- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

Not many of us will ever have the chance to live as former Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis and his wife, Marguerite, did. The couple's home from 1903 to 1943 was a spectacular columned mansion on the grounds of Morven Park, a 1,200-acre estate outside Leesburg in Loudoun County.

Today, patrons of Morven Park can briefly enter that world of privilege, a way of life embodied in beauty, comfort and the pursuit of leisure. It's a fascinating visit that includes tours of the Greek Revival mansion, the Museum of Hounds and Hunting, and the Winmill Carriage Collection, all contained within the grounds' iron gates.

The mansion itself had fairly humble beginnings as a simple 18th-century farm residence. Judge Thomas Swann Sr. purchased it as a country home for his family and slowly began a decades-long project of addition and renovation. In 1840, Thomas Swann Jr., later a governor of Maryland, inherited the property; his family made Morven Park their home until the latter part of the 19th century. The Davises took over the estate soon after, when Mr. Davis returned from New York to the Old Dominion, becoming governor of the state in 1918.

The mansion reflects the architecture of the Swann ownership period, but the house is fully furnished with pieces Mrs. Davis inherited and collected in her European and Asian travels, including 16th-century Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and neo-Renaissance pieces, silver and glass, fine paintings and porcelain figurines, says Melissa York, Morven Park's director of education.

One Saturday a month usually only during the summer park educators offer a child's tour of the mansion. A favorite of young visitors, says Ms. York, is Mr. Davis' "trophy room," so named for the rather startling representation of mounted heads of bear, moose and deer hanging high on the walls.

"We try to have some fun with this room, although it shocks a lot of people," she says.

The library is filled with books once owned by the governor mostly Virginia history and the classics.

"We change some of the exhibit cases in the mansion every month," Ms. York says. "For example, sometimes we'll put out a pile of Gov. Davis' classics so children can see that people of those days read some of the same books. And we have almost 60 cases of business transactions letters and receipts remaining from the Davises. We talk with children about what we do with those letters and how we care for them."

After touring the grand residence, visitors step into another wing, this one housing the Museum of Hounds and Hunting, which commemorates the history of fox hunting in America. One reason the Davises came to Virginia was to pursue the sporting life, explains Will O'Keefe, Morven Park's executive director.

The museum's five-room collection includes books, artwork and tack. Mr. O'Keefe says this year's rotating exhibits reflect a heavier focus on children. For example, one case is filled with children's fox books, such as Marguerite Henry's "Cinnabar, the One O'Clock Fox" and "The Fox's Frolic," by Sir Francis Burnand, published during the 1930s.

The children see a taxidermied fox chasing a bunny; fox-hound toys and figurines; and a case spotlighting pony-club activities, which displays pint-size saddles and bridles, a pair of child's leather riding boots, gloves and hard hat.

The museum is "the only place of its kind in the world," says Mr. O'Keefe, a fox hunter himself who is nursing seven ribs broken during a recent chase. These days, all types of people are involved in the sport, he says.

"In America, most of the hunting is either live fox or coyote," he says. "Very seldom is the fox killed as a result. In England, they kill them as vermin that raid the farmers' chicken houses and sheep. Here, a hunt club might go years without killing a fox. We don't want the fox to be killed because the real thrill is the chase. We want the fox to be there to chase the next time."

Exiting the museum and the mansion, visitors can stroll down through the coach house and the stone stables where the residents' horses once were kept and on to the last museum: the Winmill Carriage Collection. This collection represents yet another angle on the pursuit of leisure.

Viola Winmill, an avid horsewoman, began her coaching lessons in 1928, after her husband presented her with a road coach, four enormous bays and eight lessons as a birthday gift. Thus began a lifelong passion for driving and collecting carriages.

Her collection grew to more than 120 vehicles, including surreys, carts and sleighs, as well as other types of private and commercial vehicles. In 1969, health failing, Mrs. Winmill chose Morven Park as the permanent home for her collection.

When a tour of children comes into the museum, manager Leona Heuer might pull out a pony cart and summon her Shetland pony, Daisy.

"I'll take the harness for her, and I'll tell the children, 'If you wanted to go to the store to get ice cream, let's see how long it would have taken then.' They help me put the harness on as I explain each piece," Mrs. Heuer says. "People really enjoy seeing how we used to live."

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