Random Thoughts for The End of October 2008

A surprising number of readers (around 50) took advantage of the special October offer and purchased a copy of my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian. And I was pleased to get some nice feedback from those who read it.

Thank you all


If you would like a used copy of my book, Making Great Garlic Powder you can currently pick one up for only $325.00 at Amazon bookstore. Here’s the link: My Garlic Powder Book at Amazon (thanks for the heads-up Cheri)


Not long ago, I posted a Series on Home Business Ideas. To the list I could add, running a boarding house. With the economy in decline, there is more of a demand for boarding houses.

I remember there used to be a guy in the nearby town of Moravia, who rented rooms by the week. He lived in a big house which he kept up well. I think he did a pretty good business. For the right person this might be just the ticket.

When I think of boarding houses, I think of that movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Do you recall the part where Clarence the guardian angel is showing George Bailey what the world would have been like if he had never been born? George goes to his mother’s house. Without George to support his mother, she runs a boarding house, and she doesn’t know him.


I am in the beginning stages of producing a plan book for a Whizbang cider press and apple grinder. That being the case, I thought I better get a copy of all books I could find on the subject of making cider. One, from the UK, titled, “Cidermaking,” is about how cider used to be made in the British Isles, back when they still had a strong agrarian culture.

One chapter of the book speaks of old apple varieties, including one called “Coccagee.” Here is what the book says of this variety:

”Coccagee, a Somerset and North Devon variety, was brought over from Ireland in the eighteenth century (the name is said to mean ‘goose turd’ in Irish.”

That does not sound like an apple I would want to consume.


I got an e-mail from Johnny’s Seed Company saying that they are holding their 2008 prices until November 15th. After that, prices will go up due to increased costs.


During our recent vacation to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello we learned that the large vegetable garden is patrolled at night. It is patrolled by beagles. The beagles are brought in during the growing season at 7:00pm and taken out in the morning before the tourists show up. The dogs are restrained within the garden area by electronic collars and their purpose is to keep wild deer from doing any damage.


Have you been to Jeremy Myers’s blog Oldtime Smith? Check it out.

Jeremy has a self-produced CD titled Nail that Catfish to the Tree! I bought a copy. I appreciate his traditional Missouri old-time fiddlin’


My watch broke a few weeks ago, before going on my Virginia vacation. I decided to see if I could get along without it. Turns out I can.


Daylight savings time ends this weekend. Prior to establishing time zones in this country, noon, wherever you were located, was when the sun was at it’s highest point in the sky? Established time zones came with the development of our continental railroad system in 1883.

I don’t know the history of watches but I suspect there wasn’t much need of them when we were still an agrarian nation.


With election day next week I feel like I am in an airplane that has gone through turbulent weather and is nosediving. Oxygen masks have deployed. The pilot is standing in the open doorway, with his parachute on. Two men are fighting over who will get into the cockpit and pilot the plane. Neither one appears to be well qualified to fly the craft. Some passengers are getting involved in the brouhaha. But I am in my seat, near the back, watching the scene unfold, unable to do anything to make a difference. My knuckles are white, gripping the armrest.


Michael Pollan had a thought-provoking article in the New York Times Magazine of October 12th. It is titled, Farmer in Chief and is in the form of a letter to “Mr. President Elect.”

Pollan urges the next president to do what he can to fix our broken industrial food system, which now “expends 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.”

The author proposes a “sun-food” agenda which will work to drive oil-dependence out of America’s food system. It is, he says, a matter of national security.

”We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America—not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.”

Michael Pollan’s article is a lengthy read but a must-read for all agrarian-minded folks.


But in case you don’t read it....

In the above-mentioned article, Pollan urges the next president to “tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.”

What a fine idea! Then Pollan writes:

When Eleanor Roosevelt did something similar in 1943, she helped start a Victory Garden movement that ended up making a substantial contribution to feeding the nation in wartime. (Less well known is the fact that Roosevelt planted this garden over the objections of the U.S.D.A., which feared home gardening would hurt the American food industry.) By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population. Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change.... Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.”


PETA-Approved Chicken Dinners (& Frog Steaks too!)

The following blurb in the New York Times Magazine of October 12th really fired up my imagination (but not my appetite):

”In April, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered $1 million to the first successful candidate to produce a commercially viable chicken product in a laboratory—real chicken, but without killing a chicken.

The idea isn’t just science fiction. In 2005, the Dutch government gave a grant of 1.7 million euros to three universities to pursue “in vitro” meat research in the hope that a commercially acceptable product might come to replace slaughterhouses and feedlots. The basic science draws on the work of tissue engineers who have created skin and cartilage by cultivating stem cells in a growth medium.

There are several technological obstacles to applying this to meat. The most cost-effective growth medium on the market at the moment is made from fetal calf’s blood—hardly animal friendly. And if the new cultivated meat cells are not properly stretched and stimulated—mimicking muscle activity—the resulting product has a stomach-churning consistency that one tissue scientist described as “jelly on fabric.”

Oron Catts, a biologist and artist at the University of Western Australia, grew some small frog steaks in vitro several years ago and set up a performance-art piece where eight people sat down to have them for dinner. Four of the diners spat their portions out. Catts got his steak down, but he has been a vegetarian ever since. Charles Wilson

Pre-Winter Homestead Preparations

The weather man was right. He said snow was in the forecast for higher elevations here in Central New York State. Three miles down the road it is raining hard. But at my house the wet snow is coming down sideways. The ground is white.

I don’t mind winter. In fact, I like winter. But I don’t like having to drive to and from my job in the city five days a week, in the winter. I’d rather stay home and work in my shop. I like working in my shop, with the wood stove cranking out the British Thermal Units, and the snow blowing outside, and my home just a short walk away. I’d rather write and illustrate a couple more Whizbang how-to books in the winter than go to my city job every day. I could be very productive in the winter.

