This article is one of an 8-part series about Charlotte Fairbairn, and was written by our patron, John Fairbairn. To read the intro by the editor and see links to the other 7 parts of the story, refer to the Table of Contents page. On to the story—
The story did not end there for her. Charlotte Fairbairn was a fighter. Pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, she began the process of making a life for herself and her two active, inquiring, somewhat obstinate, and obstreperous boys. However, she was in a financial quandary. Her family rallied around. To resolve her housing and other needs, she agreed to move with her brother-in-law and her eldest sister, David McMillan and Florence, to Charles Town WV. Mr. Ronald J. Funkhouser owned a mansion there, Happy Retreat, (also known as Mordington) which had been built by George Washington’s youngest full brother, Charles. He reached an agreement with the Judd girls and their parents for them to live in the home, rent free, as caretakers and tour guides.
In the meantime, while the house was being repaired to a livable extent, he made her mortgage payments on the Orchard House, and saw to it that she had money for food and clothing for herself and her children. In September 1945, she and her children joined the McMillans as they moved to Charles Town WV to take up residence. This was no small task, as it meant furnishing the thirteen-room house with antiques suitable for the post-Revolutionary period, and learning the entire history of the building and property. They soon were joined by Charlotte’s parents, Trenor and Gertrude Judd.
It also meant opening their home to whomever came to the door, whether with advance notice or not. For almost ten years, Charlotte and Florence conducted tours through their home, sometimes accommodating as many as 20 large busloads of tourists in one day. Since each tour took about 45 minutes, on these days there was little if any time to rest. In addition, there were people who came by car. Early arrivals would start pounding the door knocker at 6:00 am, and the last arrivals might be after 10:00 pm.
Early arrivals would start pounding the door knocker at 6:00 am, and the last arrivals might be after 10:00 pm … No one ever was turned away.
Exhausted, Charlotte would stagger off to bed, to be aroused by the door knocker early the next morning. Occasionally there would be the just-engaged or honeymoon couple who would knock on the door in the middle of the night. No one ever was turned away. And still, she was the consummate mother to her children. Both boys were rambunctious and constantly involved in ‘interesting’ situations, those generated by natural curiosity and a lack of male guidance. Neither was a troublemaker by nature or by upbringing, though, and that may have been the saving grace for her. This continued for nine years.
Ever a glutton for punishment, Charlotte also took on other responsibilities during this time. She became a volunteer for the Jefferson County Historical Society, doing history research. In addition, her brother-in-law and sister became involved in starting a very conservative newspaper, The Jefferson Republican, in a town, county, and state that were bastions of the very liberal Democratic Party. They leaned heavily on Charlotte for any information that she could share regarding operating a news business and publishing a paper. Also, she wrote three definitive historical tracts, one on all the Washington family homes, one about George Washington’s “lost plantation” on the Bullskin Run, and one about the nearby town of Harper’s Ferry. In addition, she published a collection of Jefferson County legends and superstitions, which included the Mystery of the Wizard Clippe and the story of Charles Washington’s Inspections of his former home.
In spite of the long hours, though, life was reasonably good. Charlotte, in a time when women were ‘allowed’ only to be housewives and homemakers, was managing to keep a roof over her own and her sons’ heads, food in their mouths, and clothes on their backs.
Somehow, she also found time to be a loving, caring mother, always there to address the bangs and bruises, the cuts and scrapes, and the other physical and emotional quandaries of childhood and young-adulthood. This was no mean accomplishment for a woman 5 feet tall and maybe 100 pounds soaking wet.
Then there came another watershed change. The owner of the house sold it. His estate was sold, each of the mansion homes he had owned being obtained by a different person. Robert McCabe, the new owner of Happy Retreat, wanted the current occupants out so he and his wife could live there. While in Jefferson County, Charlotte had been able to build a wide and close-held network of supporters and friends. These now came to her aid.
Marmion … sent a letter of recommendation to the superintendent of the park, telling him that if he didn’t hire Charlotte, he was a fool.
For one, the wife of the local Senator in the State Legislature informed her that the tenant farmer’s house on her estate just had become available. Charlotte could have it for a very modest rental. An acquaintance in the Jefferson County Historical Society, Mr. Thornton Perry, informed her of openings for staff members in the National Monument then being formed at Harper’s Ferry.
This gentleman was heavily involved in helping the government to get information needed to acquire land and facilities for this new park. He suggested strongly to her that she should apply there as a research staff member, since she already knew and had verified background materials on most of the history of the area. In addition, Edward Marmion (whom she had interviewed extensively for her tract on Harper’s Ferry) sent a letter of recommendation to the superintendent of the park, telling him that if he didn’t hire Charlotte, he was a fool. She got the job. And she made history.
Next week, Charlotte challenges gender norms and surprises her superintendent by showing him up when he asks her to prove that “she can do anything a man could do”. She also goes to work on updating the women’s Park Ranger uniform that hadn’t been redesigned in a while… since 1897, to be exact.
Link to “…And a New Uniform Too” to be published October 24, 2017