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George Washington's Gristmill

Wed, 01/18/2006

The Basic Facts

  • George Washington was a professional farmer who cultivated more than 3,500 acres of his 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate. Over the course of his career he experimented with growing more than 60 different crops.
  • Early in his farming career, tobacco was Washington’s staple crop. By the 1760s he was growing small grains with wheat as his cash crop and corn to provide food for his family and slaves.
  • Washington’s mill was located on Dogue Run, adjoining his Dogue Run Farm (one of five farms comprising the plantation), approximately three miles west of the Mansion.
  • The mill was made of local stone, two and one-half stories high and 32 by 46 feet in dimension.

The Gristmill Under Washington’s Supervision

  • 1771 - Washington replaced a severely deteriorated gristmill, possibly built by his father Augustine, with a stone mill equipped with two sets of millstones. One of the pair of stones were made from French buhr stone, still considered to be the best material available for making millstones, and was dedicated to producing high quality flour for the merchant trade. With the construction of this larger, more efficient mill, Washington was able to market his grain and flour locally in Alexandria and as far away as the West Indies, England and Europe.
  • June 1771 - Washington sold 128,000 pounds (426 barrels) of fine quality flour to an Alexandria merchant; in July of that same year, 200 barrels of Washington’s flour were shipped to Jamaica.
  • 1791 - Washington was one of the first to install a series of improvements to the millworks that was developed and patented by Oliver Evans of Delaware. Evans’ automated mill was granted U.S. Patent No. 3. The system reduced the labor force needed to operate the mill from six to two men and produced greater quantities of flour in a fraction of the time.
  • 1792 - Washington designed a two-story, 16-sided barn for his farming enterprise where horses walked in a circular path inside the building with the action of their hooves separating the wheat from the chaff. The barn allowed Washington to more efficiently tread the wheat, and safeguarded his crop from theft.
  • 1797 - Washington retired from his second term as president. With more time to devote to his Estate, he built a distillery adjacent to the gristmill. Washington’s Scottish plantation manager, James Anderson, convinced Washington that producing whiskey from rye and corn grown on the plantation would be a profitable complement to the milling operation.
  • 1798 - The mill was the third most profitable venture at Mount Vernon, trailing only the farms and the fishery (the distillery was fourth). Washington made a profit of L277 ($25,000 in modern purchasing power) from grinding 5,033 bushels (more than 275,000 pounds) of wheat. Another 3,200 bushels (178,145 pounds) of corn were ground for internal use on the plantation.
  • December 14, 1799 - Washington died of asphyxiation resulting from a throat infection contracted after he was caught in a sudden storm during a routine inspection of his farms.

The Gristmill After Washington

  • By 1850, both Washington’s mill and the distillery ceased operation. Stones were salvaged from the buildings to construct houses in the surrounding area.
  • In 1933, the Commonwealth of Virginia reconstructed Washington’s gristmill on its original site and opened it to the public as a state park.
  • The reconstructed mill was based on documentary evidence and the results of archaeological investigations that revealed the footprint of the building. Evidence indicated that the water wheel was placed inside the building, and a fragment of the wheel was recovered, preserved in place in the moist, oxygen-free environment at the bottom of the pit. Gears and other elements were removed from an early 19th-century mill located near Front Royal, Virginia, and were reused in the reconstruction.

Reconstruction of Washington’s Mill

  • In 1996, Mount Vernon dedicated an exact replica of George Washington’s 16-sided treading barn as the centerpiece of its new interpretive program, including a four-acre working farm, called George Washington: Pioneer Farmer.
  • Mount Vernon and the Commonwealth of Virginia joined as partners in 1996 to restore the reconstructed mill. By April 2002, the first and most important phase of the project will be completed, with the mill repaired and restored to operable condition.
  • The total cost of the Gristmill project – including restoring the millworks, installing a water circulating system to power the mill wheel, fabricating and installing a system of labor saving devices like that adopted by George Washington in 1791, and enlarging the capacity for visitor parking and installing other amenities was approximately $1.2 million.
  • Generous support for the project was received from Cargill and Betty and Whitney MacMillan, Chairman Emeritus of Cargill, Incorporated. Cargill is an international marketer, processor, and distributor of agricultural, food, financial and industrial products and services.

The Gristmill Today

  • The newly restored gristmill is one of the most authentic recreations of an 18th-century mill in the country. When combined with the activities demonstrated at the George Washington: Pioneer Farmer site, visitors to Mount Vernon are able to observe every step of the process that was required in the 18th century to transform seed to bread.
  • With the Evans automated milling system installed, Washington’s mill is the only water-powered mill in the country to have a complete and fully operational version of this 18th-century technological innovation.

Visiting George Washington’s Gristmill at Mount Vernon

The Gristmill will be open daily April through October, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Adult admission is $5.