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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Scariest House in America

Historic travel girl has been in some pretty scary houses in her time. The house she grew up in, where the cabinet doors were always open in the morning and sometimes the piano played at night (Seriously. It's Halloween, folks, not April Fool's). Then there was the second place my husband and I renovated, where a young guest said he didn't want to visit us any more because there was a mad little boy in the back bedroom and he didn't want to see him again. (It was just as well, as I thought that said young guest was a brat, and I was already trying to figure out how to never invite his parents again. Thanks, mad little ghost boy).

The third place we renovated, and then rented out, wasn't scary to me, but I did receive a call from my cleaner in 2008 to tell me that our departing guests felt a departed guest and her "female presence" in the yellow bedroom. The cleaner then asked me what I wanted her to do (???!!!). I told her to run the vaccuum cleaner extra long in that room--if something/someone was in there, and she/it wasn't paying rent, it/she needed to go. I'm not sure if our cleaner did this or not...but I have looked diligently for a presence, and the only presence I felt in the room was after my husband had a seriously gassy night.

But despite a long history of houses that make your arm hairs stand up, I must admit that the scariest house I ever visited was....*frightening pause here in the background music*....the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose ( *clap of thunder* *photo turns to black and white then back to color then back to black and white again*.

Enough with the fancy visual effects. Here's the story on the house.

In 1884, Sarah L. Winchester began building a home. She had plenty of money to do it, as she was a widow and the sole heir to the Winchester gun fortune. Somehow, maybe it was all the sawdust from the building project (lord knows that can make me batty after a week or two), or the opium that they used to prescribe back then, but the widow Winchester got the idea that the ghosts of all of the Indians that had been killed by her family's guns were conspiring to haunt her.

If that's not nutty enough, she then got the idea that she could build a house that was so confusing, so messed up, and so utterly ridiculous that even the most persistent ghost would hang it up and go float around in an uncomplicated two-bedroom flat in town...just because it was easier to get around.

AND...get this woman a case of multi-vitamin valium, stat...some fortune teller told her that she would die as soon as she finished building the house. And Miss Sarah believed her.

So, wacky widow Winchester set the boys to building. They kept going for another 38 years.

What would a contractor do for 38 years? Well, if it's one of the contractors that I've worked with, they might spend half of that time smoking on the porch and waiting for the kitchen cabinets to be delivered from Home Depot. But her contractors were more savvy. They built staircases that went nowhere (they literally disappear into the ceiling). They put in doors that opened directly to the outside, where you would plunge to your death if you snuck off the tour and decided to explore things on your own. They made teeny-tiny rooms that no one could even stand in.

They weren't lazy. During that 38 years, they built or installed: 1,257 windows, 950 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, 52 skylights, 6 kitchens, and 2 ballrooms. I guess the lady wasn't much for dancing.

The tour of the house is as fascinating as it is frightening: there are 160 rooms, and it doesn't take long before you're completely turned around and you have no idea where you came from. It is very easy to lose your bearings and get completely lost.

But be careful and stay with the group ...because if you're lost, imagine how lost and angry the ghosts must be. *lightning crackle* Bwaaa haaa haaaa.......

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Travels with Grandma: She's old and she doesn't know what she's doing

I didn't expect to write another blog about Grandma this soon, but she's coming home from Texas on Saturday (the lady is a travelin' fool) and she's on my mind.

We went to Winterthur together ( in the fall a couple of years ago. It was just me, the hub, and Grandma.

Winterthur is the Delaware country estate (although it's not really in the country anymore) of Henry Francis duPont (1880-1969).

You may have heard of the duPonts, and their problems with mental illness (like John? The one who killed the Olympic wrestler about ten years ago? Yup: he's from the clan). That sort of thing often comes with scads of money, which is why I'm so glad that I'm not in that position. Although scads of money would buy quite a bit of psychotherapy. And a really good lawyer, if needed.

Anyway, speaking of mental illness, Henry Francis was a little nutty in his own way. Right after he marries Ruth Wales in 1916, he gets a hankering for American antiques. A lot of antiques. There were/are 85,000 items that were either used or made from 1640 to 1860 in the house. And not just little things, like a china bowl here or a spinning wheel there. He buys, like, whole rooms. Seriously. For instance, one day he learns that some history hating developer (yes, they were around even back then) is tearing down an old house in Chestertown, Maryland, so HFdP buys the house and then reconstructs the living room in his own house (he more than doubled the size of his house during his lifetime. You can't even see the whole house on one tour--you have to take about four different tours to see all the rooms). So he's got the paneling, the window surrounds, and an amazing fireplace that were made in the 1700's all in his growing estate.

