Archives for posts with tag: history

Once a year, the ghosts and goblins of Congressional Cemetery come alive.

The cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Capitol, was created in the 1830s as a way station for newly-deceased members of Congress and other Washington luminaries before their remains were shipped home. Among them:  Presidents John Quincy Adams and William Henry Harrison.

Today, it is the final resting place for thousands of VIPs and lesser folk. Nearby Capitol Hill residents walk their dogs amid history (and pay a fee to do so, for maintenance of the cemetery). Our friends Mel and Lisa befriended dog owners such as House Speaker Tom Foley and Sen. Mary Landrieu through walks with their dog Grits through the cemetery.

Last weekend we joined them and other friends at the annual Halloween benefit bash at the cemetery, and giggled at the astonishing array of costumed guests: A man dressed as the Washington Monument guarded by a human “barricade” (remember the shutdown?)…a John Boehner look-alike … cast members from “Game of Thrones” … assorted werewolves, Frankensteins, goblins, monsters and a Satan.

The highlight was the lantern-guided tour through the cemetery. Our tour guide was dressed as first lady Dolley Madison, holding of course a portrait of George Washington she rescued from the White House when the British sacked Washington. The real Dolley spent a few weeks in a crypt at Congressional Cemetery before making her final journey to the family plot in Virginia.

Along the darkened path, actors dressed as the dead VIPs told their stories. Mathew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer who died penniless. John Philip Sousa, who gained fame as a composter of patriotic marches but was bitter that few knew of his operettas and other musical talents. Tobias Lear, the faithful secretary to George Washington who was at his side when the nation’s first president died. Infamous bordello proprietress Mary Hall, who was recruiting “girls” from our 1397490_10201696745133304_685348387_otour group, having imbibed perhaps too freely from her champagne stash.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is buried here, as is his lover Clyde Tolson. More than 170 members of Congress made a pitstop or a permanent home here, and scores of generals.

This is a wonderful place to visit – in the daylight or at night for this odd Halloween “Ghosts and Goblets Soiree.”

Our Dolley guide said the cemetery is still open for “guests.”

Q. Do you have to be a Member of Congress to be buried there?

A. No. You just have to be dead.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Senator George McGovern, one of the first politicians I covered as a reporter, has died. We last saw him just weeks ago at his 90th birthday party, a celebration at the Newseum that was an ode to a genuinely modest man who attained extraordinary achievements.

Long before he was a senator, he was a World War II flying ace, a decorated war hero. But he grew up in an era when people didn’t brag about their achievements, or exploit them for political gain. The same was true with Bob Dole, another losing presidential candidate who  was a war hero.

These two men of the prairie, of different parties, worked alongside each other and with other for the greater public good on many causes, including fighting hunger and providing food for the starving here and abroad. Neither Dole nor McGovern would recognize the chasm that now divides Washington.

I have many McGovern memories, all of them colored  today by his gentle smile and soft-spoken voice. This one, out of character, was summed up by CRR in a USA Today column:

In 1980, on a Saturday morning a few days before an election he had to know in his bones he was losing to Jim Abdnor, George McGovern stormed into the Associated Press office in Sioux Falls, S.D., where my wife, Sandy Johnson, then a 24-year-old rookie, was working the desk.

The usually even-keeled McGovern was mightily upset about a story the wire service had run, and he let her know it. The way she told it, an angry George McGovern was quite a sight. A George McGovern gesturing angrily with an unlit cigar was even more out of character, and it is something I still have trouble getting my head around.

They agreed to disagree and parted ways.

A few days later, Sandy got a handwritten apology from the senator. And forever after, almost every time my path crossed with McGovern’s, he would ask about her before he said anything else. Often, he’d offer regrets about blowing his top years and years before.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


Turns out there is a museum for everything. I decided to blog about carrots and wanted a snippet of history so, of course, I googled “carrot history”  and discovered the Carrot Museum. Now I’m wildly overeducated and can tell you, with some authority, that the modern carrot originated in Afghanistan 5,000 years ago and then migrated to Europe, where the enterprising Dutch cultivated it into the delicious root vegetable you know today.

(Family trivia: CRR is half Dutch, which may explain his devotion to growing carrots)


We planted two varieties this year. The Rainbow Hybrid promised carrots in hues of white, orange and coral. It yielded few carrots, however, so that experiment is over. The Sweetness Three hybrid was sweet indeed – bountiful, 6-8 inches long, and tasty. In several plantings, we used all 500 (!) seeds. No, we don’t have 500 carrots. I think the yield is probably a little better than 1 in 5.

Since we have a long growing season here, we bought more seed. Burpee’s Scarlet Nantes promises “slim, sweet, 6-7” almost coreless orange roots.” They’re just poking out of the soil, so we need 60 more days of sunshine til harvest. Our son, Sam, largely oblivious to the garden except for what arrives on the dinner table, read that the carrots will keep well in the ground and become even sweeter when the weather turns cold. We shall see.

My favorite carrot recipe is a blend of root vegetables – beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots – roasted at 350 degrees in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. My friend Laurie makes a killer mixture of olive oil and minced garlic for her roasted veg – give it a try.

Last night for a dinner party, I left the carrots full length, peeled them, drizzled on a little olive oil, dried thyme, salt and pepper – and slow-roasted them at 325 degrees. Turn them every 20-30 minutes. Because of the size, the carrots took more than an hour…but it was worth it. The slow roasting brought out the natural sugars in the carrots. Delicious.

Make sure you check out the Carrot Museum. Its trivia page produced this factoid: The world’s longest carrot was 5.839 metres (19 feet 1 7/8 inches)!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


I love history and I love gardening. Which makes Virginia an absolutely wonderful place to live. You can get your garden inspiration from the Founding Fathers. I have one of George Washington’s favorite flowers gracing my patio, and a winterberry from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in our yard. Many of the historic estates have native plant sales, and April is prime time (see list below).

The lobelia cardinalis was one of Washington’s favorite plants, a brilliant red flower of the herbaceous family. After he returned from the Revolutionary War, Washington agonized over the plantings at Mount Vernon. The meticulously laid-out kitchen garden was, of course, essential to feeding the hundreds who lived at the estate. Washington rode horse across his 8,000-acre property every day, and noted plants and trees that he then transplanted around the mansion. He wrote to friends and relatives across the colonies and asked them to send native plants to diversify Mount Vernon, seeking what he called the “curious” and “exotic.”

Jefferson kept a lifelong Garden Book, meticulously listing vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and ornamental flowers. While serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson visited England and toured the great gardens of that country. Agog at the beauty of the British gardens, Jefferson scribbled lengthy lists and drawings. These ideas he brought home to design flowers and fauna for the 10,000 acres of Monticello. We have a winterberry from the estate, also known as a serviceberry, treasured for its red berried branches in cold months.

Go admire the gardens of these historic estates, and then plant a few flowers that remind you of the covenant between gardeners today and the Founding Fathers.

Mark your calendar:

  • Mount Vernon’s spring garden sale runs April 21 through May 20. It’s at the shop just outside the grounds, so you needn’t pay admission. It features flowers, herbs and vegetables grown at the estate.
  • Monticello has plants and heritage seeds at the gift shop.  There is also a special two-hour guided tour of the gardens that includes planting and sampling of spring vegetables. April 21 and 23, fee.
  • Another of Washington’s farms, River Farm in Alexandria, has a spring garden market April 13-14.
  • Many communities sponsor native plant sales. In Alexandria, the Parkfairfax neighborhood association brings in 14 vendors from Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. The sale is April 28.