“Cuckoo, Cherry Tree, Good Bird Tell Me, How Many Years Before I Die…”
By: Lisa Timmerman, Executive Director
If you stroll through Merchant Park and listen carefully, you may hear the songs of hungry and eager birds, see a fox or groundhog trot across the field, or notice the beautiful trees thoughtfully planted over the years. While we freely associate Mason Locke Weems with cherries, our cherry trees also sing songs of renewal, cleverness, and a little smarminess.
(HDVI Archives: Cherry Tree Planting, Trowel Garden Club, 04/1989*)
Wild cherry or bird cherry folklore differs in levity. An English carol pictures Joseph and a pregnant Mary walking in a cherry orchard when she asks Joseph to pick fruit for her. He snidely remarked that whomever ‘bought thee with child’ should pick the cherries instead. Unborn Jesus intervened by communicating with the cherry trees and they kindly lowered their branches to allow Mary to pick her own.
When walking by a cherry tree, you may hear a cuckoo singing, especially if the bird must consume three meals of cherries before it can stop its’ music. Noted as elusive, both the Black-billed and Yellow-billed could be in Northern Virginia, although only the Yellow-billed breeds in the state. While their calls are distinctive, they are difficult to spot as they are actively hunting for juicy caterpillars or cicadas. Around the world, the Cuckoo is seen as a sign of spring but can also herald poor fortunes, malnutrition, and predict when you will marry or when you will die.
At least two of our cherry trees hold special significance for the Park. On Wednesday, 04/13/1988, the Trowel Garden Club of Triangle and Dr. William E.S. Flory donated Cherry Trees to HDVI in memoriam of Anne Putney Flory, who died on 04/04/1987. Friends, family, and the local Dumfries community came to the dedication to celebrate the life of someone who delighted in horticulture and the environs of Prince William County. “She and Dr. Flory recognized the value of the Merchant home and what it could mean to our community. And so, we have the Weems-Botts Museum and these beautiful grounds to enjoy. She served as President of Historic Dumfries Virginia, Inc. several terms, and was President at the time of her death. She gave freely of her time and possessions in the continued growth of the Weems-Botts Museum. She was also active in many organizations around the county, always supporting conservation and preservation…Her sense of the past, her roots in Virginia were all very strong. She was committed to restoration and preservation and inspired us to become committed, too. So these Yoshwo Cherry Trees are planted as a token of our love and admiration for Anne and for the beautification of Weems-Botts Museum and Merchant’s Park. They were so important to her. A Lovely Lady.” The Trowel Garden Club of Triangle donated other trees as well, such as a dogwood dedicated to Mary R. Taylor in April 1987.
(Merchant Park, 06/2018)
As memories fade, the wildlife and plants do not and bring renewal to our property each year. Whether you stroll through the Park thinking of past programs and events or just speculate about whether George Washington liked playing with axes as a child, the trees, the flowers, and each gathering place all have special significance well beyond Mason Locke Weems. Listen closely for the call of the birds and if you hear the Cuckoo, try not to worry too much as these little heralds of spring are probably too preoccupied with their own schedules to provide accurate fortune telling.
Note: The latest addition to Merchant Park is a bluebird nesting box donated by the Virginia Bluebird Society! Join us for a free virtual program this Saturday, 03/06, @ 1:00pm as we learn about the life cycle of bluebirds and how to set-up and maintain a nesting box and/or trail. Click here for free tickets and here to read more of how the Virginia Bluebird Society is raising awareness and promoting our native wildlife. Special thanks to our volunteers from Didlake, Inc. for their commitment to help us track and record the bluebird families in Merchant Park.
(HDVI Archival Files & Photographs; Kendall, Paul. Trees for Life: Cherry mythology and folklore; Cornell University: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Binney, Ruth. Cuckoo Day and Animal Sacrifice: Folklore of the Creatures of Spring. Folklore Thursday; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Plant Database: Prunus serotina)
The Secret Scandal Behind a Seemingly Innocent Object
By: Lisa Timmerman, Executive Director
One of the most enduring and delicious patriotic folktales appeared in Mason Locke Weems famed A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington when Weems claimed George Washington “…barked so terribly” a cherry tree. We can use this as an outstanding educational tool – from discussing the historical accuracy to examining why the story captured the public then and now. Facing some ridicule related to the tale in the early 1990s, our staff decided to bravely throwdown at Mount Vernon’s Cherry Pie contest presenting a pie based on that classic folktale and stole the show!
(Smith, Leland. The Man Who Planted the Cherry Tree. Monticello, AR: Cherry Tree Publishing, 1974)
On 02/13/1991, HDVI staff Jeannie Hochmuth and Ann Hoagland arrived at the contest to help advertise the museum with fun and light-hearted publicity. Mount Vernon’s Cherry Pie contest brought museums together from different regions of the state as Mount Vernon invited organizations with an association to George Washington to compete in different categories from appearance to taste. The pies had to have a theme, a story and connection to their historical site. Ms. Hochmuth and Ms. Hoagland warily accepted this invitation, taking three hours to “create” the pie and working into the night to finish the display. Ms. Hochmuth stated at the time of the contest, “We’re very intimidated by all this – we almost didn’t come…We’re just a little museum and we didn’t want to come up here and get embarrassed.” The Weems-Botts Museum entered their pie among 30+ other entries and immediately felt disheartened when George Washington, interpreted by William Sommerville, officially commenced the contest noting, “…ladies and gentlemen, I did not cut down the cherry tree.” After all, our contestants themed the pie around Grant Wood’s famous painting, Parsons Weems’ Fable, prominently featuring that very cherry folktale.
(Dean, Eddie. Dumfries Museum Axes Competition in Pie Contest, 02/1991 with Photographs by Robert J. Stewart)
Former President of HDVI, Al Hochmuth, recounted the dramatic events in HDVI’s newsletter by noting how, “…our two intrepid warriors invaded the hallowed grounds of Mount Vernon”, also invoking the biblical tale of David and Goliath. “But when it got down to the judges our entry won 1st place for historic sites, best in show and best tasting. Little does anyone know it was the first cherry pie Jeanne ever baked…At the awards presentation Jeanne remarked that we were the Rodney Dangerfield of museums, we get no respect, but after all, whether the story is true or not, it was the only reason the contest was held.”
Dumfries walked away with their heads held high and, according to our collection records, a 1980s replica bust of George Washington attributed to the “life mask” and sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon. When you walk into our Victorian Parlor, you might assume it is another object to remind visitors of the connection to Washington. Instead imagine the smile our “two brave warriors” must have had displaying the replica sculpture they earned from baking an edible version of one of the lasting, and frankly delicious, legacies of George Washington.
Note: February 2020 features opportunities to enjoy African American folktales, classic foundational horror, and love stories from our archives! You can find free tickets to our Children’s Day program here and the The Weems-Botts Bibliophiles: Historical Horror here. Your support continues to fuel our efforts to provide unique and safe ways to enjoy our local history!
(Replica Bust of George Washington, Attributed to Jean-Antoine Houdon. Collection Records indicate this is the prize Jeanne Hochmuth received upon winning 1st place. Inscription on back: “This is a mathematical reduction of the original life mask bust of Washington modeled at Mt. Vernon in 1785 by Jean Antoine Houdon”)
(Sources: HDVI Archival Files: Hochmuth, Al. Historic Dumfries Virginia Newsletter, 02/20/1991; The Potomac News Lifestyle: Dean, Eddie. Dumfries Museum Axes Competition in Pie Contest, 02/1991 with Photographs by Robert J. Stewart; Weems, Mason Locke. A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1918; George Washington’s Mount Vernon Online, Washington in Art: The Life Mask of George Washington)