This is what else money can do: HFdP fell for some Chinese, hand-painted wallpaper from the 1700's, so he built a room just so he could wallpaper it and show off his latest acquisition. HTG generally starts with the room, and then I buy stuff to put inside it. That always made sense to me, but I guess things are different when you only buy things if you can use a 20% off coupon from Bed, Bath and Beyond (

Henry Francis didn't even live in most of the rooms; he considered them a museum from the get-go. I'm sure that wasn't a lot of fun for his two daughters, but there was plenty of room to play around in even without access to Daddy's "museum" rooms.

One place I'm sure they hung out was the mansion's gorgeous grounds ( As I said, we went in the fall, and the dropping leaves were still pretty colors as we walked around the fountains and bricked patios. It was the end of the day, and everyone was gone.

As we're walking through the gardens, Grandma decides to pick a flower and stick it in her hair. Now, there are tons of signs everywhere that say "Do not pick the flowers". Tons. In fact, she had tried to pick a flower earlier in our walk, and I had stopped her (I'm a little weird about following directions). Besides, I have seen some of these historic home museum security guys, and they're big knots of anger in a uniform--furious because they lost out on that neat mall cop job. They are just the type to whack a little Italian lady with a karate chop to the neck, then take her tiny lifeless body to the pokey like some kind of prize.

So I tell her, " can't pick the flowers. What are you going to do if someone catches you?"

She looked right at me and said, "I'll tell them that I'm old and I don't know what I'm doing." She said it so seriously, as if she had been plotting this out for some time now. She pulled the age card on me, and I had nothing to come back with.

Our entire family uses that excuse all the time now, whether the speaker is seven or seventy. And Grandma always laughs when she hears us, because she knows that she owns that phrase. She sounds a little crazy when she laughs like that.

Crazy like the duPonts. Maybe it was something in the water up there.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Travels with Grandma: Falling for George

My hub's grandmother turned 95 in August (that's her right there, next to my husband. He's not seven feet tall; she's just really really short).

It's a big deal, turning 95. Many of Grandma's friends and family members celebrated this landmark by showering her with gift certificates to CVS, Walgreen's, Giant Supermarket, Carrabba's and Cracker Barrel. Which only proves that, once you've hit your mid-90's, folks think that your entire life revolves around taking medicine and trying to choke down another meal.

In the case of our Grandma, however, life is more than medicating and masticating. Grandma loves to travel. And the hub and I like to help her.

We've been taking her on smallish vacations since she was a young pup of 83. Places we could drive to--like Annapolis (MD), Harper's Ferry (WV), St. Mary's on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Winterthur Estate (DE), and Luray Caverns (VA), where Grandma kept asking us if it was one of the seven wonders of the world. It is a pretty cool feeling to show someone in her 80's something that's more impressive than almost anything she's ever seen.

Now, if you're looking at that list and saying "Gee, HTG, that sounds like a list of places you and the hub would like to go anyway", well, you are insane. Totally bananas. Keep your crazy thoughts to yourself, please. And, anyway, the people who buy Grandma gift certificates to restaurants expect her to take them with her when she uses it. So don't you try to make me feel bad.

ANYWAY, last year we went to Mount Vernon, Geo Washington's snazzy digs. It was pret-ty, pret-ty nice, with a cool view of the Potomac River (who doesn't love a president who loves the water?). Over one million people tramp through that house every year, more than any other president's house, save the White House, which isn't so much the president's house as it is a really nice rental.

Here's the thing about Mount Vernon that I loved the most: it had fallen into ruin in the mid-1800's under the unwatchful eye of George's great-great nephew John Augustine Washington, Jr. (Note to my own nephews, who are presently in line to inherit our vast real estate holdings: if you let my beautiful house fall into disrepair, I will haunt you from every rafter and torment you from every corner).

Enter Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1853, who got her bustle in a tussle over the fact that such an important site in our national history was so poorly cared for. Ann Pamela called on her rich friends and raised enough money to buy the estate (although records indicate that even then John Augustine was doubtful that a woman could handle it properly. As if he could. Sheesh.)

Ann Pamela and her friends, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, bought the property and set about restoring it. They still own it today, and take care of it for the American people. They do a great job; as you can see from the photos, it's simply beautiful.

I suggest you swing by if you're close to DC. And take your grandmother.

One other note: if history makes you hungry, plan to stop at Dixie Bones BBQ in nearby Woodbridge, VA (13440 Occoquan Road, Don't let the strip mall location put you off: the pulled pork will have you singing Sweet Home Alabama after two bites.

The meat comes dry and there are three amazing sauces to customize your dining experience. Get the platter and plunk down two quarters (there's George again, in profile!) to upgrade to cornbread instead of a roll. It's the best 45 cents you'll ever spend (yes, you'll get a nickel change). Put that nickel towards a slice of pie for $3.95; sweet potato is the special on Saturdays.

It's pretty good eats, by George!!! (You knew I'd have to say that at some point, didn't you?)