Thursday, October 10, 2013

History with a Side of Humor

There are two guarantees at a Banner Lecture.

I will learn some history and I will overhear some senior citizen conversation.

The two women next to me were chatterboxes talking about how they hoped this was an interesting speaker because not all are.

"I know," the tinier of the two agreed. "Some of them just drone on, and the lights are low and these seats are so comfortable, it's no wonder people fall asleep."

"I've woken up and missed the whole thing!" her friend said.

Since I'd heard Mary Miley Theobald speak before, I leaned over and assured them that she would not put them to sleep.

Thus reassured, they went on to discuss the best uses of the envelopes that come with charity solicitations, one saying that she writes her grocery list on the white side of the envelope and puts her coupons inside.

Her friend was dutifully impressed with her clever re-use strategy and it occurred to me that Depression-era children actually grew up to be re-cyclers long before baby boomers caught the ecology bug. It's just ingrained in them not to waste.

Finally the lecture began to a nearly full house (what else was there to do in this weather?), but Theobald, author of "First House: Two Centuries with Virginia's First Family," began by apologizing.

"I've had a bad cold but I'm all drugged up and I'll be okay," she reassured the crowd. "What I'd like to do today is read the entire book out loud, but they won't let me."

The two women next to me looked over at me as if to give me credit for her humor.

We heard about the original cost of the Governor's mansion started in 1813 and finished at a cost of $18,871, which even translated into today's dollars only comes to about a quarter of a million bucks.

Cheap, right?

We thought so, too, until she pointed out that the rock-bottom price had to do with the absence of plumbing, electricity, running water, fire suppression and other non-standard items for the time.

Even without all the mod cons, Virginia's governor's mansion is the oldest occupied governor's home in the country.

So we have those bragging rights.

Theoblad told us about Governor Andrew Jackson Montague's wife wanting to replace the mansion's dated Victorian furniture with colonial revival furniture which she deemed more appropriate in the early 20th century.

As seems to have been the case since the dawn of Virginia's General Assembly, they didn't want to give her the money to do so, at least until the chairman of the finance committee sat down in a gilt chair at the mansion and shattered it.

Wouldn't you know that $7500 was suddenly appropriated?

I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised to learn that beginning in the 1840s, convicts were used to do the heavy housework and yard work at the mansion, a tradition that continues today although now they only get to work outside.

We saw pictures of some of the long-serving butlers, all of whom worked for multiple administrations doing important tasks like prying children out of the house's dumbwaiter.

The mansion has supposedly been haunted since the 1890s by a woman who died in a tragic carriage accident on the slope behind the mansion, but Theobald couldn't find any proof of it.

As for pets in the mansion, apparently tame squirrels were a big favorite, along with chickens and goats.

Like absolutely everything else in the Commonwealth, there was a Jefferson tie because when he'd designed the Capital, he'd apparently also designed a mansion with, what else, an octagon at the center that never got built.

In addition to her wealth of information about the house and its occupants, she showed some fabulous pictures of the exterior and interior of the house over the years.

I recognized many of the rooms because I'd once interviewed First Lady Anne Holton and she'd been gracious enough to show me around.

When the lecture ended, the women next to me were beaming, telling me how right I'd been about our speaker since neither had drifted off.

True that. For being drugged, Theoblad had offered up an especially lively and informative talk.

The proof? I didn't hear a single snore the entire hour and that's saying something.

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