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Named for a King, Famed for a Mother's Lie


© St. Petersburg Times

Long before airports or interstate highways or railroads, rivers served as this nation's main avenues of commerce. Ships needed ports, ports needed people, and frontier river towns filled the need. Fredericksburg grew up as one of these towns.

Settlers founded Fredericksburg along the shores of the Rappahannock in 1728, naming it in honor of Crown Prince Frederick, son of King George II and father of George III, the last king to govern the American colonies. Eight streets in historic Old Town bear the names of royal children -- Amelia, Caroline, Charlotte, George, Hanover, Princess Anne, Sophia and William.

The town prospered as ships laden with British goods and supplies were unloaded on its wharves. The ships then sailed off with tobacco, the mainstay of the local economy.

Much of this early history, as well as the bloody Civil War battlefields, are on view in or near present-day Fredericksburg.

This was George Washington's home town, but there isn't much to see at his boyhood home, Ferry Farm. However, the simple frame house he purchased for his mother at Charles and Lewis streets in 1772 has survived.

As rumblings of the impending Revolution grew louder, Washington feared for his mother's safety and decided to move her into town from across the river. But Mary Washington didn't want to move, and she retaliated by accusing him of leaving her poverty-stricken. The Virginia Assembly was so taken by her fictitious plight, it awarded her a pension. Washington vetoed the plan when he heard about it.

A few blocks away stands Kenmore, home of Washington's only sister, Betty, and her husband, Fielding Lewis, a leading citizen of the time. It's hard to imagine today, but this 18th century Georgian mansion was once the center of an 863-acre plantation on the outskirts of Fredericksburg.

The mansion's ornamental plaster ceilings were created by a master craftsman who also did the dining room ceiling at Washington's Mount Vernon.

Washington's youngest brother, Charles, built the Rising Sun Tavern, where he and his family lived until 1792 when they moved and he leased it out as a tavern. Visitors have a greater appreciation of modern accommodations after touring the tavern and discovering 18th century travelers rented a bed space, not a bed. Men slept crosswise, not lengthwise, in the beds, always observing the tavern rule of no more than five to a bed.

Two other homes of note, Chatham and Belmont, are across the river. Chatham, once the seat of an 1,800-acre plantation, variously served as a Union headquarters, an artillery position and a hospital during the two Civil War battles of Fredericksburg. It was donated to the National Park Service.

Belmont was owned by artists Gari and Corinne Melchers, and their paintings are showcased in every room of the white frame house. The stone studio the couple built not far from the main house exhibits many of the paintings Gari Melchers created in Holland. Teddy Roosevelt became the artist's most famous model when, in 1908, Charles Freer commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of the 26th president. The painting now hangs in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the 1970s, the area known as Old Town teetered on the brink of decline. Buildings fell into disrepair and downtown businesses moved to the Spotsylvania Mall and strip shopping centers along Route 3 west of the city. The town that had exchanged hands seven times during the Civil War was, a century later, losing the battle to urban sprawl.

To preserve their place in history, townspeople had a 40-block area designated a National Historic District. Old houses and buildings were offered for sale at reduced prices, and banks granted loans at attractive interest rates in exchange for agreements to honor specific restoration requirements.

The project was a huge success.

Old Town's greatest asset is its architecture. There are more than 350 18th and 19th century buildings in the historic district. Colonial Revivals and Queen Anne Victorians share the limelight with Gothic, Italianate, Federal and Georgian style homes, lending interest and variety to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods.

An assortment of artisans practicing ancient skills now inhabit a one-block area between Sophia and Caroline streets, on Hanover Street.

Potter Dan Finnegan trained at the Winchcombe Pottery in England. Former New York City banker James Glynn exchanged his three-piece suits for the life of a tinsmith. Ralph and Ellis Gooch, a father and son team, do all the spinning, casting and hammering for their pewterware. Gold and silversmith Michael Bender says he decided to open his own shop when he discovered his standards were "too high" for most employers.

A fifth studio is occupied by Art First, a cooperative of 24 local artists who rotate their exhibit of paintings, sculptures and handmade gifts monthly.

Surrounded by this beauty and creativity, it's hard to imagine that during the Civil War, much of the town lay in ruins after being bombarded for months by opposing armies. Four major Civil War battles -- Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and the Wilderness -- were fought within a 17-mile radius of the city. Of the 750,000 soldiers who fought here, almost 100,000 were killed, wounded or reported missing.

Eighteen general officers were killed outright or, like Stonewall Jackson, died of their wounds. Just before he died on Sunday, May 10, 1863, Jackson said, "Let us cross over the river,and rest under the shade of the trees."

More than a century after his death, Fredericksburg still has the trees, the serenity and the ambience to fulfill Jackson's last wish. Karen M. Laski is a freelance photojournalist living in Marshall, Va. If you go

A tour of Old Town should start at the Visitor Center, 706 Caroline St. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. during July and August. Visitors can purchase "hospitality passes" for seven sites in the area, three of which are historic homes, saving 30 percent on admissions at the door. Children under 12 are admitted free.

An extensive calendar of events makes Fredericksburg a city for all seasons. Overnight visitors will find a half-dozen bed and breakfast inns, all within Old Town limits. Day-trippers often discover it's impossible to see all the sites in one day.

For more information, call the Fredericksburg Department of Tourism, (800) 678-4748.

Originally published March 2, 1997

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