The Orangery Dig

An 18th-Century Greenhouse

“Orangery?” An 18th-century greenhouse for — yes — oranges, and other citrus plants.

For six weeks in 1998, Carroll’s Hundred archaeologists partnered with then Chief Archaeologist at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Dennis Pogue. Dr. Pogue and his team came to our site to complete the partially excavated foundations of a period greenhouse.

Why would Mount Vernon be interested in our orangery?

Orangeries were highly-prized structures in Colonial America. They solved the problem of cultivating oranges, shattucks (similar to grapefruits), pineapples, and other citrus plants — with their health benefits — making them available year round. Only the very wealthy, like Charles and Margaret Carroll, could have them. Maintaining them meant almost round-the-clock dependence on enslaved or indentured labor to care for the plants and to tend the fireboxes that were required to keep the building heated during the cold months.*

“George’s [Washington’s] mind was rarely far from the lush gardens and majestic views at Mount Vernon.” For a man so enamored of landscape design and horticulture, it was indeed fortuitous that the cousin of his Aide-de-camp, Tench Tilghman, was none other than Margaret Tilghman Carroll, the wife of his Maryland neighbor, Charles Carroll Barrister.

Word must have travelled quickly to General Washington about the Carrolls’ Orangery. And, it would not have been long until the Carroll’s, hearing of his interest, would have invited him to see it. Through his aide-de-camp, Washington indirectly asked if he might see the plans for the orangery. Soon, Washington began construction of his own. But, here is the twist. Today, visitors to Mount Vernon see a very beautiful orangery — that has been completely reconstructed. The original one, quite similar, but somewhat larger than the Carrolls’, was completely destroyed by fire.

*To give some perspective. Using present-day equipment — rubber hoses, a portable 150-gallon water tank (in a van), a nearby fire hydrant — simply watering one of the two original orchards at Carroll’s Hundred meant going tree to tree and watering each of the hundred plants by hand — the job would take seven hours. When it was hot, this was a brutal task, even without having to trek back and forth from the nearest water source with heavy wooden buckets, and possibly leading a mule-powered cart up and down a rough slope.

Following the Archaeological Trail

At Carroll’s Hundred, Dr. Pogue and his team would be able to view the foundations of the very orangery whose plans had been used to construct the original building at Mount Vernon. They would learn about their orangery by conducting research on ours. How lucky for us!

And, so, this round-about story shows how indirect a path research can take, often leading in many different directions, many fascinating in and of themselves, such as the orangery story here. But our objective is to use the research uncovered by archaeological excavations at Carroll’s Hundred to tell a larger and more significant story. So, using the remains of this and other structures, we can follow the trail of our archaeological investigation by asking questions and drawing conclusions from what we discover: