Civil War history comes alive at Charles Town heritage fest

September 24, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Amateur historian Tom Weaver sat at the buckle-shoed feet of a founding father Saturday, handling dirty relics on the steps of the Happy Retreat mansion and asking a stately George Washington impersonator to give them meaning.

Weaver found the shell casings, kitchen artifacts, shoe buckles and colonial buttons on the grounds of Happy Retreat, home to George Washington's youngest brother, Charles, the founder of Charles Town.

Locals and visitors alike on Saturday celebrated Charles Town's history as part of the town's annual Heritage Festival. While some chose to quiz William Sommerfield, "America's George Washington," at Happy Retreat, others made candles, watched re-enactments, and perused crafts and food for sale on George Street.

"What this whole thing is about is we're going to lose this culture if we don't hold it dear," Weaver said, holding his plastic shoebox filled with metal detector finds.


Fingering a sandy silver button, Weaver, who discovered the relics alongside Happy Retreat owner Bill Gavin, said, "When I pick it up, I know it has not been touched since the day it was dropped."

Sommerfield told him that his finds were rare, in part because soldiers and visitors of that era would have picked up anything they dropped out of respect for the property owner.

Sommerfield sat on a folding chair with his legs crossed, back straight and chin raised in a fixed portrait pose. Dressed in small clothes, a black gentlemen's great coat, a weskit and tights, the white-haired man told tales of war in first-person detail, and answered questions as if he had firsthand knowledge.

As adults asked Sommerfield to tell them of "his" presidency, 8-year-old Bailey Gillespie hid her doubts about the "president's" authenticity. She swung an odd-shaped candle and walked in small circles behind her father, John Gillespie, 40, who quizzed Sommerfield intently.

"He's acting like he's George Washington, but I don't think he is because I know he passed away," Bailey said.

Sommerfield, 68, is the official designated interpreter of George Washington, and acts in his character at Mount Vernon. Twenty years ago, Sommerfield played a younger, General Washington, but now plays the president.

Sitting on a folding chair, Sommerfield, as Washington, said, "If I hadn't inherited Mount Vernon, I would have come here. Of course, it wasn't called Jefferson County then."

If you go

What: Charles Town Heritage Festival

When: Today, noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Downtown Charles Town, W.Va.

Parking is free at Happy Retreat and at the Jefferson County Board of Education. Free shuttle provided from both parking areas.

Free admission; some activity fees.

Call the Charles Town Visitors Center at 1-304-535-1813.

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