn’t use pesticides during that era. Each crop must also be cultivated and hilled with a simple hoe. This visit made farming with horses feel like a futuristic luxury.

Something Ed said that I thought was interesting was that Williamsburg in the 1700s was already a mature economy, meaning that its inhabitants imported many of the goods they needed rather than spend the time and effort to produce them at home. The value of self-sufficiency is a frequent topic of conversation at Howell Farm, and I was interested to learn that even Americans in the 18th-century found that it made more sense to buy on the world markets than weave their own clothes. Ed said that with enough money and time, a person in 1770s Williamsburg could get any product in the entire world shipped to them.

- Talking with the tradesmen. I’m not totally enthralled with old-time wagon wheel making and brick firing in quite the same way interns Matt and Peter are, but it was still impressive to hear the masters of these bygone trades talk with great knowledge and passion about their vocations.

- Eating at The King’s Arms Tavern. I recommend the Tavern Sampler, $12.95. If you get a beer at Chowning’s Tavern, go with the Liebotschaner Cream Ale.

- Visiting the Governor’s Palace, one-time home of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. It’s a huge building with lots of cool stuff inside, including hundreds of swords and rifles hanging on the entrance room walls.