But, if all goes well this winter, I will still be productive, on the weekends. I hope to make big progress on a Whizbang Cider Press and Apple Grinder plan book. And in my shop I am now getting set up to produce a new Whizbang product that is still top secret. I think it will be big. I hope it will be big. Really big. Every serious gardener in the country will want this item. No. Every serious gardener in the WORLD will want one of these things! At times like this I have to reign in my Walter Mitty inclinations.

My goal is to grow my home business and quit the city job. In time, I might actually be able to do this. But not quite yet. And before all of that, though, with snow and cold in the forecast, there were things that needed to be done here on our little homestead.....


I informed my 14-year-old son, James, that the rest of the pile of firewood (our home-heating fuel for the winter) needed to be split by last weekend, or our agreement (to pay him) was off. He enlisted the help of his brothers and got the job done. Splitting firewood is, as I have written here before, good work for older boys. Here are a couple of them on task:

That is Robert with the splitting maul held aloft, reveling in his youthful strength and ability. He and his brothers expend twice as much energy as needed to get the job done. But they have an abundance of it to expend. Me? I’ll split a few chunks for old time’s sake and go back to stacking.

Marlene helped stack a lot of firewood too. I took a picture of her but can’t post it here because she did not approve of it. All pictures of Marlene must be approved by Marlene before getting posted to this blog. That’s the rule and I comply. Of course all pictures of me have to be approved by me. ;-)

But I really wanted to show you the picture because Marlene had two different colored gloves on and I thought it reflected the practicality of our rural life. Unlike a glossy magazine picture showing some illusion of country life, complete with nifty duds, and matching gloves, we just make do.

But wait! We were able to find a compromise. I figured out how to crop the picture on my computer. Here it is:

Now all of our firewood is stacked and under cover. Just in time. Here’s a picture this afternoon (three days after the above pictures) taken in the same general direction as the one above with Robert & James.


Earlier this year I posted an essay in which I showed you my squash plants, mulched with sheets of old steel roofing. Now, here is one of the many squash we harvested:

That particular squash is a Marina Di Chioggia, a warted Italian heirloom variety. Some might call it ugly. But its ugliness is only skin deep. Underneath that warty exterior is a beautiful, golden, sweet interior.

Marlene typically bakes big squash like this in the oven. Then she scrapes the insides out, adds some butter, and sometimes a little maple syrup.


This was a good grape year. The last time I showed you a picture of my Concord grapes on the vine, they were green. Well, they ripened and sweetened and here is what they ended up looking like last week:

After the killing frosts, when the leaves turn brown and start to fall off, that’s when the grapes are their sweetest. And that’s when Marlene makes grape juice. I hope to post an essay here shortly about making grape juice.


I grew some red kidney beans this year. Two days ago, with snow in the forecast, I pulled up the row of leafless stems with dry bean pods attached. I piled them on a plastic tarp, carried them into my shop and dropped them on the floor. Soon, I will get to removing the individual pods and I'll let them further dry down. Then I will shell them and harvest the beautiful bright red beans. Some of the beans will be planted next year. The rest will be used to make chili... homemade chili.

What a remarkable system: Plant a few beans in the ground and harvest a lot of beans. Save a few to plant again the next year and eat the rest. Repeat this procedure year after year, generation after generation. Absolutely amazing!


We were late getting our potatoes dug. But not too late. The day before the blowing snow arrived we finished digging the last row of spuds. Now they are in my shop, drying down. This next weekend I will crate them up and take them down into our basement. We will eat our own homegrown potatoes through the winter and into the spring. Then, just like with those beans, we can plant some of the potatoes and grow more.


One crop we did get harvested before the last minute was onions. Once again, the Copra variety of onions that I always grow did very well. They are big. They are fairly sweet, and they are excellent keepers. I have several net bags of these hanging from nails in the ceiling of our basement.


Those last days before the first snow storm of the season blows in are busy ones on a homestead. But this is the “reward” time of year. The work is now pretty much done. The larder is full of wholesome, homegrown food. The firewood is split and stacked by the door. Now the snow is here and the roads are slippery. We are inside, warm and comfy, watching the show out our window.

Put all of these things together and what does it add up to? We call it “the good life.” And in the midst of a crazy world, we are very thankful for it.

Thomas Jefferson vs Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, et al.

[Dateline 26 October 2008]

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: Thomas Jefferson on Government Debt (Then & Now)

Paul Krugman is a popular guy these days. The American economist was awarded a Nobel prize in Economics this year. In a recent interview I heard Krugman say that no one person is responsible for America’s current financial crisis. But, he said former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan certainly deserves a lot of the responsibility.

As for Greenspan, he spoke this past week before Congress and said he was “in a state of shocked disbelief” about what has happened to the economy. He further stated: “This crisis, however, has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined.”

Greenspan went on to blame the crisis on “explosive demand by investors around the world” for what were (at one time) very profitable mortgage backed securities. To feed the great demand for these investment vehicles, mortgage lenders started giving mortgages to people who, under normal circumstances, would never have been able to get such loans. As a result, the securities being bought by investors all over the world were tainted with what is now known as “toxic assets.”

Meanwhile (and, incredibly) these risky securities were being rated as relatively safe and sure investments. When it came to light that they were not so safe and sure, the house of cards started to fall, and it is still falling.

How could bad investments be rated as good investments? According to Greenspan: “The whole intellectual edifice... collapsed... because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the past two decades, a period of euphoria.”

So, "Surprise. Surprise. Surprise! Sergeant Carter"... the rating agency’s computers were working with flawed data. Here’s another surprise: The whole economic system of the nation is, itself, flawed. Maybe a better word would be skewed, which is to say: “distorted or biased in meaning or effect.”

Even a cursory look at the long term “risk management models” for an economy driven by central bankers, debt-based creation of money, and fiat (paper) currency, will reveal it is both distorted and biased in favor of those few who control and manipulate the machine to serve their own interest for profit and power. Even a cursory look at the kind of economic system we have will reveal a long train of economic abuses in the form of inflation & deflation, booms & busts, recessions & depressions, all brought on by this kind of economic system.

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, understood this problem very well. He had nothing but disdain for conniving, corporate banking interests. He abhorred having a national debt owed to the monied interests. He recognized nothing but specie (gold & silver coin) as the legitimate currency of the Constitutional Republic he helped to found.

