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Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Fredericksburg, VA

If you would like to give your children a taste of colonial history a little closer to home than Williamsburg or Gettysburg, try a family trip to Fredericksburg. Located an hour north of Richmond, the area provides an opportunity for a unique view of life before modern medicine, electricity and Nintendo DS.

Our first stop was the Fredericksburg Visitor Center. This is a must if you have not visited the area previously. We picked up a great brochure, “Walk With Me,” written by a local 4th grade class. It details several area attractions. Since it was written by children for children, our sons Matthew and Dylan felt like it was their own personal guidebook.

A short walk down the street is the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop. Dr. Mercer practiced medicine in the area from 1761 until 1776. He is also well known as a Revolutionary War hero. The door to the shop beckons visitors with a sign informing us of the recent arrival of fresh Swedish leeches and Spanish blister beetles.

Being boys, our kids were hooked at the word “leeches.”  Upon entering the doctor’s office we were greeted by two of his “assistants.”  In period costumes the women rarely broke character; the first part of the tour detailed the many herbs and concoctions used to treat everything from epilepsy to the common cold. The doctor’s assistant passed around over a dozen remedies for us to smell and touch. Fortunately, we did not have to taste! The majority of what the doctor would prescribe either purged the illness up, down or both, requiring a visit to “the necessary” – the colonial term for the outhouse. In fact, some of the remedies worked so quickly you didn’t even take them unless you were in the necessary or you may have an embarrassing accident!

Next we were escorted into the doctor’s examining room where we met the doctor’s other assistant. Staying in character, she explained the doctor was very busy doing “spring bleedings” of workers at a local farm. While we could not meet him personally, she was happy to detail what would happen on a typical visit.

After the doctor inquired as to a patient’s complaints he would begin a treatment. Headaches? Leeches applied to the temple. Fever? Leeches applied to the body. Leeches were even used to treat earaches. The doctor would tie a leech on a string and place it in the ear to suck out the bad blood.

Quickly detecting a pattern, our children asked to see the leeches up close and the assistant was happy to comply. The shop has several resident leeches in fish bowls. We learned during colonial times it was common to bleed an adult patient with as many as 20 leeches. If no leeches were available, the doctor simply used a razor and basin to collect up to a quart of blood.

We also learned about various methods to draw fluid from the body, amputation of broken bones and how cobwebs were used to stop bleeding. By the end of our tour the boys had a new appreciation for their pediatrician.

A few blocks away from the Apothecary Shop is the Rising Sun Tavern. During colonial times a tavern was like a motel. A male servant in period costume gave us a tour, explaining he knew we were upper class because we came in the front door.

The boys enjoyed the tour, fascinated by anecdotes of the time. Obviously there were no dishwashers, but that was not a problem. When you finished eating, you simply wiped off your plate and gave it to the next person to use. When it was time for bed, as many as five men or three women would share a small bed. The bed was sideways against the wall. Don’t worry, the sheets were clean. After all, they were washed twice a year.

Many modern games are simply updated versions of colonial ones. The boys listened intently to a story about a colonial game called skittles. Skittles was played with nine pins in a diamond formation and was taxed by the king of England. To get around the tax the colonists added a tenth pin, satirically called the King pin. The pins were arranged into a triangle. The game was played in the alleys between buildings. You had to be careful to throw your ball straight so it would not land in the gutters that ran down either side of the alley. Sound familiar?

Our visit to Colonial America went by quickly. Chatting incessantly about life during the infancy of our country, my children were saddened by the one refusal for the day. My husband and I denied them the one thing they wanted to bring home from the trip. We have pet rabbits, a dog, a lizard and a hermit crab. We have no need for a pet leech.

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