George Washington – Farmer

“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”     G. Washington

At the time of George Washington’s birth in 1732 there were thirteen individual colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America ruled by England. Commerce was primarily export of agricultural goods back to England and to the individuals and businesses that had invested in the development of the colonies. Social norms of accepted behavior amongst the hierarchy were of British origin. At age 14 young George Washington possessed a book of rules for good conduct titled 110 Rules of Civility. George wrote a copy for himself so that he might become more fluent in the rules of behavior and civility and thus elevate his position in social circles. These formative practices led to a lifelong commitment to fairness and integrity.

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Commander of the Revolutionary Army, former surveyor in the wilderness, fought in the French and Indian War, plantation owner, statesman, first President of the United States. I learned all this in varying degrees as I advanced through the classes at elementary school. What I remember about the early lessons was that George Washington could not tell a lie. The old myth about the cherry tree has long been debunked but the meaning of the little story is still true today. I have found in my own life that honesty is the best policy. Bravery, endurance, diplomacy, innovation, quest of knowledge all characterize Washington. In my day we were taught to emulate that behavior. I don’t think they teach that anymore in schools today.

“Honesty will be found on every experiment, to be the best and only true policy; let us then as a nation be just.”     G. Washington

George Washington – born February 22nd 1732, Virginia.

Thank you Mr. President for your service to humanity, your country and enduring examples.

Washington’s military and political career abound with examples and stories that let us give title to him as a great man. I find myself more fascinated with the lesser known achievements and true passion of Washington, his gardening and landscaping.

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George Washington inherited the estate of Mount Vernon upon the death of his half brother Lawrence in 1754. He worked constantly for the next forty five years to improve and expand the mansion house and surrounding plantation. Washington was a true visionary farmer. He experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock breeding. Washington also maintained a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his adult life.

Washington himself designed all aspects of the landscape at Mount Vernon. He extensively redesigned the grounds surrounding the home adopting a more naturalistic style. He reshaped walks, roads and lawns; cut vistas through the forest and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Well ordered grounds provided food for the mansions tables and were designed to be pleasing to the eye. At the time of his death the plantation had grown from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres, consisting of five farms with more than 3,000 acres in cultivation.

“I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of the husbandman’s care.”     G. Washington 

George Washington oversaw all aspects of the pleasure grounds. His wife Martha Washington oversaw the kitchen garden, allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the mansion table year round. An interesting fact: Mount Vernon’s kitchen garden has been continuously cultivated for production of vegetables since 1760.

The Lower Garden as it was called was a formal space for the enjoyment of guests. Ornamental trees were interspersed on the perimeter of the garden while rows of vegetables and fruit trees for household use occupied the interior. Combing the attractive landscape with food production, these beds demonstrated the beauty of domestic agriculture and Washington’s artistic sensibility.

The Upper Garden had as its centerpiece a greenhouse that Washington had designed himself. At the time there were very few greenhouses in North America and none near Mount Vernon. Planning for the structure began in 1784. Within this elegant structure Washington cultivated tropical plants that could not survive the cold Virginia winters. The greenhouse was a place to grow lemons, limes and oranges and a gallery for exhibiting rare and unusual plants that were imported from around the world.

Close to Washington’s heart was a small private botanical garden. He tended this little garden himself where he experimented with new plant varieties. Situated below the Kitchen Garden was a four acre Fruit Tree Garden. Fruit orchards were also planted on the outlying farms. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and apricots were common fruits grown on 18th century farms. To find trees for the natural landscape redesign of the property Washington easily found a supply of native trees in the surrounding woodlands. Aspen trees were planted along serpentine avenues and dogwood, maple and poplar were planted in shrubberies.

Another of George Washington’s innovative farming practices was the use of soil amendments. Use and types of fertilizer were little understood in early America. Washington erected a stercorary or dung repository building near his stables. Here he experimented with a wide range of formulas to find which worked best for different varieties of plants. Trials were done with horse manure, cow manure and chicken manure that was mixed with grass clippings, prunings and all sorts of organic matter to produce fertilizer for fields and gardens. The building even included perches for birds that their droppings were added to the mix below. Washington continuously strove to make farming operations at Mount Vernon self sustaining.

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In the 1760s the main cash crop at Mount Vernon was switched from tobacco to wheat. Within a few years after, a grist mill had been built which had two pairs of milling stones. One pair ground corn into meal for use at Mount Vernon, the other pair ground wheat into superfine flour for export to foreign ports. In 1791 an upgrade was made to the milling operation, installing improvements invented by Oliver Evans. The new automated system moved grain and flour through all steps of the milling process by mechanical means, with no manual labor. The new system also improved quantity and quality of the flour. This grist mill was capable of producing 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of flour and cornmeal a day.

