One display in the Mount Vernon museum had this excerpt from a letter written by Nelly Custis, the granddaughter of Martha. Nelly lived at Mount Vernon and her letter was dated 1797. That was the year Washington returned to Mount Vernon after serving two terms as President.
”Grandpapa is very well, and much pleased at being once more Farmer Washington.”It is worth noting that Washington was almost totally absent from Mount Vernon for the eight and a half years that he was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. During that time he led his relatively small army of citizen soldiers, most of whom were farmers, and defeated what was then the most powerful military force on the earth. The farmer-general then turned down an offer to be America’s first king and retired to his beloved farm. There he was able to enjoy a full five years of farming and being with his family before being drawn back into public life and the Presidency. The new nation he helped create needed him again.
In Washington’s day, his Mount Vernon plantation consisted of 8,000 acres. Four separate farms were on that property. I think the current plantation grounds amount to about 200 acres.
The primary trend in 1700s Virginia was to grow tobacco for export. Tobacco was the number-one cash crop of the region. Washington broke from the tobacco monocrop tradition and started growing a variety of other crops, primarily grains and indian corn. He knew that tobacco was hard on the soil and that crop rotations were needed to maintain fertility. But he also wanted to get away from dependency on an uncertain market.
The typical way to sell tobacco back then was to send it to English tobacco merchants who then sold it on commission. As European markets became more commercialized, colonial farmers ended up making much less money. Many were in debt as a result. Sound familiar?
Washington also saw the value of animal manure as a fertilizer and built a stercorary, which is nothing more than a roofed “repository for dung.” Washington’s stercorary measured 31ft by 12ft. and had a cobblestone floor. The Mount Vernon stercorary has been reconstructed and is located just south of his home, near the stables. Storing animal manure and bedding like that amounted to composting. Seeing the structure there, I could imagine it with steam rising off the hot heap.
Power for farming came by way of animals. Washington’s farm employed oxen, horses, and, as time passed, mules. Washington developed a particular fondness for breeding mules to do farm work. He actually imported mule breeding stock from Europe and wrote of his mule-breeding efforts: “I hope to secure a race of extraordinary goodness that will stock the Country.”
Hogs, sheep, cattle, and poultry were in abundance at Mount Vernon. His cattle were Devon. They were an all-purpose bred; good for draught work, beef, veal, milk, and so forth. At a time when few Virginia farmers had sheep, Washington was building a flock. At its peak, his farms had 600 sheep. Hogs were an essential farm animal. In December of 1785, 128 hogs were slaughtered and yielded 17,000 pounds of pork. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese were raised for their meat and eggs, and ran free on the plantation.
I was surprised to learn from my Mount Vernon tour that Washington was also an avid dog breeder. He raised numerous kinds of dogs with an eye towards improving the breeds. There was a large kennel on the hillside below the main house. Our tour guide told us that terriers were used to keep the rodent population down. Washington had several favorite dogs and the guide told us their names.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Washington’s farms were worked by around 300 slaves and numerous non-slave employees. The plantation was an almost-completely self sufficient community. There were blacksmiths, coopers, shoemakers, carpenters, and so forth.
What I found particularly remarkable was that the plantation made its own brick for building construction. The red clay soil that is so prevalent in that part of Virginia (maybe even all of Virginia, from what I saw) was simply mixed with water, packed into wood brick molds, and allowed to dry. Then it was fired in a kiln.
Washington was not only an innovative farmer, he was an inventive farmer. He actually invented a mechanical plow/planter. As it was being pulled by a draught animal, the device made a furrow, automatically planted seeds, and then covered the furrow with soil. He was well satisfied with the laborsaving implement. In fact, it worked so doggone good he named it the "Washington Whizbang."*
On a larger scale, Washington is credited with inventing a unique threshing barn. The 16-sided barn was built into the side of an embankment. The top level was wood and the lower level was brick. Washington calculated that 30,820 bricks would be needed to build the lower level. A reconstructed threshing barn can be seen at Mount Vernon today. Here is a picture of the upper level.
Washington’s new barn solved a problem. He needed an efficient and clean way to separate grain from the straw. The usual method of that time period was to flail the straw outside on the ground. This action freed the grain kernels from the straw. Then the straw was raked up and the remaining grain was collected and winnowed. It was a lot of work and the resulting grain was often dirty and of poor quality.
Washington’s circular threshing barn had a top floor with thick, narrow, flooring slats spaced 1-1/2" apart. Sheaves of harvested grain were spread upon the floor and horses were brought in to tread on the grain. Round and round the horses walked while the grain rained down through the slats into the lower level.
*[Note: In the interest of historical accuracy, I must confess here that I made up that name, "Washington Whizbang." I couldn't resist. That's what he should have called it, but there is no indication that he gave the tool any particular name.]
Another facet of farming at Mount Vernon was the fishery operation. For several weeks in the spring of the year, all hands worked on harvesting fish from the potomac river in front of the farm. Large nets were used to harvest primarily shad and herring. It is reported that over a million fish were harvested in one season. They were salted and packed into barrels. Some were kept for the plantation’s use and the rest were sold.
Several things stand out in George Washington’s example as a farmer. First, he broke with the long-held tradition of monocrop tobacco production. Second, his farming operation was very diversified. Third, he invested in the fertility of his soil, which was not common in those days.
The growing trend in America today is towards “sustainable” agriculture. That was not a term used in the 18th century. Nevertheless, George Washington clearly saw the value of sustainable farming practices. He was ahead of his time in this regard. I should mention, too, that Washington’s attitude of sustainability also included his significant acreage of wood lands.
Finally, I’d like to point out one more important part of what made Washington a successful farmer. When he was living on the farm, Washington was intimately and actively involved in its everyday operations. One tour guide told us that Washington typically arose around 4:30 each morning and rode on horseback to his farms to oversee the operations. His usual bedtime was around 9:00 in the evening. When Washington was personally overseeing the farm operations, the farm was very successful. When he was away serving his country, the profitability of the farm declined.
There is one other very important aspect of George Washington’s farming example that aspiring farmers, and even well-established farmers of today can learn a lot from. It was a part of Washington’s farming operation that I had never known before touring Mount Vernon. It is a story in itself, and I will tell you about it in my next essay.
To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer: Part 2
**Some of the information in this essay was gleaned from the book, “George Washington, Pioneer Farmer” by Alan and Donna Jean Fusonie, which I purchased in the Mount Vernon gift shop.