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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Aerial view of Pioneer Farm and the wharf at Mount Vernon, facing west along the Potomac River.
George Washington's 16-sided barn, facing east.
Lithograph depicting George Washington the farmer (by Nathaniel Currier, 1852).

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on image for larger version.
by Dennis J. Pogue

George Washington: Farmer, Mill Owner, and Distiller

As Esther White mentions in her post describing our survey of the gristmill property in 1997, officials with the Commonwealth of Virginia approached Mount Vernon several times over the years to propose we take over the property. This seemed to make good sense to them, as Mount Vernon typically entertained as many as one million visitors each year, while the gristmill was hard-pressed to attract more than just a few thousand. State officials reasoned that Mount Vernon was in a much better position to increase attendance at the mill and that we also had much more to gain by integrating the gristmill into our interpretive programs. It took us a while, but eventually we agreed.

Remarkably, the first time the state broached the idea of the transfer was in 1935, just two years after the mill and cottage had been reconstructed! So much for grand ideas and good intentions.... In 1935, and at least once more each decade for the next 60 years, the Mount Vernon board of trustees politely declined the offer. But the response was much different in 1995. By that time, Mount Vernon director Jim Rees and the board had concluded that the public's appreciation of the greatness of George Washington and their basic knowledge of the man and of his accomplishments had declined to an alarming degree. Something had to be done to ensure that coming generations of Americans did not lose touch with a man who held much responsibility for the founding of our nation. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association decided we needed to bring Washington alive to today's audience by exploring lesser-known aspects of his career that would spark interest and illuminate the creative facets of his intellect.

We determined that Washington's exploits as a committed, innovative farmer were a particularly fruitful place to begin expanding our interpretive focus. By 1995, Mount Vernon was deeply engaged in developing a new educational program known as "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer" to delve into this topic. We dedicated a four-acre site in 1996 to demonstrating eighteenth-century farming methods and cultivating the same crops grown by Washington's slaves. The focal point of the site is a complex of five reconstructed buildings that are replicas of a novel 16-sided barn, two associated stables, and two corn houses. The barn is roughly circular in shape to facilitate horses walking around its perimeter to tread out, or separate, wheat grain from its stalk. The design was George Washington's own and reflected his commitment to experimenting with new agricultural processes.

When we were approached by the state once more in 1995, Mount Vernon had come to regard the gristmill as a natural complement to the Pioneer Farmer exhibit and as a means to expand our interpretation of George Washington's far-flung agricultural enterprises. The chance to study the distillery and to interpret this important early industry was a particularly exciting opportunity, and we eagerly made plans to identify and excavate the site. At the same time, we committed ourselves to restoring the gristmill so that it would operate as a dynamic reminder of the technological innovations of a bygone age. The restored mill reopened to the public in April 2002 after five years of work. From April to October, seven days a week, our millers demonstrate how corn and flour was ground into meal in the eighteenth century. It's our hope that within a few years we'll be able to add an operational replica of Washington's whiskey distillery to our interpretive program. We will have come a long way in our journey to expand our visitors' appreciation of the full range of activities engaged in by our foremost founding father.

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