Tag Archives: virginia

Torpedo Factory Art Center (and Alexandria Archaeology Museum), Alexandria, Virginia

By Thad Parsons

Open daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm (except on Thursday when it is open until 9:00pm – Second Thursday Art Night is from 6 to 9p – and when it closed at 5:00pm because of a private function).  Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.  Individual studios are required to be open a minimum number of hours per week but actual schedules vary, while the larger group galleries and workshops have regular schedules (available here).  Metro accessible via the Blue or Yellow Lines to King Street, where the free trolley service will deliver you to the waterfront.

Aerial View of Torpedo Factory in 1920s

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a world-renowned art center housed in an early twentieth-century munitions factory. Construction began on 12 November 1918 – the day after Armistice Day – and the building became known as the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station.  Its immediate post-World War One service was brief and as world-wide armament reductions occurred, the Alexandria factory was mothballed.  The facility continued to serve as a munitions storage facility and manufacture was able to resume shortly after the beginning of World War Two.  During the War, a number of torpedoes were built at the facility, including:

After the War, production stopped and the building reverted to a storage facility.  It was used by the Smithsonian to store art objects and dinosaur bones, by Congress to store documents, and by the Military to store German films and records acquired during the War.  In 1969, the building was purchased by the City of Alexandria and in 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center opened to the public.  After years of questionable working conditions, it was renovated in 1983 with some of the more artful touches that you can see today, such as the spiral stairs.

Today, the Torpedo Factory producing a wide-range of beautiful and interesting artwork but nothing that explodes!  Luckily for the interested visitor, some of the building’s history has been preserved in a number of exhibits, including this bright green target torpedo.  It was built at the factory in 1945 and is accompanied by its logbook of tests.  Besides this large display, there are smaller displays and wall panels that give further information about the building and its various uses.

Finally, it is also the home of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which works with citizens and professionals to manage the historic remnants of Alexandria.  The small museum has a number of displays about Old Town and is a useful resource center for historians interested in area attractions.

George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill, Alexandria, Virginia

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.

The large water wheel that is the single source of power for the entire Evans System, as it is installed at Mount Vernon. (Photo by Thad Parsons)

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).

The automated cooling system on the top floor of the Gristmill. The flour is deposited by the grain elevator at the outside and is gradually moved toward the center by the sweeping arm. At the center is a hole that leads to the flour grading machine on the level below. (Photo by Thad Parsons)

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.