MOUNT VERNON, VA. Visitors will see the water-powered mill in operation, discover how it works, and learn how this particular mill played an important role in George Washington’s vision for American’s future as “granary to the world.”
The project has been supported by a grant from Cargill, Incorporated, a company with roots in the milling industry that go back 120 years.
George Washington was one of the nation’s most innovative and entrepreneurial farmers. His 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate included 3,500 acres of cultivated farmland. In the last decade, the national attraction has made numerous additions to the property to enhance the visitor experience and to tell a more comprehensive story about the character of George Washington. The mill is preceded by recent additions of a four-acre farm site, a fruit and garden nursery and the George Washington museum.
According the James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, adding the gristmill to Mount Vernon’s experience does more than teach visitors about early American flour production. “Washington is considered America’s ‘first farmer’ because of his pioneering approach to the business of agriculture and his vision for the nation’s self-sufficiency. Even as he built a new nation and laid the foundation of the American presidency, he was determined to create a new economy in which farming would play a critical role at Mount Vernon and throughout America.” He noted that “The gristmill helps us teach visitors the entrepreneurial spirit of Washington’s agricultural businesses.”
By the 1760s, Washington replaced tobacco with wheat as his staple crop because it commanded a more reliable market, required less labor to produce and was less destructive of soil fertility. To enable Washington to increase overall production of flour and meal, and to be able to produce high quality flour for sale in the overseas market, Washington erected a large new stone gristmill in 1771. The mill was a highly profitable venture and Washington aggressively marketed his milled flour to customers nearby and as far away as the West Indies, England and Europe.
Although the original gristmill structure no longer exists, in 1993 the Commonwealth of Virginia reconstructed Washington’s mill on the original site, based on a combination of documentary and archaeological evidence and opened its doors to the public. Declining visitation to the state park and the belief that the property would be best served if joined with another nearby historic site led the Commonwealth to propose that Mount Vernon take over its operation. Legislative authority enacted the lease and subsequent conveyance of the property to Mount Vernon in 1996.
Dr Dennis Pogue, associate director of Mount Vernon for Preservation, leads the restoration team that includes British-born Derek Ogden, a world-class millwright who lives in Madison County. “We assembled the nation’s leading authorities so that we could present one of the nation’s most authentically reconstructed Eighteenth Century mills.” He added, “Mount Vernon’s visitors will see the entire flour production process – from seed to table.”
The second phase of the project will take place later this year when the millworks become automated using technology developed and patented by Oliver Evans of Delaware and installed by Washington in 1791. George Washington was one of the first American farmers to use Oliver Evans automated mill to make flour production more efficient and less labor intensive. In fact, President Washington signed US Patent No. 3 for Evan’s invention. According to Ogden, “The opportunity to highlight Washington’s agricultural innovations through the ongoing restoration of this mill is a gratifying endeavor.”
Archaeological investigations are also underway at the property to identify and investigate the sites of the cooperage, slave quarters, animal enclosures and the distillery that are known to have been erected nearby the gristmill. To date, the original stone foundation of the distillery has been revealed and the site is undergoing intensive archaeological excavation and as the final phase the estate hopes to reconstruct the entire gristmill complex.
Visitors to Mount Vernon will be able to observe all phases of the process required to produce flour in the Eighteenth Century manner, beginning with workers in colonial garb sowing the seed, then harvesting the wheat, and managing Washington’s treading barn, where horses walk on the second level of the circular barn to separate the grain from the straw.
After further cleaning, the sacks of grain are delivered to the gristmill to be ground into flour and packed in barrels. Once the mill passes the necessary inspections, Mount Vernon’s retailers plan to sell the freshly ground flour in its gristmill gift shop.
The total cost of the gristmill project including restoring the millworks, installing a water circulating system to power the mill wheel, fabricating and installing the Evans system and adding parking and other conveniences to support the anticipated increase in visitation will be approximately $1.2 million.
The George Washington Gristmill complex will be open to the public seven days a week from April through October, 10 am to 5 pm. For information, 703-780-2000.