Program participants from Didlake’s Woodbridge Day Support Program volunteer to maintain the garden for one of the oldest remaining structures in Dumfries, Va. – a house that takes visitors back in time to learn colonial history and explore 18th to 20th century home styles while, perhaps, being frightened by ghosts.
The Chilling History of the Weems-Botts House in Dumfries, Virginia
Built in 1747, the Weems-Botts House was once a book depot for Mason Locke “Parson” Weems, George Washington’s first biographer and creator of the cherry tree story, and later a law office for Benjamin Botts, who served on the defense team that got Aaron Burr acquitted of treason charges in 1807. The house originally served as the vestry for the Quantico Church until the American Revolution. It was purchased by Weems in 1798 and Botts in 1802. After Botts died in the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, the house changed hands several times before the Merchant family took ownership in 1869 for nearly a century.
From Colonial House to Haunted Museum
The colonial style house, which sits on two acres in Merchant Park between I-95 and Route 1, was restored and converted into a museum in 1975 and, today, is part of the Historic Dumfries collection of museums and historic places. Reportedly still inhabited by the Merchant family and other spirits, Weems-Botts frequently appears on lists of the most haunted places in Virginia and has been featured on paranormal TV shows, such as “The Dead Files” and “My Ghost Story.”
Mary, the oldest Merchant daughter, had epilepsy and died in her early 20s at the Western State Hospital in Staunton, which is now the Blackburn Inn. Her medical record lists her cause of death as phthisis, but Weems-Botts suspects it was actually tuberculosis. Weems-Botts is actively researching Mary’s life and hopes to dispute numerous unsubstantiated claims about her life and 1906 death. Her father died later that same year, leaving the remaining Merchant daughter, Violet, to care for her mother. Violet lived in the house until her death in 1968. However, the presence of the Merchant family lingers. Visitors have reported ghostly activity, such as the window in Violet’s bedroom opening and closing, books that fly off the shelves, a bedroom closet door that opens and an antique doll that seems to move around the bedroom.
From Ghost Walks to Gardening
Historic Dumfries, which runs the museum, has hosted ghost walks and midnight ghost lock-ins since 2004. For the last five Octobers, Historic Dumfries presented an exclusive daytime ghost walk for participants of Didlake’s Day Support Program to hear ghost stories during a guided outdoor walking tour. During one of those ghost walks, in 2018, a chance conversation between Sam Barnes, Program Service Assistant for Didlake, and Lisa Timmerman, Executive Director, Weems-Botts Museum, about plants and brown thumbs led to a new volunteer opportunity for Didlake and, by all accounts, a more vibrant garden for the historic home.
“I mentioned to Sam that I was horrible at gardening and that plants just withered and died if I touched them,” Timmerman said. “Team Didlake said they’d take over and make the gardens look more educational.”
Soon thereafter, Barnes returned with a team of three volunteers – known as “Team Didlake” at the museum – to revive the colonial herb/shrub section around the historical house. The crew pulled weeds, raked leaves and pruned bushes, and their efforts soon panned out with some blooming bushes.
Regular Grounds Maintenance Pays Off
The following year, Team Didlake began volunteering regularly to maintain the colonial herb/shrub section as well as to assist with other areas, such as in the butterfly/pollinator garden and with the plants around the annex office building. Team Didlake continues to volunteer at the museum, weekly between spring and fall and as needed during the winter.
“Lisa is always looking out for us. She designated a spot (the colonial herb/shrub section) for our program participants to care for, which has made it such a special opportunity for our site. No one else touches it – it is Team Didlake’s garden. It gives our team a sense of accomplishment to see the hard work we’ve done really paying off,” Barnes said.
“Cleaning the gardens on the side of the house has made us feel proud anytime we drive by and see how clean the gardens look,” said Laura, a member of Team Didlake at Weems-Botts. In particular, Laura likes raking leaves in the fall and “the lavender bush in our garden; it smells so wonderful!”
For the last two holiday seasons, Team Didlake decorated the gazebo with garlands. They also hung fresh wreaths on the museum doors and sprayed them with water regularly to keep them lively throughout the season. With Team Didlake’s assistance, Timmerman prepped self-guided garden sheets for museum visitors.
Merchant Park Conservation and Safety Commitments
Merchant Park is home to a variety of wildlife such as foxes, skunks, deer and snakes. As such, Timmerman called on the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia to assess how to conserve the natural habitat while making the gardens more attractive. Weems-Botts and Didlake committed to following the Audubon Society’s protocols such as reducing pesticides, not killing spiders and planting indigenous plants.
Timmerman also noted that Didlake has followed social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. “The participants’ dedication to making the museum’s garden beautiful (and educational!) and attention to COVID-19 safety protocols is always noted,” she said. Although modified due to the pandemic, the annual ghost walks have continued. Last October, Timmerman offered Day Support Program participants a tour of the cemetery while talking about the origins of Halloween.
“Because of the ghost walks, I have met some incredible people,” Timmerman said. “With such a small organization, we rely so much on our volunteers. Sam and the team have really committed to us and we feel so grateful they chose our place to help.”