The following quotes from Jefferson provide proof of his understanding and his concerns for America if it veered off the path of fiscal responsibility. You can get the references for these quotes and read a much larger selection of Jefferson’s writings on this subject at this University of Virginia link: Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

"Specie is the most perfect medium because it will preserve its own level; because, having intrinsic and universal value, it can never die in our hands, and it is the surest resource of reliance in time of war."
"Paper is poverty,... it is only the ghost of money, and not money itself."
"The trifling economy of paper, as a cheaper medium, or its convenience for transmission, weighs nothing in opposition to the advantages of the precious metals... it is liable to be abused, has been, is, and forever will be abused, in every country in which it is permitted."
"The trifling economy of paper, as a cheaper medium, or its convenience for transmission, weighs nothing in opposition to the advantages of the precious metals... it is liable to be abused, has been, is, and forever will be abused, in every country in which it is permitted."
"It is a cruel thought, that, when we feel ourselves standing on the firmest ground in every respect, the cursed arts of our secret enemies, combining with other causes, should effect, by depreciating our money, what the open arms of a powerful enemy could not."
"We are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth. It is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing; that it is an idle dream to believe in a philosopher's stone which is to turn everything into gold, and to redeem man from the original sentence of his Maker, 'in the sweat of his brow shall he eat his bread.”
"It is said that our paper is as good as silver, because we may have silver for it at the bank where it issues. This is not true. One, two, or three persons might have it; but a general application would soon exhaust their vaults, and leave a ruinous proportion of their paper in its intrinsic worthless form."

This last quotation is sometimes referred to as “Thomas Jefferson’s Prophecy.” It comes from a letter he wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin.
”I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies...If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks]... will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. ...The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”

Yes, Thomas Jefferson foresaw the problems we now have with unjust currencies and usurious banking practices. He warned against them. Our nation has strayed far from the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. We are now firmly in the clutches of a parasitic monster economic system that slowly but surely saps the economic vitality from its host. And as the system currently falters (once again) here in 2008, all the economic wizards of the world are working to fix it. Their fix will not address the systemic problems that Thomas Jefferson spoke about. Their fix will draw us deeper into debt and bondage. Their fix may, likely, trade a measure of American sovereignty by submitting to a new economic world order.

And so, you may wonder, “What’s your point?” My point is simply to educate; to show that the economic system we live under is fundamentally immoral. I am not advocating for some solution. The solution, if it ever comes, will not come easy. America will not revert to the honest and Constitutionally lawful economic “default setting” without very significant financial collapse and, more than likely, a violent revolution. That's what I think, and I don’t see this happening in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, the realities of the faltering economic system we must deal with can be very harsh, as many people around the world are finding out right now. I'd like to point out that it was exactly a year ago this month that I posted a blog essay here titled Economics Lesson in a $5 Bill (And the Road Ahead). I told you about my friend who sits on the board of a local bank and who had just returned from a bankers convention in Las Vegas. He told me (and I told you) “...[E]very speaker had a gloomy economic forecast. ...[W]e are headed for a “deep, dark recession for the next 4 to 10 years.” And “possible depression.”

A lot has happened in the past year. My friend was right. Those in the banking industry knew bad things were coming. But, amazingly, Alan Greenspan was in a “state of shock and disbelief” when the economic crisis started to unfold.


In closing this series of essays about my recent Virginia vacation, which veered into the subject of Thomas Jefferson’s personal debt, and the whole Jeffersonian attitude towards national debt, and his admonitions about “modern” corporate-banking, I come back to the personal: How do we as individuals and families, living in the midst of a wicked economic system with it’s inflation and recession and unemployment and so forth live our lives without being harmed by the crisis?

This is where I return to the down-to-earth agrarian solution. After all, idealism and proper understandings are what underly pragmatism and practical response. Here is where I recommend to you my essay titled An Agrarian-Style Economic Self Defense Plan (written last January).

Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, et al. would not think much of personal agrarianism as a response to the economic crisis. But I’ll bet Thomas Jefferson would.


P.S. Do you see the irony of putting a picture of Thomas Jefferson on a Federal Reserve Note? It is really an insult to the man.

Thomas Jefferson on Government Debt (Then & Now)

[Dateline: 24 October 2008]

In my previous essay (The Story of Thomas Jefferson's Personal Debt), I told you the story of Thomas Jefferson’s problems with personal debt and how he, as a result of his debt, was financially devastated later in life.

There are lessons for those of us here and now in that Jefferson story from the early 1800s:

1. Live within your means
2. Avoid taking on debt.
3. Do not cosign loans

So it was that Thomas Jefferson personally understood the dangers of debt. And, no doubt, it was this firsthand experience, as well as his well-read historical perspective, that led Jefferson to have strong opinions about the subject of national debt.

Thomas Jefferson was our third President. Prior to his taking office in 1801, the previous administration of John Adams had run up the national debt. One of Jefferson’s goals as president was to pay off that debt. It was not an easy thing to do. Reducing the size and budget of any government entity, especially on the federal level, is always difficult. But Jefferson was resolute in this matter.

The Jefferson quotations that follow reveal a degree of wisdom and foresight that deserve not only our admiration but our serious consideration (more of my commentary follows):
”There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad ...”
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world."
"Then I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence."
"Private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments."
"I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending in an eminent degree on the extinguishment of the public debt before we engage in any war; because that done, we shall have revenue enough to improve our country in peace and defend it in war without recurring either to new taxes or loans. But if the debt should once more be swelled to a formidable size, its entire discharge will be despaired of, and we shall be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution. The discharge of public debt, therefore, is vital to the destinies of our government."
"Having seen the people of all other nations bowed down to the earth under the wars and prodigalities of their rulers, I have cherished their opposites: peace, economy, and riddance of public debt, believing that these were the high road to public as well as private prosperity and happiness."
"The accounts of the United States ought to be and may be made as simple as those of a common farmer and capable of being understood by common farmers."
Paul Krugman, an American professor, has won the Nobel Prize in Economics this year. I heard an interview with Krugman the other day. This man’s solution to the current financial problems of America is, essentially, for government to spend more money—a LOT more money. The current national debt is now in excess of ten trillion dollars, and growing at an alarming rate. But Krugman believes more debt is good. His “solution” is in direct opposition to the political and financial ideology of one of America’s greatest founding fathers. And Thomas Jefferson was not alone among the founders in this regard.

