Greetings fellow Santa Claritans, and welcome to the roaring 20s! Hopefully you and yours had a joyous and restful holiday. Here’s to the very best in 2020 for all of us!
Join me as we take a look at what the Downs family got up to for the holidays: A step back in time in Colonial Williamsburg, a return to the dawn of America along the James River and Grandma’s homemade doughnuts. (Oh, yes.)
Our main gift this season was a trip to Virginia to be with my parents at their new home in Williamsburg. My mother›s promise to break out her famous recipe for homemade doughnuts only sealed the deal. It had been years since the last time she made them (close to a decade) and this holiday was going to be the perfect occasion. My kids are old enough to know their way around the kitchen and were eager to learn the sacred recipe passed down from one Southern grandmother to the next.
We spent the morning mixing the dough, letting it rise and waiting with great anticipation for just the right moment to slip them in the boiling oil. After a moment, they›d get flipped until brown on both sides, then out and into the icing. I›m not sure how many I ate, friends, but it was enough to last me another decade just in case it takes that long to whip up another batch. But now that my kids have had a taste of a piping hot homemade doughnut I doubt I›ll have to wait that long.
You know I’m a sucker for history and nostalgia, folks, well there’s no better place to get lost in it than the birthplace of America. Jamestown and Williamsburg is where this country began and they’ve done an amazing job preserving these settlements exactly as they were four hundred years ago. What is referred to as “Colonial Williamsburg” is just that — a living, breathing historical town right out of the 17th century; essentially a living history museum. Re-enactors, some of whom live on site full time, operate the shops and taverns just as they have since the English arrived and established Jamestown in 1607. Only a few miles away from Jamestown, Williamsburg was soon settled as it was the highest ground between the James and York Rivers.
The idea to restore the town and turn it into a living museum came from Reverend Goodwin of the Bruton Parish Church in the heart of Williamsburg. He eventually got the support of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller to restore and/or maintain all the structures within a 300-acre plot, thus creating the living museum we know today. And this is one of the amazing things about the area, how active it still remains.
Williamsburg contains the oldest commercial building in the United States, still operating as a general store; the oldest university, William and Mary; the oldest operational church and courthouse and the first English theater. My wife and I dined at one of the oldest restaurants, Josiah Chowning’s, and had some chowder, stew and something called “pasty” which was basically a colonial type of vegetable. All were delicious and enjoyed by candlelight and a strolling minstrel who serenaded the room with drinking songs like, A Rovin.’
At night, the Fife and Drum brigade played in immaculate precision as the torches lining the streets were lit. At one point I skipped off into the woods to relieve myself (shhh, probably frowned upon in a museum, outdoors or otherwise) and as I walked back toward the main street I passed an old house with the basement illuminated by lanterns. As I got closer, a man looking every bit like Benjamin Franklin walked past the window. Unable to help myself, I peered in and saw a fire ablaze in the hearth, a table full of rudimentary tools and dinner fixings while the man bustled about preparing his meal. I was transported. And that is the magic of Colonial Williamsburg…you can really imagine what it was like for brief moments here and there. What a gift.
A hop and a skip away will bring you to Jamestown which is entirely a museum, as far as I could tell. It consisted of the island where the original settlement and fort reside as a national park (and ongoing archeological dig), a replica of the original fort and its structures and the three ships containing the first 104 men who settled Jamestown. All are presented as living museums with re-enactors carrying on the business of daily life. A blacksmith and carpenter clanging away in their shops will greet you and answer any questions you might have, in character, while continuing their work.
A nearby replica of a Powhatan Village featured men making bows and arrows. You could walk through their huts and see how they lived. Likewise, you could walk through the cottages of Jamestown fort and see the living quarters and sample the food a maid is cooking in her smoky kitchen. You could stand in the church where Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe. Amazing.
The three ships that brought the original settlers were equally fascinating. They had been rebuilt to precise specification and were fully operational vessels. Aboard were shipmates willing to answer any questions and tell the story of their voyage. Four months they spent at sea before choosing that very spot on the James River. Other explorers and traders had been up the coast ever since Columbus had landed in the Caribbean further south; some had even attempted to settle nearby (like the infamous Roanoke experiment a few years earlier in which the entire camp disappeared). But in 1607 with Jamestown, despite heavy casualties due to disease, starvation and warring with the Powhatan, some of those 104 men on the original voyage were able to start something that would eventually become The United States of America.
As we are facing extraordinary and uncertain times as Americans, my friends, it felt good to go back to the beginning and remember what it took to get here. I believe it can inform us where to go from here. Let us band together with hope as our forefathers did to make their way here; let us band together and strive, always strive for a more perfect union. It›s not easy, it takes work, sacrifice and compromise…but in the end, there’s always enough good to go around in this beautiful land of bounty. Especially when you’ve got an age-old recipe for homemade doughnuts.