Williamsburg By Ear


It is a truth universally acknowledged that parents of American schoolchildren must take them to Colonial Williamsburg. This fact came home forcefully to my husband and me after our friends from Algeria made the pilgrimage with their son. “The secret,” they told us when they returned radiant with historical insights that our native-born family still lacked, “is to get the vacation package that includes Busch Gardens.” So last April we set off on the long drive south, promising our two boys, 10 and 12, twin entertainments: costumed interpreters well informed about eighteenth-century life and roller coasters.

Over the years, I have tended to steer clear of people in wigs and tricorns, but I returned from this trip ashamed of my narrow-mindedness. There were fewer wigs than I had expected (most men couldn’t afford them, it turns out), and at Colonial Williamsburg many people wearing period clothing also speak in eighteenth-century voices, with a vocabulary and syntax just different enough from contemporary speech to be mesmerizing.

When you exit Route 64, all signs point you to the visitors’ center, where you park your car in a huge lot and walk or take a bus to the edge of the historic district. The capitol, the Governor’s Palace, and the College of William and Mary, where Jefferson studied philosophy, are constructed of a soft rosy brick. Shops and houses cluster around a spacious town green. And since the year celebrated here is always 1774, there are no cars and few wagons. Less than a mile square, it is a place designed for walking.

It was the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, the rector of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church in the 1920s, who had the breathtaking idea of restoring not just a few buildings but the entire town. Eighty-eight of Williamsburg’s colonial-era structures still stood, but many of the important ones had to be rebuilt from scratch, including the Governor’s Palace and the capitol. Goodwin won the backing of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who spent more than $68 million sweeping away gas stations and telephone wires and putting everything back the way it had been. The restored Colonial Williamsburg opened to the public in 1934.

The enterprise has been phenomenally successful, of course, and now a million people visit each year. Still, on back streets or early or late in the day, you can escape the crowds. If you plan well in advance, you can bypass the buses and parking lots by staying at one of the five inns on the property, or at the Patrick Henry Best Western or the Four Points Sheraton, which overlook a horse pasture at the eastern edge of the Historic Area. Cross York Street, and you’re back in the eighteenth century.

At the visitors’ center we picked up a map and a schedule of the week’s special events, and we began wandering into places we thought might appeal to the boys. From the saddlemaker and the gunsmith we learned that much of their work was repairs; unless you were rich, you made do with new arrangements of old parts.

“How much would a cobbler make in an average year?” my husband, Kevin, asked a man in a dim interior fragrant with the smell of leather.

“I wouldn’t know,” the man answered gruffly. “The cobbler’s shop is across town. I’m a shoemaker.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Cobble means ‘mess up,’” the shoemaker answered. “Cobblestone streets are paved but not well. A fruit cobbler is a pie with no shape.”

“How much would a pair of shoes cost?” Kevin asked, still trying to get his economic bearings. “How long would they last?”

“That would be a contract between you and your shoes.”

While we waited on a bench to tour the capitol, a guide reminded us that Williamsburg was the capital of the colony of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, when Richmond took over the role. The burgesses who met here were elected representatives from various parts of the colony; anyone who was free, white, male, over 21, a property holder, and an Anglican could vote. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason all served as burgesses here, and this is where Mr. Henry made his impassioned speech against the Stamp Act in 1765. (His most famous speech, the one that concludes “Give me liberty, or give me death,” was delivered in Richmond.) Inside the capitol a guide asked leading questions about what he called “recent” Revolutionary-era events in Boston, and someone else’s 12-year-old knew all the answers.

Many of those in colonial dress speak in eighteenth-century voices, using exotic words and eccentric grammar.

Consulting the day’s schedule, we found that Patrick Henry was speaking in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace, and we hurried there in time to hear him complain about Britain’s insistence on quartering troops in private houses. When he finished his prepared remarks, Mr. Henry offered to take “queries and curiosities” from the audience, noting that he had “the ability to speculate into the future with great accuracy.”

The historical characters we encountered were so engaging that I began to wonder about them. Were they professional actors, did they get together outside of work, was it exhausting fielding the same questions over and over again, was it unbearably hot in those clothes in the summer?