Scottish born James Anderson was a skilled millwright that ran operations at the grist mill. Anderson had also been trained as a distiller and suggested to Washington that he might consider building a distillery for the making of whiskey and increase profits for the plantation. Work began on a facility in 1797. The distillery operated each of the twelve months and Washington became the largest distiller in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year. It was one of Washington’s most successful enterprizes. Ever conscious of self sufficiency, Washington built a hog pen not far from the distillery. Waste from the fermentation process was then fed to a growing number of hogs which grew to 150 animals in the pens.

When wheat became the main cash crop at the plantation, threshing was still done in a traditional manner. To separate the grain from the wheat stalks they were either beaten on the ground or treaded upon by a horse that circled around a center pole. This method was labor intensive and a good portion of the grain was damaged or unusable due to the waste and dirt that accumulated. Washington solved this dilemma in 1792 with his own invention, a sixteen sided barn.

The barn was two story affair that could accommodate an acres worth of wheat spread on the upper story. Horses were brought into the second story where they would be led in a circle for half an hour to forty five minutes, Their hooves effectively separated the grain from the stalk where it would fall between one & one half inch gaps in the floorboards to the clean granary floor below and then stored or loaded on wagons to be hauled to the grist mill. Everything happened in one place, under cover which reduced spoilage and loss, plus saving on labor.

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Three fisheries along the Potomac River reflect Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit. For almost forty years fishing operations brought in food for slaves, the paid workers and surplus was sold to provide profits for the plantation. Fish was an important part of the slave diet where each individual was provided with twenty fish per month.

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Preparation was hectic during the brief fishing season of the spawning run that lasted only a few weeks in April and May. Several processing camps were set up along the ten miles of shoreline, where all available hands were set to work. Different types of seine nets, some as long as five hundred feet, were stretched between boats along the river. The annual harvest would bring in a herring catch of over one million and shad numbered in the tens of thousands. On shore the fish would be sorted, gutted, cleaned and salted then packed into barrels for storage or shipping. Refuse from fish cleaning was loaded onto wagons and hauled to fields where it was worked into the soil as fertilizer.

Two hundred and twenty years after Washington’s death his legacy endures. After doing research on this article for George Washington – Farmer, I have a renewed inspiration to continue the preservation activities at my historic adobe house and eagerly await the arrival of the spring season when I can once again sink my hands deep in the garden soil and prepare for planting.

“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”     G. Washington

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Did you know that George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is privately owned? No Federal tax dollars go towards the management and maintenance of the property.

For many years the estate was passed on through inheritance to descendants of George Washington. In 1858 John Augustine Washington III great grand nephew of George sold the property for the sum of $200,000 to the non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The final installment payment was made on December 9, 1859. The Association took possession on February 22, 1860 – Washington’s birthday. Mount Vernon remains a privately owned property by the Association. It’s income is derived from charitable donations and the sale of tickets, produce and goods to visitors. The non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association continue their mission ” To preserve, restore, and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.”

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After defeating the British in the Revolutionary War and gaining independence from foreign rule, George Washington thought his public service was done. He had been away from his beloved home Mount Vernon for eight years. On December 23, 1783 he presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland and resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army.

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Washington wrote a letter to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette dated February 1, 1784 … ” At length my dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac & under the shade of my own vine & my own fig tree.”

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Three years later public service once again presented itself at Washington’s door. The year 1787 found Washington traveling to Philadelphia to attend a convention assembled to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation. Washington felt the Articles formed only a weak union and operated with financial and military impotence. Washington was elected to preside over the convention which lasted four months. This convention of our brilliant founding fathers produced the Constitution of the United States. Once the Constitution was approved by Congress, George Washington was selected by every elector to be the first President of the new nation. He is the only President to be elected by a unanimous vote, by the people. Serving two terms as President of the United States kept Washington away from Mount Vernon for another eight years.

Letter to Dr. James Anderson     April 7, 1797.     “I am once more seated under my own vine and fig tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days … in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth.”     G. Washington

A few last notes on the politics of George Washington.

Washington administered the new government with fairness and integrity, assuring Americans that the President could exercise extensive executive authority without corruption.

“Guard against the impostures of pretense patriotism.”     G. Washington

Thomas Jefferson wrote this about President Washington … “His justice was the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision.” 

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of pubic happiness.”     G. Washington

George Washington set a standard rarely met by his successors, although established an ideal they are all judged by.

After reviewing this article I am once more reminded and saddened that the current President, Donald Trump, has little interest in history and much less the ideals of our first President, George Washington.

Do well my friends and farm on.

Dohn

 

 

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
This entry was posted in farms, history, politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to George Washington – Farmer

  1. Candice Brashears says:

    Hello Dohn,
    Nice piece on G.W. One of his unfortunate foibles, and not often mentioned, is he did indeed have slaves that worked on the estate and farming.

  2. Hello Dohn,
    Thanks for this piece – WordPress at its best! Brilliantly informative and well written for someone like me knowing little of Washington’s life story – what a polymath, but grounded in the soil and natural systems. And integrity! As you say, where are such leaders now, when we need them most?
    Keep on your great writing,
    best wishes
    Julian

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