Virginia 2015: Fredericksburg Historic Homes

Day 9: Monday, October 12, 2015

Our morning in Fredericksburg started off with a tour of the Hugh Mercer Apothecary. It is restored to the 1771 period, when Hugh Mercer actually lived and worked here before joining the Revolutionary War. Mercer was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (near where some of my relatives lived) and was present at the Battle of Culloden, another place I have visited in my travels.  After living as a fugitive in his homeland, he was able to escape to America, and eventually made his way to the Virginia colony.

Hugh Mercer Apothecary - they didn't allow photos inside

Hugh Mercer Apothecary – they didn’t allow photos inside

An apothecary, if you don’t know, is a pharmacy. The druggist used a combination of proven medicine and folk remedies to treat and heal the sick. As we know now, some treatments worked, some didn’t.

Hugh Mercer owned the shop for 15 years.

Hugh Mercer owned the shop for 15 years.

The docents at the apothecary go full “period” during their tour. By that I mean, they live and breathe their roles as assistants in the centuries old apothecary. The tour starts out with a broad overview of all the various herbs and medicinal substances, from alum for cough to crab’s claw for indigestion and upset stomach. They explained the unpleasant side effects of various treatments, from exhaustion after being bled to all out poisoning from substances we know to be toxic today.

The apothecary’s docents also showed us the surgical side of the business, including several live medicinal leaches, and instruments for extracting teeth, and even doing cataract surgery. Did you know they had cataract surgery dating back to Roman times?! The surgery involved cutting the cataract away from the lens and letting it fall to the bottom of the eyeball. You were already blind by the time you got the surgery, so really, what did you have to lose? Cringe…

Sadly, Hugh Mercer died during the Revolutionary War, so he never did return to his apothecary…

I worried that Jon would be irritated by the period docents, but he listened patiently, and told me afterwards that he found the museum fascinating. I thought it was really well done, and they gave you a lot of information in an engaging way. Sadly, they didn’t allow photos inside, but I would say it is one of the best tours I have been on!

After the apothecary, we headed a couple of blocks over to visit the Mary Washington House. We got there a few minutes late for the tour, but they let us sneak in and then sit in on the beginning of the next one to catch what we missed. The house was the retirement home of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother. He bought the house for her so she could be closer to family – both his brother and sister lived in Fredericksburg.

The Mary Ball Washington House

The Mary Ball Washington House

Mary lived in the home for 17 years, before she finally died of breast cancer; between 1772 and her death in 1789. Interestingly, she was a customer of the apothecary just a few streets away.  The museum doesn’t mention when Mary’s home was built, but it was an existing home when George Washington purchased it, although he did renovate and enlarge it for his mother.

Mary Ball Washington lived here between 1772 and 1789.

Mary Ball Washington lived here between 1772 and 1789.

After Mary died, the home went through a series of owners, and was finally saved by Preservation Virginia in 1889, when there was talk of disassembling the home to ship it to the 1893 World’s Fair. What was up in the Victorian age – why were they so interested in shipping all of their historic buildings to World’s Fairs? Sigh…

At any rate, the home was saved, and visitors can see where Mary lived in the last years of her life. Most of the furnishings are period, but not hers, although they do have her beautiful mirror and some of her dishes. In the back, the original kitchen and slave quarters have been restored as well.

The kitchen of the Mary Ball Washington House - this is an original kitchen.

The kitchen of the Mary Ball Washington House – this is an original kitchen.

This was another tour with period docents, although they didn’t work as hard to remain in period. The Mary Washington House also doesn’t allow photos inside, and like the Hugh Mercer Apothecary they didn’t have postcards of the interior either! That was a disappointment.

After our two historic tours, Jon and I got lunch at a restaurant called Cantiglia’s in downtown Fredericksburg. Jon had a steak salad and I went with the more carb-loaded Chicken Parmesan Sub sandwich. It was sooooo good!



8 thoughts on “Virginia 2015: Fredericksburg Historic Homes

  1. I went to school in Fredericksburg (University of Mary Washington). If you ever find yourself back in The Burg . . . be sure to put a stop at Carl’s Ice Cream (established 1947, it’s on the Nat’l Register of Historic Places) on your list!!

      • Yes. I’m already wondering if I need to do some research on that for an upcoming post. This Christmas we went to a candlelight walk at Lincoln’s New Salem State Park and they had costumed docents in all the log cabins (usually there are only a few). My favorite was the doctor’s house. They had an actual modern day MD who knew all the history, but was also able to make comparisons between the two eras, explaining all the wonderful ways docs back then managed to endanger their patients. Makes me very grateful to live when I do.

  2. The full in-period docent thing can totally backfire, but in my experience, if the people know their stuff, it can be fascinating and really add to the experience. This past summer we visited Fort William near Thunder Bay, Ontario and everyone was strictly in period but it enhanced the experience immensely. Incidentally, the tour spent about 15 minutes at the apothecary and doctor’s office and there were multiple “cringe” incidents.

  3. Pingback: Virginia 2015: Jackson Shrine and Spotsylvania | Wine and History Visited

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