But, of course, creating more debt is the only possible “solution” in a world where our whole financial system is built on the fiat-money schemes of central bankers; debt is the lifeblood of the monster they have created to serve their own purposes.

It wasn’t always this way, and it didn’t have to be this way. Jefferson’s vision for America was, as I noted in a previous essay, that we would be an agrarian nation. Usurious, debt-based economic systems are contrary to the agrarian ideal. But they are absolutely necessary to build an industrial nation and an industrial culture, and that is what happened.

Thomas Jefferson could see the madness of European-style, corporate-industrialism. He knew it was headed our way. He didn’t like it. But he couldn’t stop it.

I think Thomas Jefferson was a far better economist than Paul Krugman is. If it were up to me, I would have awarded the Nobel economics prize posthumously to Thomas Jefferson.

In my next essay (the final one of this series) I will look once more to Thomas Jefferson for his insights and wisdom into another aspect of national economics. To read the essay, Click Here: Thomas Jefferson vs Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, et al.

The Story of Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Debt

[Dateline: 23 October 2008]

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (Part 2)

I’ve been writing a series of essays about my recent vacation to several historical sites in Virginia, one of which was Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. In this essay I’m going to tell you about the great problem of personal debt that Jefferson and his family faced near the end of his life. There are lessons that we can learn from this real-life example.

It so happens that Jefferson was plagued with financial problems for many years. Several reasons are given for this. First, it is reported that Jefferson inherited debt from his father-in-law, John Wayles who died in 1773. Thomas Jefferson was 30 years old at that time and had been married one year to Martha Wayles. I have never heard of inheriting debt, but that is noted in the historical record.

A second reason for Thomas Jefferson’s financial problems was his expensive tastes. French wines, so many books, and many fine furnishings contributed to his problems. In other words, he lived beyond his means.

But, in his later years there were two events that conspired to ruin Thomas Jefferson. One was that he cosigned a sizable loan for a friend. The man died a year later and Jefferson was stuck with the debt.

Then there was the matter of the Panic of 1819 and the severe recession that ensued. From what I understand, this national economic calamity came about as a result of expanding credit and real estate speculation which led to a bubble market and eventual crash. Banks failed, real estate values plummeted, and loans were called in. Unemployment in the cities was as high as 75%. It was a bad time for the nation as a whole and many families of means were devastated, including Thomas Jefferson’s.

Near the end of his life, Jefferson faced the probability that he and his family would have to leave their beloved home at Monticello for Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s smaller plantation further south in Bedford County, Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson’s grown grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, known in the family as “Jefferson,” played a prominent role in trying to ameliorate the dire consequences of his grandfather’s financial troubles. In a letter written by Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha (“Jefferson’s” mother), she tells the story of their plight at that difficult time. By the way, Martha’s husband was, I’m quite certain, also financially ruined in the crash of 1819.
”...the arrangement made by him and fully acquiesced by me, was that we should go to Bedford, retaining only the necessary furniture for that house, and a small but effective household of servants and sell the whole property here and as many negroes as would pay the debts—it was a most bitter sacrifice to us all, but nothing to the anguish of seeing my dear father turned out of his house and deprived in his old age of the few pleasures he was capable of enjoying, and to know his few remaining years would be embittered and shortened by it made us recoil from the cruel task of proposing it to him; but the crisis was at hand, things could no longer go on in the train they were, the consequences of a delay would have been complete ruin a few years later, when we should no longer have possessed a home to shelter us. It was paying too much for the privilege of living a few years longer at Monticello. I never saw Jefferson so much agitated as he was, and the situation of the rest of the family even down to the little children was really as if a recent death had taken place. To my father the shock was as we foresaw dreadful. He said that he had lived too long, that his death would be an advantage to his family. But Jefferson easily convinced him that under existing circumstances it would, independent of our love for him, be a calamity of frightful magnitude. That his life was as necessary to the interests of the grandchildren and my self, as it was precious to our hearts. The first shock over, he became reconciled and we were trying to look forward to plans of future comfort and improvement.”

It is reported elsewhere that the ruddy-faced Thomas Jefferson turned white when confronted with the scheme to sell his Monticello and escape to Poplar Forest. But then he came up with a scheme of his own, and Martha explains it in her letter...

”...lying awake one night from painful thoughts, the idea of the lottery came like an inspiration from the realms of bliss to my father. The moment it was light he got up and sent for Jefferson who immediately saw in all its bearings the immense advantage of the scheme. Property enough sold at a fair value to pay his debts, a maintenance for the family, the means of educating the boys, and a home for myself and children that might be unprovided for, and last tho not least, the undisturbed possession of Monticello during his precious life. All that will be ensured. And to make the crops adequate to our necessary expenses we must look to that being to whom under heaven we are indebted for every comfort we enjoy, and to the lengthened life of my dearest dearest father who but for that precious gift of heaven (Jefferson) would have had his heart broken by his difficulties and ourselves reduced to abject want.”

The lottery idea faced obstacles but it was pursued. I don’t totally understand how it was to work. But it never did work and was eventually abandoned. The lottery idea did, however, evidently, buy precious time. Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello on the 4th of July, 1826, fifty years to the day after he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Shortly thereafter, the contents of Monticello were auctioned, as were the slaves. Then Monticello itself was sold. It was a sad ending to the story of a great American.

In my next essay I will continue this dialogue about Thomas Jefferson and debt by telling you the story of Jefferson’s attitude towards national debt. This subject is, of course, very timely as 175+ years later, our nation faces a growing mountain of debt beyond anything our third President would have ever imagined. Thomas Jefferson's insights into the subject are very wise, and very sobering.
To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: Thomas Jefferson on Government Debt (Then & Now)

Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Part 2)

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Jefferson’s Monticello (Part 1)

We arrived at Monticello early in the morning. The home, which Jefferson designed, started to build when he was 26 years old, and worked on the rest of his 83 years, is an architectural treasure. It is on the top of a mountain. The word, “Monticello,” means “little mountain.”. The whole place is a testament to Jefferson’s talent, and his creativity.

Our tour of the house was a delight. I knew almost nothing of Jefferson’s family prior to the tour. But I found myself drawn to the story of his daughter, Martha Washington Jefferson. Our tour guide pointed to a large painting of Martha and explained that she was one of two daughters born to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Martha, the daughter, was known as Patsy.

Jefferson and Martha actually had six children but only two survived to adulthood. She died after giving birth to the sixth child. Martha and Thomas Jefferson had been married only ten years. He was heartbroken and despondent for a long time after her death, and he never remarried. Patsy’s younger sister, Polly, died at 25 years of age after giving birth to her second child.

What attracted me to Patsy was the fact that she had 11 children, home-schooled them, and her home was Monticello. She also served as her father’s First Lady when he was president of the U.S.

Where was Patsy’s husband? Well, according to our tour guide, Patsy was married to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., a Virginia planter and one-time governor of the state, but she was entirely devoted to her father.

Imagine for a moment, Thomas Jefferson, the grandfather, surrounded by his eleven grandchildren, all living in the same home. Our tour guide told us that other family members were frequently there too. It was a very busy household!

Thomas Jefferson retired from public service to Monticello, where, for the next 17 years, he was active in farming, gardening, scientific observation, and so much more. But he was also very involved in the lives of his grandchildren. From what little I’ve read on the subject, his grandchildren had the fondest memories of growing up at Monticello and of their grandfather’s influence in their lives. That is, to me, a very endearing picture.

In Jefferson’s library, the tour guide pointed out several pieces in the room, including a walnut and mahogany “seed press,” that was probably made by the slave, John Hemmings.

That was all that was said and it begged the question (I tend to ask a lot of questions of tour guides): “What is a seed press?” It turns out that “press” is an 18th century word for an upright cabinet or case used for storing objects. For example, Jefferson would not have called a bookcase a bookcase; he would have called it a book press.

And so Jefferson's seed press was a cabinet where he stored glass vials with specimens of the many garden seeds that he collected and planted each year in his gardens. He kept his vegetable and flower seeds right there in his library. They were important to him.

That cabinet intrigued me. As the rest of our tour group filed out of the room and into the next, I lingered and visually studied the press. Though we had been forbidden to touch anything in the home prior to entering, I was tempted to open the door for a little peek inside (but I didn’t).

What surprised me about Jefferson’s seed press is that, compared to much of the rest of the furniture in the house, it was very primitive. It was, in fact, a classic example of Yeoman Furniture (without milk paint). I’d like to have measured drawings of the cabinet and make a reproduction.

Our tour of the house was much too short but that was, I suppose, necessary considering the crowds of people who show up to see Monticello. Pictures in the house are not allowed, but I took these pictures of the kitchen, which is in a basement setting (that was typical for plantation kitchens of the time). Something like this kitchen would make a great summer kitchen on any busy modern homestead.

Our next stop was a tour of the gardens. Jefferson’s vegetable or "kitchen garden" was a 1,000-foot-long, two-acre piece of land terraced into the mountainside, just south of the house. Here are a couple of garden pictures:

To the left in those pictures and out of view is a stone wall which retains the terraced land, allowing for a large, level area on the slope of the mountain. Below the wall, Jefferson had an eight-acre orchard (300 trees), two vineyards, and plots of figs, currants, gooseberries, and raspberries.

Preservationists know the what, where, and how of Jefferson’s gardens because he kept copious records. He was into it.

In 1793 Patsy wrote her father complaining of insect damage in the garden. His response is insightful:

”We will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coating of manure. When earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality. I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the lean state of the soil. We will attack them another year with joint efforts.”

In the background of the above pictures you can see a taller mountain. That was once a part of Jefferson’s plantation and he called it Mount Alto. In recent years, the Monticello foundation purchased 300 acres on the top of the mountain. They plan to reforest the cleared area so the view will be as it was in Jefferson’s day.

Our tour guide told us that the Foundation paid 15 million for the Mount Alto property. That amounts to $50,000 an acre. Coincidentally, it was Jefferson as President who paid 15 million to Napoleon Bonaparte for the Louisiana Purchase. That purportedly calculated out to three cents an acre.

There is much more I could say about Jefferson and Monticello, but this is rambling on. I will post one more blog about Jefferson and tell you about the significant financial crisis he and his family faced later in his life. There are lessons that we today can extrapolate for ourselves from the story.

To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: The Story of Thomas Jefferson's Personal Debt

Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Part 1)

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Madison's Montpelier & The Big Woods

I’ve been writing here about the recent trip my two sons and I took to historic Virginia. On the first day we visited the National Firearms Museum. On day two we went to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Day three was James Madison’s Montpelier. On our fourth and final day we went to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

I have mixed feelings about Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, I admire him. How could I not admire the man who wrote “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence.

At one time in my life I decided I would memorize the document. I made it as far as these two awesome sentences:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
The Declaration in its entirety is a powerful arrangement of words and ideas. Jefferson deserves a lot of credit for not only composing the words, but putting his name to them. He and the 55 other men who signed that piece of paper mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. They did this, as Jefferson put it, with a "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence".

Every one of those brave men were committing treason against their country (England), and every one would, as a result, be wanted men. Some of them did lose their lives and their fortunes by signing that document. But none lost their honor.

And I admire Thomas Jefferson’s sagacious vision for America. He believed the new form of government he helped to found was best supported by a population of independent yeoman farmers. In other words, he believed America’s best hope for the future was as an Agrarian Republic. With that thought in mind, here are some pertinent quotes from Jefferson:
”Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”
”It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”
”Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

Yes, there is a lot to admire about Thomas Jefferson. But, unfortunately, Jefferson disappoints me with his deistic haughtiness. He wrote a book, commonly referred to as Jefferson’s Bible, in which he retells the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But Jefferson removed references to the deity of Christ, the miracles he performed, and His resurrection.

As I learned about Jefferson’s bible I found myself feeling sorry for this man who was gifted with so much intelligence and talent, yet was so ignorant and foolish in the most important matters of life. To die without believing and fully knowing the salvation of Providence, as explained in scripture (that scripture which was not edited by Jefferson), is a tragedy.

Then there is the Sally Hemmings story. Did Jefferson father children by his almost-white mulatto slave? Recent evidence shows that at least one of Sally Hemming’s children had Jefferson DNA. But some say the father may have been Thomas Jefferson’s brother. In any event, it is reported that Sally’s boys looked like Thomas Jefferson. And of the six slaves Jefferson freed (two in his lifetime and four in his will), all were of the Hemmings family. We may never know for sure, and it really doesn’t matter.

In the final analysis, Thomas Jefferson was a truly remarkable man but he was only a man. He was prone to commit the same sins that have beset all men in all ages. I am not one to idolize any man, but I do have my favorites in American history. Washington and R.E. Lee rank up there higher than Jefferson. Nevertheless, I do not hang framed images of any “famous” man on the walls of my home.

But that is just me and, once again, I have strayed off the path with this discourse. It is supposed to be about my vacation. So here is a picture I took of the east front of Jefferson’s home.

The west front is the more popular view of the house. It is the side that you can see on the back of a nickel. Here is another view of the west side.

There is a walkway that surrounds the west lawn (you can see part of it in the foreground of the picture. Jefferson’s flower gardens were located all around the walkway.

Do you know what other piece of American currency (besides the nickel) bears Thomas Jefferson’s likeness? It is the two-dollar bill. It so happens that two-dollar bills are still printed by the U.S. mint but they are no longer in general circulation. The only place you can get them is at Monticello.

Which makes me wonder what the purchasing power of two dollars is now compared to Jefferson’s day. Probably a nickel.

In my next essay, I will share some more pictures of Monticello. I’ll also tell you about Jefferson’s “seed press,” his daughter, Patsy, and the little-known crisis he faced later in life.
To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (Part 2)

Visiting Madison’s Montpelier & The Big Woods

To read the previous story in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer (Part 2)

I have been writing about my recent vacation to Virginia. After seeing Mount Vernon, my two sons and I drove south, out of the crowded DC suburbs, to Orange, Virginia, near Charlottesville, within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near where John-boy Walton grew up.

But long before John-boy, or his "Daddy," or even Grandpa Walton, this area was home to three U.S. Presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. We visited the homes of each of these men, beginning with Madison's Montpelier.

James Madison was our fourth president and he was known as the “Father of the Constitution.” That title was not given to him by historians. It was what his contemporaries said of him.

At only 5ft 4in. tall, Madison was 10” shorter than Washington and Jefferson, and he was soft spoken, but he had a brilliant mind and a perspicacious grasp of history. While many founders of our nation believed that a Republican form of government would not work in a large and growing nation with different regional interests, Madison believed that a Republic was actually the ideal form of government. One of Madison’s more famous statements about “pure democracy” is found in The Federalist Paper #10:

Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Standing in James Madison’s library at Montpelier, our tour guide told us that the room was where Madison spent so many hours reading and studying history and putting together his ideas and proposals about how our government should be structured. He compiled his ideas into what is known as the “Virginia Plan.” The floor boards under where his desk once was are still stained with blotches of ink from his pen.

Madison was just 36 years old when he went to the Constitutional Convention that was convened in the spring of 1787. The reason for the convention was to revise and improve the “Articles of Confederation” which was the governing document at that time for the union of thirteen sovereign colonies. But right from the start, Madison’s Virginia Plan was proposed and the Convention veered into a new direction. Instead of fixing the Articles of Confederation, the 55 delegates spent the long, hot summer hammering out a whole new form of government, embodied in a new document called the “Constitution of the United States.”

I asked our tour guide if Madison was the person who came up with the idea of the electoral college. She didn’t know. I have since found out that Madison’s Virginia Plan called for election of the President by the Legislature. Wiser minds prevailed.

Some people were not happy with the “hijacking” of the Convention in 1787 and the new Constitutional form of government. Patrick Henry (another famous Virginia patriot) was among them. He was suspicious of any plan that gave more power to a central government. It was Patrick Henry’s strong protestations that helped to bring about the first ten amendments to the Constitution, otherwise known as The Bill of Rights. I like Patrick Henry. But I like Madison too.

Several years ago there was talk of convening another Constitutional Convention to “update” our American form of government. Were this to ever occur, there is no telling what might happen. A completely new form of government might emerge. The precedent for such an outcome was set in 1787. But back then, we had men of remarkable integrity and wisdom “steering the ship.” I shudder to think what might happen in this day and age with so many corporate lobbyists, manipulating media, and addle-brained, self-serving politicians.

Before I go too far down that rabbit trail, I’d better get back to our Montpelier visit. Here is a quote from James Madison that I found in the Montpelier museum:
”First and foremost, I consider myself a farmer.”
It is reported that Thomas Jefferson referred to Madison as “the best farmer in the world.”

Here is a picture I took of Farmer Madison’s home:

And here is a picture looking west from the front of the home. All the land you see, except the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far distance, is part of the current 2,650 acre estate.

Madison’s home is noticeably larger and grander than Washington’s Mount Vernon. In many respects, I liked it better. Perhaps it was the secluded setting, the long, winding, private drive, and the western panorama on such a nice day in October. Perhaps it was the fact that far fewer tourists were there than at Mount Vernon. Or maybe it was Montpelier’s old-growth forest. I’m sure that was part of it—James Madison Landmark Forest was actually what drew me to Montpelier in the first place. Everything else was just icing on the cake.

I would like to someday walk through a virgin forest, which is a stand of woodland that has never been harvested. The next best thing is an old-growth forest—a place where no logging has been done for a very long time. In the case of Montpelier’s old growth forest, it has not been logged in more than 200 years. Woods like that are rare in this day and age.

Needless to say, there are a lot of big trees in an old growth forest. They are big around and tall. Were you to cut one down, you would find many growth rings, very densely layered. Here are some pictures of me and my sons in the Madison Landmark Forest:

Unlike Mount Vernon, which was owned only by generations of Washington decedents before being turned over to a preservation group, Montpelier has had numerous owners up until 1984, when Marion duPont Scott willed it to the national Trust for Historic Preservation. Marion and her brother moved to the home when her parents (William and Annie duPont) bought the place in 1901 She was eight years old and never really left.

William duPont expanded the original Madison home from 22 rooms to 55 and added 12 bathrooms. When the historic trust took over, they removed everything the duPont family added to the home, including all those bathrooms (the Madison family used only chamber pots). When Marion and her brother moved to Montpelier in 1901 they wanted ponies. Marion grew up to raise and race thoroughbred horses at Montpelier, the most famous of which was named “Battleship.” There is a gallery at the Montpelier museum that tells the duPont story.

I suspect that if people who “needed money” had owned the estate, that old-growth forest would not have been preserved, and neither would the vast amount of acreage.
To read the next story in this series, Click Here: Visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (Part 1)

George Washington The Farmer (Part 2)

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer (Part 1)

In my previous blog essay I told you about how George Washington was an innovative and inventive farmer, and that he parted ways with many of the usual farming practices of his day. For example, instead of relying exclusively on tobacco as a cash crop, he opted to grow grains and corn. He also had livestock and a fishery. Washington’s diversified and sustainable approach to farming contributed to his considerable prosperity. But there was another important facet of his operation that was integral to his success...Washington understood that in order to get the most money from his crops he needed to add value and sell to local markets.

Now, some 200+ years later, small farmers in America are realizing that, in order to survive and thrive, they must add value to the basic agricultural commodities their farms produce, and they must sell direct to local markets. It would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

From what I’ve been able to learn of George Washington’s farm, he added value (and profit) to his farm production in two notable ways. First, when he inherited Mount Vernon from his half brother Lawrence in 1754, there was a small grist mill that ground corn and wheat for neighboring farmers and to supply the needs of Mount Vernon’s community.

That, in itself, was a profit center, but in 1771 Washington constructed a larger, “merchant” grist mill. The new mill was powered by a 16ft water wheel that turned two sets of stones. There was also a newly patented mechanism for sifting and separating white flour from the germ and bran. One set of stones was for corn. The other stones were imported from Europe and employed to grind wheat. Here’s a picture I took of the inside of the reconstructed grist mill. The gears and mechanisms are almost entirely made of wood:

Washington’s mill produced a fine flour that was sold all along the eastern seaboard colonies. He also packed the flour in barrels and shipped it to foreign markets, where it was much in demand.

But milling flour was just the beginning of a much more ambitious value-added venture. Off to one side of the grist mill Washington constructed a distillery for making whiskey. The process of making whiskey involved fermenting a heated mash of ground indian corn, rye, and malted barley, all of which came from Washington’s farm. The distillery also produced fruit brandies.

You can visit the reconstructed distillery today. Here is a link. The building has five stills. It was the largest distillery in America at that time. Production was a much as 11,000 gallons a year.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, rum was the most popular distilled alcoholic drink in America. But after the war, rum and molasses (used to make rum) from British Caribbean islands was in short supply. So homegrown corn-and-rye whiskey filled the void. Washington had no problem selling his whiskey to local markets.

Here is a picture I took from the outside of Washington’s distillery:

That wood sluice you can see in the picture supplied a steady stream of cooling water to the wooden barrels in which the copper condensation coils of each still were immersed.

During our tour of Mount Vernon, we learned that Washington himself preferred to drink imported Port and Madeira wines which, I’m told, are sweet to the taste (I’m not an experienced alcohol imbiber myself). But an inventory of his estate after he died in 1799 showed that Washington had an ample supply of brandy and whiskey in the basement of Mount Vernon. Clearly, he had no objection to the drinking of alcohol. But, from what we learned, he strongly disapproved of drinking to excess.

Another interesting aspect of Washington’s distillery operation was that the huge quantities of spent mash were not wasted. The byproduct was fed to hogs and cattle, which were penned outside the distillery. One visitor wrote that Washington’s hogs were so fat their bellies dragged on the ground.

George Washington’s farming and “agripreneurial” pursuits made him a lot of money. He was a very wealthy man when he died. This was not the case with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th presidents of the U.S., who were also Virginian farmers. I’ll have more to say about these men in my next few essays.
To read the next story in this series, Click Here: Visiting Madison's Montpelier & The Big Woods

George Washington The Farmer (Part 1)

In my previous blog essay (Visiting Mount Vernon) I told you about my recent vacation and going to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington. He is famous for being a soldier and statesman, but his great love was farming. The Mount Vernon experience does not downplay the farming aspect of Washington’s life, and I appreciated that.

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.

Visiting Mount Vernon

As I wrote in my previous blog essay (Indulging in an Extravagance), my two sons and I went on a Man’s Vacation that included early American history, guns, agrarian culture, and an old-growth forest. In short, we went to Virginia. Now we are back home. It was a good trip. I will tell you a little about it now and more in the days ahead.

We left early Wednesday morning. Our first destination was the National Rifle Association’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia (seven hours driving time), where we toured their firearms museum. If you are interested in firearms and firearms history, the museum is a worthwhile visit. I wouldn’t travel from afar just to see the museum. But if you are in the area, check it out.

This first picture shows my favorite gun. It dates from 1620 and was owned by John Alden, a cooper by trade, one of the original Mayflower Pilgrims, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. Barely visible in the background is that famous painting by George H. Boughton, titled Pilgrims Going to Church. They carried their guns to church, as the picture shows. You can view the painting here.

