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Historic Mount Vernon’s Keeper

The question is hypothetical but intriguing: Which founding father would you want to sit next to at a dinner party?

“There’s George Washington, the solid one; Thomas Jefferson, the smart one; Alexander Hamilton, the driven one; and Ben Franklin, the quirky, idiosyncratic one,” says Dennis J. Pogue, MA ’81, who studied American studies with an emphasis in museum studies and material culture.

To explain the stereotypes, Pogue says, “Americans like their history simple, which explains why these very intelligent, complex men have been reduced to painfully one-dimensional stereotypes.”

Twenty years ago Pogue would have passed over the first president in favor of Franklin, the eclectic personality from Philadelphia.

Pogue has not only changed his mind about George Washington, his work helps visitors to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens change their perceptions about our first president as well. Since 1987, Pogue has immersed himself into studying and preserving the estate of George Washington.

When Pogue heard that Mount Vernon was hiring an archaeologist, he was immediately interested, even though he admits, “I had never been here. Unlike most folks today, I never took a fourth grade field trip to Mount Vernon.”

So Pogue bought a ticket to Mount Vernon and took a tour. In addition to the mansion and Washington’s tomb, Pogue saw a lot of potential. “I hoped that archaeology could be a catalyst for change and help bring the interpretation up to date,” Pogue says.

And it was. After being hired as an archaeologist, Pogue led intensive excavations of the site of a blacksmith shop, the fruit garden, slave quarters, and more. Among the slaves’ belongings, he found thousands of artifacts, such as oyster shells, tobacco pipes, ceramics, and air twist stemware that gave clues about how the slaves lived and ate. “More than 300 slaves lived here,” Pogue says. “In a sense, Mount Vernon was typical of other large plantations, but most slave owners had less than a half
dozen slaves.”

Sometimes Pogue learns things by accident. When a sprinkler on the lawn was being repaired, they discovered an 18th-century trash midden, which Pogue says, is “just a fancy name for a dump. It surprised some folks, but it didn’t surprise an archaeologist.”

Pogue also likes telling visitors, especially children who often get grossed out, about the dung repository. “It’s a tangible indication that things were different in the eighteenth century,” Pogue says. “Many people today assume that people who lived long ago really were just like us in how they viewed the world, they just wore funny clothes.”

Pogue’s ongoing research continues to expand visitors’ knowledge of George Washington and life in 18th-century America. He is now the associate director for Preservation at Mount Vernon. In 1997, he graduated from American University with a PhD in anthropology. In addition to overseeing all preservation activities at Mount Vernon, Pogue is in charge of the buildings on the estate, including the mansion.

The number of buildings he oversees grows to 15 with the opening of the estate’s distillery in April 2007. “That’s right,” Pogue says with a chuckle. “Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in whiskey.”

Pogue acknowledges, “Some people don’t like the fact that Washington was associated with alcohol, but we’re not rewriting history.” He explains, “Washington was a canny businessman and an entrepreneur. We’re doing more to raise people’s awareness.”

Mount Vernon, the most visited historic site in the country, recently also expanded by opening a new Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

While the museum, the mansion, and the outbuildings help visitors learn more about our first president, when Pogue has a moment to reflect, he’s most likely to be sitting outside on the piazza, absorbing the panorama of the Potomac River. “It’s the same view that George Washington had,” Pogue says, “which is a great story because in the 1950s, developers planned to build either a sewage treatment plant or an oil tank farm across the river, but the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association led a fight to preserve the view as Washington knew it.”

Learning about history and preserving it have always been important to Pogue, a native Iowan. As a boy, he was fascinated by the articles, films, and events that marked the celebration of the centennial of the Civil War. In the 1970s after graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in history, he was attracted to Washington, D.C., and GW because of the historic sites and museums. “There was a lot of buzz about Washington because of the bicentennial. It was a neat place to be,” Pogue says. Through the museum studies program at GW, he studied and toured different museums every week for a semester and interned at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Now, he’s working at the most visited historic home in the United States. “Mount Vernon is a special place,” Pogue says. “I’m grateful to be continuing in the tradition to preserve this place and make Washington more authentic and accessible to visitors.”

Kathryn McKay