- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Clara Barton Historic Site in Glen Echo offers visitors a history lesson on the American Red Cross and its trailblazing founder, Clara Barton.

“She was the first woman to hold a government job in her own name; she helped wounded soldiers during the Civil War get the food and treatment they needed; after the war, she helped locate tens of thousands of missing soldiers,” says Joe Burns, park ranger at the site. “She was so good at locating missing soldiers that one of them, a Kansas man, responded back to her: ‘I am missing and I want to stay missing.’”

Barton also started and ran the American Red Cross in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from her home in Glen Echo, now the historic site.

After the Civil War, she was exhausted and suffered a nervous breakdown, according to the site brochure. She decided to go to Europe for rest and relaxation, and it was during this trip that she first encountered the Red Cross. She was impressed with its work and pushed tirelessly to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the Treaty of Geneva, which enabled the establishment of the American Red Cross in 1882.

In 1891, she moved the headquarters to the house in Glen Echo, which also became her residence.

“Developers actually gave her the house and half-acre. They did it as an advertising gimmick to try to encourage people to move out here,” Mr. Burns says.

It wasn’t an easy sell initially. The ride from downtown Washington took four hours by horse-and-buggy, and the nearby C&O; Canal was a working canal in those days, which meant it was noisy and smelly.

“It was basically an open sewer,” Mr. Burns says. “John Philip Sousa was offered the same deal, but he turned it down. He said, ‘I don’t want to commute that far.’”

Today, the 200-household Glen Echo community, just a stone’s throw from the historic site, is sought-after and pricey.

Barton’s house, modeled after a hotel with a large foyer and hall (where she installed 3-foot-deep closets on both sides for Red Cross supplies, such as soaps and bandages), has 10 bedrooms, several offices, a dining room and two kitchens, plus an extensive garden. All rooms are open for viewing during guide-led tours, which start on the hour. The house also is the home to various programs, including two-day Junior Ranger camps for children ages 9 to 12 during July and August. The gardens are no longer tended.

“Clara Barton claimed she could sleep 40 people in the house,” Mr. Burns says. “Can you imagine?”

That would mean each room — and they’re not large — would sleep at least four persons, but four beds couldn’t possibly fit in one room.

“You have to remember that in those days, people often would sit up and sleep,” Mr. Burns says. “They knew it helped clear the airways — helped people with allergies and colds.”

The people who volunteered with Barton’s American Red Cross in the late 19th and early 20th centuries all belonged to the upper middle class, and although they had cramped living quarters, they still expected to have at least four, maybe five, formal sit-down meals a day, Mr. Burns says.

“They would have breakfast in the morning, dinner midday, supper in the evening and lunch at night,” Mr. Burns says. “The volunteers were not always pleased with the food — a lot of it grown on-site. Dinner might have been cornmeal mush and apples and breakfast was often leftovers from the night before.”

The formal dining room, on the first floor of the three-story house, is across from the old American Red Cross offices, which are furnished with late-19th-century period pieces, including writing machines (typewriters) and a letter press (the Xerox of 100 years ago).

“It was around this time that women started wearing blouses,” which were made of cotton and had a looser fit than bodices, Mr. Burns says. “Bodices would get too dirty and were inconvenient” for office workers.

Barton ran a tight ship, and one of her bragging points was that she and her volunteer staff always read and quickly answered the 50 to 200 letters they received each day.

Despite being a driven and assertive woman ahead of her time, Barton, in some ways, was very much a lady of her era, and if it didn’t interfere with whatever task was at hand, she would flaunt it, Mr. Burns says. Her desk chair, for example, didn’t have a back rest to it. It’s thought that she removed it to encourage good posture.

“She didn’t want anyone to think that she would lounge or slouch,” Mr. Burns says. “She was a lady and sat on about 2 to 3 inches of the very front of the seat.”

This complex, accomplished woman died at her Glen Echo home in 1912 at age 91.

When you go:

Location: The Clara Barton National Historic Site is at 5801 Oxford Road, Glen Echo.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Exit 41 toward Clara Barton Parkway. Take the ramp toward Glen Echo Park and merge onto the Clara Barton Parkway. After less than a mile, take the ramp toward Cabin John. Keep left at the fork in the ramp. Turn right onto MacArthur Boulevard. After about half a mile, turn right onto Oxford Road. The road dead-ends into the site.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The house is closed Jan. 1, Thanksgiving Day and Dec. 25.

Parking: Free parking is available in the lot.

Admission: Free.

Information: 301/492-6245 or www.nps.gov/clba/.

Notes: The Clara Barton National Historic Site is located in Glen Echo, a stone’s throw from the many family-friendly activities of Glen Echo Park. These include carousel rides, puppet shows, a children’s theater, a children’s nature center, playground fun and ice cream. For more information about the park, call 301/634-2222 or visit www.glenechopark.org.

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