January 13, 2006


Everybody needs good neighbours (Elaine Monaghan, 1/13/06, Times Online)

ONLY in America would you find grown men and women in authentic, colonial-era garb pretending to be 18th century farmers in the shadow of the secrecy, security and hi-tech gizmos of the Central Intelligence Agency.

To find this unlikely juxtaposition, follow the signs from the parkway that runs along the Virginian side of the Potomac River near Washington to "Claude Moore Colonial Farm," and take a right near the entrance to the "George Bush Center for Intelligence" as the CIA headquarters is named, after the current president's father, who served briefly as intelligence chief. If you reach Hickory Hill, the mansion Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow, put on the market for $25 million in 2003, you've gone too far. (Now it is listed on the Internet for a far more modest $16.5 million. The monthly mortgage costs would run at $76,000, but for that you get 12 bedrooms, 10 baths, tennis courts, stables, parlour rooms and a little bit of history under your feet) .

Trundle along a stony path beside the barbed wire fence at the agency's back-door, and you will come to a makeshift cabin that marks the farm store, packed with wooden children's toys and other arty gifts. A gentleman welcomed us when we visited and invited us to cross the threshold into the pre-revolutionary farm, complete with turkey runs, squawking chickens, a working tobacco shed and shivering locals earnestly playing the roles of the family that would have worked and lived there in the 1770s. Here, volunteers, a handful of paid staff and convicts doing community service spend their time learning the art of staying alive without electricity, plumbing and machinery or doing menial tasks that filled people's days back then and would stiffen the spine of any 21st century citizen. (John Podesta, Bill Clinton's ex chief of staff, was a young (non-convicted) member of the staff in the early 1970s.) Visitors encounter members of the farming family and are enlisted to find logs alongside the actors, play with the chickens or shift from foot to foot as they try to decide whether they are supposed to help out or not..

To complete the mind-bending experience, look a hundred yards to the south, and three centuries later, where, despite 9/11, you can press your nose against the CIA back door, which is invisible from the main road. (The scene is more prosaic than you might think, not a beige trench coat or shoe phone in sight.) You might expect, with all the post-September 11 anxiety, that the CIA would have thrown a ring of steel around the farm and its visitors. But the only grief of that sort that the farm has had is from the Federal Highway Administration, which crashes cars and tests roadway surfaces at an adjacent property. Inexplicably the roads authority cut off the farm's access to its property in its bid, presumably, to protect itself from concrete-thieving Islamic militants, leaving elderly volunteers to clamber over fences and trudge through the mud until a new entrance could be established. "No one wanted to feel they weren't important enough to be under threat," said Anna Eberly, who runs the place and has worked there since 1973.

Feeling important, however, is definitely not part of the philosophy in the re-enacted farm house at Claude Moore, where the actors spend their days hanging out in the fresh air, showing 21st century visitors the eaves where they sleep, their open fire and their chicken coop.

Like teasing the guards at that castle in Britain, half the fun of Old Sturbridge Village when you're a kid is to try and get the staff to break out of character.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 13, 2006 8:17 AM
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