Five years later: George Washington’s gristmill is anxious for visitors

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MOUNT VERNON, Va. – After five years of intense research and restoration work, George Washington’s gristmill at Mount Vernon opened earlier this year.

Milling experts say the new attraction will prove to be one of the most authentically reconstructed 18th century mills in America. Visitors will see the water-powered mill in operation, discover how it works, and learn how this particular mill played an important role in George Washington’s vision for America’s future as “granary to the world.”

George Washington was one of the nation’s most innovative and entrepreneurial farmers. His 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate included 3,500 acres of cultivated farmland. In the last decade, the national attraction has made numerous additions to the property to enhance the visitor experience and to tell a more comprehensive story about the character of George Washington. The mill is preceded by recent additions of a four-acre farm site, a fruit garden and nursery, and the George Washington museum.

Reliable market. In the 1760s, Washington replaced tobacco with wheat as his staple crop because it commanded a more reliable market, required less labor to produce, and was less destructive of soil fertility. To enable Washington to increase overall production of flour and meal, and to be able to produce high quality flour for sale in the overseas market, Washington erected a large new stone gristmill in 1771.

The mill was a highly profitable venture, and Washington aggressively marketed his milled flour to customers nearby and as far away as the West Indies, England and Europe.

Although the original gristmill structure no longer exists, in 1933 the Commonwealth of Virginia reconstructed Washington’s mill on the original site, based on a combination of documentary and archaeological evidence, and opened its doors to the public.

Few visitors. Declining visitation to the state park and the belief that the property would be best served if joined with another nearby historic site led the Commonwealth to propose that Mount Vernon take over its operation.

Legislative authority enacted the lease and subsequent conveyance of the property to Mount Vernon in 1996. The second phase of the project will begin later this year when the millworks become automated using technology developed and patented by Oliver Evans of Delaware and installed by Washington in 1791.

George Washington was one of the first American farmers to use Oliver Evan’s automated mill to make flour production more efficient and less labor intensive. In fact, President Washington signed U.S. Patent No. 3 for Evans’ invention.

Archaeological investigations are also under way at the property to identify and investigate the sites of the cooperage, animal enclosures, and the distillery that are known to have been erected nearby the gristmill.

Total reconstruction. To date, the original stone foundation of the distillery has been revealed and the site is undergoing intensive archaeological excavation and as the final phase the estate hopes to reconstruct the entire gristmill complex.

Visitors to Mount Vernon will be able to observe all phases of the process required to produce flour in the 18th century manner, beginning with workers in colonial garb sowing the seed, then harvesting the wheat, and managing Washington’s treading barn, where horses walk on the second level of the circular barn to separate the grain from the straw.

After further cleaning, the sacks of grain are delivered to the gristmill to be ground into flour and packed in barrels. Once the mill passes the necessary inspections, Mount Vernon’s retailers plan to sell the freshly ground flour in its Gristmill gift shop. Mount Vernon offers gristmill educational programs and plans to add special exhibitions, and hands-on activities, along with lectures, published materials and Internet site.

The George Washington Gristmill complex will be open to the public seven days a week from April through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For questions, visitors may call Mount Vernon at 703-780-2000 or visit www.mountvernon.org.

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