I’ve visited George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, many times, but this past weekend I finally visited another Washington site that I’d been curious about for years. Just three miles down the road from Mount Vernon sits Washington’s distillery and gristmill. The reconstructed buildings tell the story of Washington as entrepreneur and innovative farmer.
As one of the first Virginia farmers to replace tobacco production with wheat, Washington quickly saw the benefit of building a mill to process the wheat into flour. In 1771 he erected a mill on his Dogue Run Farm property. Due to the relatively level land, the mill required a mill race about two miles long to provide the change in elevation necessary to turn the 16-foot waterwheel. It took a year to construct.
The reconstructed mill is built on the foundation of the original mill and visitors can see a demonstration of the entire process. I was transfixed by the machinery and the intricate gear mechanisms turning the giant wheel which moved the mill stones that produced the finely ground flour and cornmeal.
The interpreter explained that Washington enjoyed experimenting with farming techniques and gladly shared his research with farmers who could not afford to make any mistakes. A poor outcome would not impact Washington’s resources as much as it might a small farmer.
Adjacent to the mill sits the reconstructed distillery on its original foundation. In 1797, the year he retired from the presidency, Washington decided to try a new business venture. At the encouragement of his Scottish farm manager who recognized an abundance of raw materials necessary to make whiskey, Washington began producing whiskey. Just two years later it reached peak production with five stills and a boiler. According to Mount Vernon staff it was the largest distillery in America that year and certainly a winning business venture for Washington. Sadly Washington died that same year and the business went into decline. By 1808 there were no more production records.
Interpreters at the site demonstrate the process and allow close inspection of the stills and giant mash tubs.
I’m guessing most Americans don’t know about this aspect of Washington’s life. I was curious why Mount Vernon decided to spend a lot of money to interpret such a short chapter of Washington’s life. I was told that it was one of Washington’s most successful business ventures and demonstrated his innovation and entrepreneurial sense. It can’t hurt that the distillery and museum are funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. and the site is on the American Whiskey Trail.
Combined with a visit to the farm site at Mount Vernon, a trip to the gristmill and distillery offers a fascinating look at a less familiar side to George Washington.
Have you visited this site? What did you think of it?