By Thane Peterson
I spent the best part of an afternoon last week on my hands and knees, archeologist's trowel in hand, digging in the moist Virginia clay at the site of George Washington's distillery. It's a little known fact, but late in his life our first President built one of the nation's largest facilities for the production of rye whiskey. In 1799, the year Washington died, the distillery he constructed at Mt. Vernon, his Virginia estate near Washington, D.C., churned out 11,000 gallons of the hard stuff.
The site of the distillery, which fell into disuse sometime between 1808 and 1815, is now being excavated for the first time. I had the privilege of helping Leigh and Meg, two anthropology majors from nearby universities, scrape a few inches of soil off of what had once been a small section of one of the building's walls. All we found was a bunch of rocks and a sliver of greenish glass, but the experience was nonetheless exciting. I had the feeling of literally sifting little bits of history through my fingers.
If, like many Americans, you're feeling patriotic as the Fourth of July approaches, I heartily recommend spending a day at Mt. Vernon this summer. Museums are fine, but nothing beats visiting a historical site where you can lay your hand on the same banister that once felt the hands of several of the Founding Fathers, or stand by the canopied bed where our first President died. If you want, as I did, you can even volunteer for the archeological dig. Check it out at www.mountvernon.org.
I'm always looking for common ground between Americans who consider themselves conservative and those who think they are liberals, and Mt. Vernon is one of those places. Though Washington was perhaps the greatest of all the heroes of the Revolutionary period, he remains underappreciated and poorly understood by most Americans.
The more you find out about him, the more our current leaders -- whether Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Green -- look shallow by comparison. A good companion to any visit is Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, the wonderfully readable (and blessedly concise) "moral biography" of the first President by Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review magazine.
Americans still tend to remember Washington for his painful false teeth (made, I learned, of hippopotamus tusk), which made him look goofy in some portraits, and for the probably apocryphal story about him chopping down a cherry tree. In fact, Washington was one of those men's men they don't make much anymore: a strapping 6-ft., 3-in. horseman, a sword-wielding soldier who repeatedly risked his life to rally the bedraggled Revolutionary Army, an innovative farmer, an entrepreneur, and an inventor.
He was a self-taught man who never attended college but whose personal library at his death contained 900 volumes. He also had a shrewd eye for the ladies, courting and marrying one of the young nation's wealthiest widows at the time. We remember her today as Martha Washington.
The most famous American of his era, Washington was also the most widely admired. In contrast to the current President (and his namesake), Washington was twice elected President by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College. Brookhiser notes that Washington could easily have been elected to a third term if he had chosen to run again, but he preferred being down on the farm. Having brushed aside suggestions that he become king and continually refusing the gifts and blandishments he was offered at every turn, Washington retired to Mt. Vernon to live out his last years.
One of the striking impressions you get from a visit to the estate is how inventive and industrious Washington was. Early on in his career as a farmer, he shifted from producing tobacco to growing grain. As President, he pushed aside the treaties and legislative paperwork on his desk to invent a 16-sided treading barn that allowed grain to be separated from chaff indoors in relatively clean surroundings. By Thane Peterson
GRIST FOR THE MILL.
Among agricultural historians, he's also known as the "Father of the American Mule" for his strenuous efforts to raise the stubborn animals and promote them as more efficient than horses for farmwork.
One of the more interesting elements of a Mt. Vernon tour is a visit to Washington's gristmill. Like Thomas Jefferson, Washington was an early adapter of technology pioneered by Oliver Evans, a Delaware inventor who devised a mill that required only two operators, down from the previous five or more.
You can stand next to the clattering reconstructed mill, which is water-powered and made almost entirely of wood, as it pounds out different grades of corn meal and flour. In Washington's time, the finest ground flour was exported to England and commanded $5 per barrel, quite a bit of money in those days.
Like Jefferson, Washington also owned slaves. He inherited 10 of them from his father when he was just 11 years old. At the time of Washington's death at the age of 67, more than 300 slaves were living at Mt. Vernon. In contrast to Jefferson, however, no evidence indicates that Washington dallied with slave women.
Washington came to have grave doubts about the institution of slavery as he grew older. In the 1770s, he resolved never again to buy or sell another slave. Unlike many of his compatriots, he also refused to separate slave families. As a result, Mt. Vernon's slave population steadily increased during the last quarter-century of Washington's life. In his will, Washington freed his slaves and left a stipend that supported children and the elderly for 34 years after his death.
Which brings us back to the distillery. By refusing to sell slaves, Washington deprived himself of a major source of income enjoyed by other landowners. As a result, he was constantly having to come up with new money-generating schemes at Mt. Vernon. In addition to the mill, he set up a fishery and a small cloth-making business. The distillery was Washington's last -- and probably most profitable -- business venture. It earned a healthy $7,500 in 1799, its first year of operation.
Mt. Vernon easily could have been lost to the nation. By the early 1850s, it had fallen into deep disrepair. It was saved by a group of prominent women who bought and restored Washington's mansion and have gradually purchased surrounding land once owned by Washington. The estate is still owned and run by this private group, which goes by its original quaint name, the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Assn. The estate survived the Civil War partly because both North and South held Washington in such high esteem that they declared it neutral ground.
ON THE SPOT.
These days, corporations are helping complete Mt. Vernon's restoration. Grain giant Cargill helped restore the gristmill. And the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. has donated $1.2 million to excavate the distillery site and build a replica of the original facility there. It's frightening to think how easily this great place might not have survived.
Near the end of his book, Brookhiser makes an eloquent plea to his fellow Americans to visit Mt. Vernon and other historical sites associated with this Founding Father. "We can go to his house; we can stand in the room where the Constitution was debated; we can see the places where his soldiers drowned and died and prevailed," Brookhiser writes. "If we see them with understanding and sympathy, we can glimpse him."
So we can.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht