On Monday I had the distinct pleasure of accompanying Ken Bowling and some George Washington University undergraduates on a trip to nearby Mount Vernon. We visited the estate’s gristmill and distillery, as well as a slave cabin and threshing barn. These sites elucidated food production at our first president’s estate as part of their class, “George Washington and His World”.
I first met Ken last winter when I interviewed him for my video documentary on the history of the Columbia name. His book, The Creation of Washington, DC, particularly suited him to explaining the origins of the District of Columbia. Since then, I have enjoyed stopping by to see him and his fellow historians at the First Federal Congress Project in downtown Washington, DC.
I hope you enjoy these images and the notes that accompany them.
Mount Vernon interpreter Steve Bashore commences our tour of the gristmill. Though there is controversy about the word’s etymology, grist means “grain”.
As the new president had to sign every patent issued by the new country, Washington’s attention was captured by Patent No. 3, a fully automated gristmill by a Baltimorean inventor. This forward-thinking farmer immediately made inquiries!
The hopper holds the wheat that descends from the second floor via the chute at upper left. The mill has two pairs of grinding wheels: one for wheat, the other for corn (maize).
The wheat enters the grinding millstones through the center hole. The space between the two stones is carefully controlled to avoid actual contact between the surfaces, lest friction burn the newly made flour or stone flecks similarly ruin the product. The newly ground flour falls below the grinders, and is automatically elevated to the top level via cups on conveyor belts.
The mill’s wheels are powered by water that descends through a very long mill race. While drought conditions at times effected production, the inherent storability of grain mitigated this effect.
Even as effort is made to space the millstones to keep the flour from burning, it still emerges too hot for sifting. This device churns the flour after it arrives on the third floor for cooling. Entering this mandala like form at the edge, it eventually descends to the mill’s second floor via a hole at center. Flour that is too warm will clog the silk sifters, the final process before bagging.
The gristmill seen from the path to the distillery. Informing my own fascination with the mill was knowing my Scottish ancestors owned a flour mill in Douglas, Ontario.
Inside the distillery. Water is heated here in this copper kettle, and then manually poured into barrels containing a “mash” of grains to commence the fermentation process.
One of the stills and some casks in the reconstruction of the Mount Vernon distillery.
A detail from the modern-day work area of Mt. Vernon.
Estate overseer James Anderson is depicted in front of the model slave cabin. It was the Scottish Anderson who convinced George Washington to take up distilling spirits.
Ken Bowling looks on as James Anderson, Washington’s overseer, is depicted by an actor speaking with a crackerjack Scottish burr.
At lower left is the slave cabin’s root cellar, with sand to prevent bruising of vegetables. Look at all that light from the sky shining down the chimney!
A view of the slave cabin interior. An historian from the University of Maryland who accompanied us informed me that slaves locked their cabins to preserve their few personal effects.
Looking into the rafters of the threshing barn.
A view of the Potomac. Some members of congress feared, through his supporting the capital placed so near his own lands, that Washington was self-dealing. Hence, congress forbade federal development on the Virginia side of the this river.
The interpretive slave cabin seen from the threshing barn. In the museum’s earliest days, slaves were referred to as “servants”. The chimney is designed as not attached to the dwelling, allowing it to be knocked away in case of chimney fire.
Exterior view of the threshing barn.
Mt. Vernon’s location was predicated by the Potomac River. Rivers were the superhighways of Washington’s day, allowing the estate’s produce to be exported to markets both domestic and foreign.
As it did with Mount Vernon, the Potomac defined the capital’s placement. Many of America’s Columbia towns and cities are similarly situated on waterways. Washington had hoped the Potomac would be the river that united the new western states with the coast. The Mohawk River / Erie Canal / Hudson River won that honor, and created New York City as the richest city in the nation.