By Thad Parsons
Open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from April 1 through October 31. Admission is just $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-11, and free for children 5 and under. When combined with Mount Vernon admission: $2 for adults, $1.50 for children ages 6-11, and free for children 5 and under. According to Mount Vernon’s website, the mill only operates on the first weekend of the month.
George Washington (1732-1799) played many roles in the foundation of the United States: soldier, hero, commander, President, and Patent Officer to name a few. Yet, most of his life was occupied by the demands of running a large plantation. Mount Vernon in George Washington’s days encompassed nearly 8,000 acres divided into 5 working farms. The Mount Vernon that exists today is the remnants of one of those farms, his Mansion House Farm.
In addition to the Mansion House, the original site of George Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery has survived. In 1754, when he inherited Mount Vernon from his half-brother’s widow, it included a small “toll mill” used to supply the plantation and it was used by other local farmers to process their crops. In 1770, Washington decided that he wanted to build a “merchant mill” that would process grains for use on the farm but, more importantly, for trade. This mill was powered by a large water wheel. To ensure the supply of water, Washington had a a large mill pond and several miles of millrace constructed. The mill opened in 1771 and, despite water shortages that restricted the months of operation, flour from Mount Vernon was being traded along the East Coast, throughout Europe, and within the West Indies.
In 1783, Oliver Evans constructed his Red Clay Creek mill, near the Delaware and Maryland border. A traditional mill typically used four floors to carry out its successive functions: grain was cleaned on the top floor, ground on the second, collected on the first, and hoisted back up to the third to cool and dry. This arrangement was labor and time intensive and Evans realized the benefits of mechanizing the entire process. In his Red Clay Creek mill, after it was delivered, human hands did not touch it until it was sorted and ready to be shipped. Powered by a single water wheel, grain delivered at a window of the ground floor rose to the top floor, descended by gravity, and was moved through all the stages of drying, grinding, spreading, cooling (see next image), and sorting. Nothing like it had been seen before anywhere. According to Eugene Ferguson, the combination embodied “the totally fresh concept of a continuous manufacturing process” and “demonstrated for the first time the fully integrated automatic factory” (Eugene S. Ferguson, Oliver Evans: Inventive Genius of the American Industrial Revolution. Greenville, DE: The Hagley Museum and The University of Delaware, 1980).
During the late 1780s, Evans was granted a number of state patents for his various ideas and after the federal patent system was established, he applied for one. He was granted the third American patent (December 18, 1790) and it was signed by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. After signing the patent, both Washington and Jefferson became licensees of the Evans system. In 1791, the new system was installed at the Mount Vernon mill.
It is unknown for how long milling took place in the original mill. The last record is from 1850 when the mill was razed because of its condition. The Gristmill and Miller’s House were reconstructed in 1933 by the Commonwealth of Virginia based on archaeological and documentary evidence. The site was conveyed to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1997. Today, Washington’s Gristmill is the only mill in the United States with an operating Oliver Evans system.
In 1797, George Washington started distillery whisky in the cooperage of his Gristmill. In 1798, he had completed construction of his Distillery. In 1799, with a production of nearly 11,000 gallons, it was the largest distillery in America. Making mainly rye whisky, the Distillery provided George Washington with another source of income that supplemented what he received from the Gristmill. The Distillery burned in 1814.
The foundations of the distillery building were discovered in 1933 but were recovered by archaeologists at that time. In 1999, archaeologists began to investigate the site and worked for five years. In 2007, the reconstructed Distillery opened. Today, it is the only example of a working eighteenth-century distillery and has successfully produced whisky.