- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

Montpelier Mansion in Laurel — not to be confused with its more famed namesake in Virginia where James Madison once lived — is a grand Georgian structure whose interiors tell the story of family and slave life in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Laurel’s Montpelier does have a grain of presidential history: It is said that George Washington once spent the night, as did Abigail Adams, says Ann Wagner, a tour guide at the mansion.

“That doesn’t mean [owners Thomas and Ann Snowden] were good friends with Washington. It was just that prominent people didn’t stay at the local inn when they traveled. They stayed with friends or acquaintances,” Mrs. Wagner says. “Inns were for common folk. There was usually just one big room where people slept right next to each other.”

To see the mansion, guided tours are required — except during the “What Is It?” exhibit, which runs through March 31. The exhibit features 19th- and 20th-century items, and young visitors are asked to guess their function.

Several generations of Snowdens, major landowners, lived at Montpelier Mansion from the time it was built in the 1780s until the 1890s, Mrs. Wagner says. Much of the interior reflects how the mansion would have looked in the 1830s.

One of the first rooms a visitor sees is the formal dining room, where the original residents wined and dined with friends and family.

“Guess what this is,” Mrs. Wagner says, pointing to a delicate wineglass sitting upside down in another, larger glass. “It’s a wine rinser. They would drink several different wines during dinner, and they didn’t want the flavors to mix.” The larger glass would be filled with water in which to “bathe” the smaller glass.

Mrs. Wagner also points to a plate warmer (which looks like a tiny safe) sitting in the fireplace, a block of tea, a braid of tobacco and fans made of peacock feathers.

“There were no [insect] screens back then, so someone — probably a young slave — would use the peacock feathers to fan the air around the table and keep the bugs off the food and the guests,” she says.

As with all Georgian-style homes, everything at Montpelier Mansion is symmetric. The parlor, for example, has a fake door in its southwestern corner, put there simply to balance the actual door in the room’s northwestern corner, Mrs. Wagner says. The parlor is next to the dining room.

The parlor was where a 19th-century family would have entertained. They played card games, charades and live music.

“I always ask children, ‘What’s missing on these cards?’ ” Mrs. Wagner says, holding up a deck of cards without numbers. “Not everyone could read in those days, so why have numbers?”

Also in the parlor is a waist-high screen in front of the fireplace.

“Women used these so they could stay warm while not risking having their makeup, made of wax, melt,” she says.

The upstairs features several bedrooms and a little schoolroom with homemade toys and slates.

“They would’ve used scraps to make toys. A sheep’s bladder would’ve been a ball, and some leftover fabric would’ve been used to make a simple doll,” Mrs. Wagner says.

The bedrooms showcase beds, waist-high from fluffy feather mattresses. The trundles had straw mattresses. These mattresses had to be cleaned and the straw replaced often because bugs would lay eggs in them, she says.

“Kids are always surprised when they hear that that’s where the expression, ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite,’ comes from,” she says.

Mrs. Wagner says she always tells visitors that a place like Montpelier Mansion was very dependent on slaves for even the smallest of daily activities. However, she says, not much is known about the Snowden slaves because of a lack of recorded history.

The last exhibit visitors see is the kitchen, which has been reproduced in a carriage house next to the museum gift shop. The kitchen is a favorite among small children, Mrs. Wagner says.

It’s packed with 19th-century gadgets. Among the items are a corn sheller, a sugar nipper, sugar cones, skeps (beehive covers), a block of tea, a scraper for hides and a bird-cooker.

Mrs. Wagner says the mansion provides an opportunity for children — and their parents — to learn about local history without feeling as if they’re being subjected to a history lesson.

“Kids have so much fun here, they’re not even aware that they’re learning, which is the best kind of learning,” she says.

She says she often overhears families talking about how childhood has changed through the years.

“[The exhibit] encourages conversation between kids and parents about what life was once like. They talk about being a child then and now and discuss differences and similarities,” she says.

After the tour, which takes about an hour, she encourages visitors to enjoy the 75-acre grounds, down from a high of 20,000 acres during the early Snowden era.

“Bring a picnic, fly a kite on the grounds, or just enjoy the trees,” she urges.

When you go:

Location: Montpelier Mansion is on Muirkirk Road in Laurel. (The mailing address is 9401 Montpelier Drive, Laurel, MD 20708.)

Directions: Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Exit 11 toward Laurel/Bowie. Make a left onto Route 197. After about a mile, make a left onto Muirkirk Road. The mansion will be on the right.

Hours: The mansion is open from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday through Thursday from March through November. Visitors are required to take a guided tour to see the house. Guided tours begin on the hour. The last tour begins at 3 p.m. In March, during the “What Is It?” exhibit, the mansion will be open from noon to 4 p.m. daily. Tours are not required for this exhibit. From December through February, the museum is open for tours at 1 and 2 p.m. Sundays. For groups of 10 or more visitors, tours are available by appointment during the week throughout the year.

Parking: Free on site.

Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, $1 for children ages 5 to 18, free for children ages 4 and younger. During the “What Is It?” exhibit open through March 31 the rate is $2 for adults and $1 for children.

Information: 301/953-1376 or www.pgparks.com/places/ eleganthistoric/montpelier_intro.html.

Notes: Upcoming family events at Montpelier Mansion include the Herb, Bread & Tea Festival, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 23. This event will feature live music, lectures, workshops, Colonial games, hands-on activities and tea and scones in the mansion. Tours will be available, and vendors of garden accessories and jewelry and other items also will be featured. Open to all ages.

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