George Washington was frequently at the forefront of new and improved farming techniques. From his utilization of diverse crops to the implementation of the Evans system of milling, Washington constantly sought to improve agricultural output and efficiency. One way that agricultural production increased at Mount Vernon was through the use of new machine technologies.
Washington constantly tried to find new ways to improve soil and make more money off the land. One way to achieve this improvement was through the use of machines. Three particularly important machines utilized at Mount Vernon were the Rotherham Plow, Spiky Roller, and Winlaws Machine.
The Rotherham Plow was a swing plow that was designed originally in Rotherham, Yorkshire, England in the 1730s. The plow was popular and efficient because of its light frame and the design of its moldboard. Washington had a Rotherham Plow constructed, noting the building of the machine in a letter to the firm of Crosbies and Trafford from March 6, 1765, and instructed the purchasers to obtain the proper design. Washington also requested that the Rotherham Plow be modified to fit the soil in the colonies as opposed to the soil that was in England and Scotland, specifying that the plow should "be made exceeding light as our Lands are not so stiff as your's nor our Horses so strong."1
Another machine that was utilized at Mount Vernon was the Spiky Roller. The major parts of the machine were a large wooden cylinder that had iron spikes burned into the cylinder half way, leaving one half of the spike inside the wood and the other half exposed. Above the cylinder sat a frame with a chair where an individual would sit. There was also a harness that would extend outward so the machine could be attached to draft animals such as oxen. All totaled, with a person driving the machine, a spiky roller could weigh anywhere from 1,100 pounds to one ton.
The purpose of a spiky roller was to break up clumpy soil and prepare it for sowing as the machine was driven over the land. Washington was very fond of this machine, and it was in general use on the farms of Mount Vernon. One letter indicates what crops Washington used the spiky roller to develop. Washington reported that, "Rollers I have been in the constant use of many years; in the way you mention; and find considerable benefit in passing them over my Winter grain in the Spring, as soon as the ground will admit a hoof on it. I use them also on Spring grain and grass Seeds after Sowing, and sometimes before, to reduce the clods when the ground is rough."2
Winlaws Machine was designed as a wheat thresher that separated grain from the straw of a wheat stalk. Wheat was fed into the machine head first through the hopper. As the wheat was entered into the machine, a hand crank was turned revolving a fan inside the small cone at the top. As the blades turned, the grain was broken down away from the straw, and the grain fell through to the larger cone where it could be collected. According to Washington, "Women or boys of 12 or 14 years of age are fully adequate to the management of the Mill or threshing machine."3
Washington observed a Winlaws Machine before building one himself. On January 22, 1790 Washington recorded that, "the first run through the mill in 15 minutes as made half a bushel of clean wheat. Allowing 8 working hours in the 24 this would yield 16 bushels per day....Upon the whole it appears to be an easier, more expeditious and much cleaner way of getting the grain out than the usual mode to threshing, and vastly preferred to treading, which is hurtfiil to horses, filthy to the wheat, and not more expeditious."4 This machine was utilized at Mount Vernon to thresh wheat before the construction of the sixteen-sided barn in the 1790s, which proved to be more efficient than the Winlaws Machine.
1. George Washington to Crosbies and Trafford, 6 March 1765. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, et al, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007-.
2. George Washington to William Strickland, 15 July 1797. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, et al, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007-.
3. Diary Entry: 22 January 1790. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, et al, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007-.