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The Union Farm was composed of two smaller farms known as "The Ferry" and "French's." Both were acquired by George Washington in six purchases between 1769 and 1786. With the final purchase completed in October 1786, Washington resurveyed the individual tracts into two farms, each with orderly seven-field crop systems. Washington envisioned the farms as a single operating unit, placing his new farm complex at the center of the two farms. By November of 1788 the two farms were united under one manager. The farms retained separate identities for several more years, however, and the barn built there in 1788 was often referred to as "the New Barn," "the barn at Ferry and French's," or as "the Ferry Barn."1
The original Arthur Young design for the farm was a plain line drawing to scale with numbers keyed to explanatory text in the body of the accompanying letter. Young published a more carefully executed copy of the plan and explanatory key in Annals of Agriculture in 1791, noting that it was based on his own barn in Suffolk, England. The core of the design was a rectangular brick barn with entry wings on each façade. The main structure followed a traditional tripartite functional plan, with the opposing facade doors opening onto a central threshing floor flanked by storage bays.
Encircling the barn were livestock sheds that were left unsided and open to the weather. At the corners flanking sheds were enclosed to create protected rooms for foaling, feed storage, and farm implements. Other details included feeding passages and mangers in the stable sheds and a gutter system that drained manure to outlying cisterns for collection and eventual transport to the fields.
Washington followed the Young design closely, but determined that it would not fully satisfy his needs for livestock shelter. As a result, he drafted a plan for a large brick stable complex that he married to the Arthur Young plan, creating a barn that was in some respects more English than the design his English mentor had provided.
Washington's design for the stable complex is undated, but was prepared after mid-May 1787, when the Young plan arrived, and before January 5, 1788. The building was a dramatic break from local tradition and yet was not derived directly from mainstream published sources. The north and east barns housed livestock on the first story and hay on the second. Both barns were designed to accommodate a variety of livestock.
The north barn included twenty stalls for cattle on the south side and an unpartitioned browsing area for sheep on the north side with doors opening onto a pasture. The sheep and cattle fed from a bisecting manger and trapdoors in the loft floor above simplified feeding. The east barn was arranged similarly, but with a combination of five by ten foot stalls for cattle and six double stalls for horses.
With a design in hand, construction of the main barn moved forward quickly. In early December 1787, Washington opened negotiations with the Alexandria mercantile firm Peterson & Taylor for his lumber needs and on January 5, 1788 forwarded a "Bill of Scantling" for the principal framing members required for the barn. Plantation slaves spent much of the winter cutting and cording wood for the brick kilns, and on February 14, 1788 work began on the foundation.
The exterior shell of the new barn was completed in the winter of 1789 and by September of 1790 the main barn was being used to store rye and oats. A second phase of construction took place from 1789-91, constructing the adjoining brick stable complex. By the Spring of 1791, the Union Farm complex was complete and Washington directed his construction crews to other tasks.
Over the ensuing years many other improvements were made at Union Farm. The scattered domestic and agricultural buildings that survived from earlier ownership were dismantled, replaced, or moved to locations more practical for the new and much larger Union Farm. The old entrance lane, which had previously passed the new barn on its west side, was realigned to approach the barn and stable complex on axis. Framed against fields, clover lots, a stack yard, and the river was what Washington claimed to be one of the largest and finest barns in the country. Taken together, this ensemble was the embodiment of Washington's ambitions to place the stamp of progressive farming on the shores of the Potomac.
1. The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), Vol. 1, 241-3; Vol. 5, 73, 75, 85, 97, 426.