Then we checked into a Comfort Inn about 15 minutes from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which was our destination the next day. We were in the Washington DC suburbs, surrounded by so many developments with rows and rows of expensive townhouses, like this:

I am thankful that I do not live in such a place. People are crammed together. They have virtually no land, just a residential box to return to each day after work in the city. The traffic is terrible. There are, I suppose, millions of people who live in environments like this around the DC Metro area. I feel especially sorry for the children. There is NOTHING about this area that appeals to me except Mount Vernon. I have always wanted to go to George Washington’s home. He is one of my favorite people from American history. But, until this vacation, I have never traveled south of DC.

We were first in line at the locked gates to Mount Vernon on Thursday morning. As a result, we were invited inside before the busloads of government school kids behind us, and we raised the American flag over Mount Vernon that day. My son Robert did the actual flag raising, and he was given a certificate afterward. Here is a picture of Robert raising the flag:

We spent most of the day at Mount Vernon and it was a day well spent. On the drive down from New York, we all listened to David Barton’s CD titled “The Bulletproof George Washington.” James & Robert heard the remarkable story of Washington’s bravery as a young man during the French & Indian war, the highlight of which was at the Battle of Monongahela where 1,300 crack British troops under command of General Edward Braddock were massacred and routed by a lesser force of French & Indians. Braddock was killed. Washington, at 23 years old was fearless in battle and heroically managed to direct an orderly retreat. He had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets went through his coat.

Years later (before Washington became president) an indian chief who was fighting for the French at Monongahela spoke with Washington. He told of how he had directed his braves to shoot Washington. The chief himself fired more than a dozen times. He explained to Washington that his gun normally hit its mark on the first shot. The chief realized that “The Great Spirit” was protecting Washington and that no one could kill him that day.

Indeed, Washington attributed his survival that day to Providence. And then, years later, fighting for American independence against the British, there was the battle of Trenton. Against all odds, with an inferior colonial force, after being beaten down time after time, Washington decides to attack, and wins a decisive victory. He credits the victory to the hand of Providence.

Part of the Mount Vernon experience includes a state-of-the-art educational center with multimedia presentations that were very good, if not always entirely accurate. For example, some details of the Battle of Monongahela were not perfectly in line with David Barton’s account and other accounts I’ve read. Artifacts, like Washington’s sword from the French & Indian war were there, as well as a set of his false teeth.

One of the things I especially appreciated about the education center was the three life size models of Washington that were recently made after extensive forensic investigation into his facial features (one life mask was made of his face when he was 53 years old) and body size. The models show Washington at 19, 45, and 57 years of age.

The day we were there was absolutely beautiful. Robert and James and I, tired from so much walking, sat in Windsor chairs on the east front the house (there is no back to the house, only an east front and a west front), under the 90 ft-long piazza, looking over the Potomac River. The land on the other side is a wooded park in Maryland. So the view looks just as it did in Washington’s time. Here is a picture of what we saw:

That tree is a swamp chestnut that dates back to 1771. Washington’s farm bordered the Potomac and that was important for two reasons. First, it gave him a port for shipping his agricultural products to foreign markets . Second, it provided access for fishing, which was an important part of the Mount Vernon economy.

An interesting bit of history that we learned is that in the War of 1812, after the British destroyed the White House and every other government building in Washington DC (except the Patent Office), they sailed their ships down the Potomac and stopped in front of Mount Vernon. They could easily have destroyed it too. But, instead, they fired their cannon as a salute and sign of respect to Washington.

By the way, just before the British burned the White House in 1812, Dolly Madison saved one of the famous Gilbert Stewart paintings of George Washington. You can read a short letter Dolly wrote about this event At This Link (and I recommend that you do read it). Dolly Madison was a remarkable woman.

We took the usual tour of the inside of Mount Vernon and were able to look into the same dining room mirror that Washington himself looked into. We also saw he and Martha’s bedroom where he died in 1799, after a two-day illness. It is believed that he died of epiglottitis. It didn’t help that his doctors also bled five pints of blood out of him. A simple antibiotic would probably have saved Washington, but antibiotics had not been invented. An emergency tracheotomy would have made all the difference, but it was not a normal procedure at that time.

Washington was barely able to speak as he was dying. Martha was there as were three doctors and others. One doctor was James Craik, who had been with Washington through the French & Indian War and the terrible Battle of Monongahela, as well as the Revolutionary War. Washington’s last words are reported by his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, as follows:

”At about 10 o'clock, he (Washington) made several attempts to speak to me; at length he said, "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead." I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again, and said, "Do you understand me?" I replied, "Yes."

"Tis well," he said.

Another interesting part of the visit was Washington’s Tomb. He designed a new family tomb because the original family tomb nearer to the Potomac was disintegrating. The new tomb was built to his specifications after his death. Above the tomb on the outside is a block of engraved granite that reads, “Within this sarcophagus rest the remains of Genl. George Washington." Looking into the tomb you see the marble sarcophagus where Washington rests. Next to it is Martha’s sarcophagus. Out of sight, behind a small door are the bodies of 25 more family members. The tomb is simple, sparse, and unremarkable except for an engraved slab of marble inset into the back wall. As per Washington’s plans, it is the only thing in the tomb that has any words on it and reads as follows:

John XI:VVVI Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die yet he shall live.

Suffice it to say that I could write a whole lot more, but you get the idea.... we had a great day at Mount Vernon.

In my next essay I will tell you about George Washington, the farmer. Thomas Jefferson gets a lot of attention for his agrarian ideals. But Washington was a farmer too. He was an innovative and entrepreneurial farmer and, unlike Jefferson, Washington was very successful. Aspiring farmers of today can learn from Washington's example.

Here s a final picture of James and Robert. They are in front of a big tree on the south side of the house, just outside the entrance to the basement. In addition to the usual house tour, we took a 45-minute "National Treasure" movie tour. I haven't seen the movie but my kids have. Part of it takes place in the basement of Mount Vernon. We got to see the house basement (normally off limits) and ended up down on the Potomac shoreline. It turns out there really are underground tunnels at Mount Vernon but, alas, they do not date from Washington's time. They are modern service tunnels that supply electrical, water and such to the house.

To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer (Part 1)