Exhibit on George Washington on display at Missouri History Museum
ST. LOUIS — Who can forget George Washington, the boy who could not tell a lie, the man who could toss a dollar coin across a wide river, the president who wore wooden teeth?
Well, none of those stories are true, said Elizabeth Chambers, collections manager at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, which hosts a museum, exhibits for children and — soon — a presidential library.
The complex is at the very place where Washington spent the last years he lived after stepping down from the presidency.
"We want to show the world the real man, not the invention," Chambers said.
A traveling exhibit, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon" runs through Jan. 21 at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis' Forest Park.
Chambers says the exhibit doesn't have Washington's hatchet or that dollar coin or the wooden teeth — because those stories aren't true. They were an invention of Parson Weems, who wrote a glowing tribute to the president's honesty but was not so big on the truth himself.
In 1800, Mason Locke Weems told the story of the fallen tree, and the young boy's response, "I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet." It's in his book "The Life of Washington."
"He really embellished on the life of a great man who was revered," Chambers said.
Nor were the first president's teeth made of wood.
"The false teeth were made of ivory, cow teeth, human teeth and lead," she said.
The St. Louis museum has (temporarily) the most complete of three sets of Washington's dentures.
"They look extremely uncomfortable," Chambers said. "The Gilbert Stuart portrait that's on the dollar bill shows Washington's cheeks bulging."
While the teeth are in St. Louis, Mount Vernon has a lower jaw borrowed from a New York museum.
"When we organize the traveling exhibit, we usually borrow something to replace it," Chambers said.
She said Mount Vernon has 15,000 original Washington pieces and period pieces that replicate what the founding father had.
As a young man, Washington worked as a surveyor, and the items that Mount Vernon has in its surveying exhibit are either Washington's own or from the same period.
The exhibit also has a full-scale replica of Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania, where Washington fought alongside the British as a Virginia militiaman.
"He had a lifelong desire to be in the regular British army," Chambers said of the man who would go on to defeat that military juggernaut.
Washington's fame grew from this military service in his early 20s.
"He published his journal on the French and Indian war and won fame at 23," she said.
Other exhibits show him as a grown man, serving as a general and president.
The Ladies' Association opened Mount Vernon to the public in 1860. It still runs the home and grounds, some 500 acres, without government funding.
As a surveyor, young Washington had to travel across mountains, hills and rivers.
"We want to show the athletic, charismatic young Washington. He was a larger than life," Chambers said. Part of that was his height (some records say he was as tall as 6-foot-2).
She said many Americans don't know much about Martha Washington, either.
"Martha was an equal partner. He relied on her for her advice, and the partnership was very equitable," Chambers said. "She also brought two children to the marriage," enabling the estate to stay in the Washington family until the Ladies' Association could purchase it.
Among her favorites in the exhibit are seed pearl pieces of jewelry worn by Martha Washington.
"They are so sweet, so delicate," Chambers said.
If you go
What: "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon"
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays); exhibit runs through Jan. 21
Where: The Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., Forest Park, St. Louis
Tickets: Adults $10; seniors (62+)/students/active military/tour groups $8; children 6-12 $4; children 5 and younger free
More information: http://www.mohistory.org