Excerpts: Founding Father By John Berlau
During a time period of America's existence as an English colony and then a young nation . . . this businessman's enterprise processed 1.5 million fish per year sent throughout the 13 American colonies and the British West Indies. The mill he built grinded 278,000 pounds of branded flour annually that was shipped through America and, unusual during colonization, even exported to England as well as Portugal. And in the 1790s, during the last years of his life, this mogul built one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the new nation.
Washington's background wasn't exactly poor, but it was not as rich as many of his contemporaries among the Founders. His father died when he was 11, and, among the youngest of many brothers, he didn't inherit much, and the family lacked money to give him a formal education.
So at 16, Washington became an apprentice land surveyor for Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. From Fairfax (namesake of Fairfax County, which is now part of the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.), Washington learned about land acquisition, and became skilled in the practice that today we would call a real estate speculator.
After fighting with distinction in the French and Indian War, Washington inherited the 2,000-acre Mount Vernon farm from his older brother Lawrence and began acquiring other land around it, extending his homestead to 8,000 acres at the time of his death. In 1759, Washington married the widow Martha Custis, and she and her two children came to live at Mount Vernon. But although Martha had considerable wealth, as has been noted, running a productive farm against the backdrop of British trade restrictions and taxes, as well as nature's unpredictability, was not an easy task. It was then that Washington began his innovative agribusiness practices that made Mount Vernon, as described in a paper (not available online) by Mount Vernon director of restoration Dennis J. Pogue, "an expansive and ambitious commercial enterprise."
Washington's first step to becoming an entrepreneur was to abandon the most common cash crop of his native Virginia. That would be the now-dreaded tobacco. But it was not for health reasons that Washington stopped planting it. It was because of taxes and duties that reduced his profits and the fact that the tobacco crop was hurting Mount Vernon's soil. . . "By 1766 the disappointingly low prices that he was receiving in return for his tobacco harvest convinced Washington that he would be better off devoting the labor of his workers to producing other commodities that had a more dependable payoff."
Washington grew hundreds of crops, many of which were imported from Europe. (And yes, he did grow hemp, but not very much and not for very long.) But for his main cash crop, he chose wheat. But he didn't stop fulfilling the market need with the growing of this wheat. He became a manufacturer of two products that contained his crop: flour and distilled whiskey.
Recently replicated on their original foundations at Mount Vernon, Washington's gristmill and distillery are architectural wonders that anticipated modern factories. The flour mill is three levels high with two sets of mill stones, including French buhr stones that were used to make the finest quality of flour. The mill produced about 278,000 pounds of flower per year, branded with the Washington name, sold throughout the colonies and exported to England and as far away as Portugal. The flour bore the identification of George Washington, in effect making it similar to a modern branded food product.
Washington also "farmed" the banks of the Potomac for shad, herring and other fish. His fishery consisted of rowboats and large nets, and in a six-week fishing season each spring, Washington's men netted about 1.5 million fish, according to the Reynolds museum at Mount Vernon. And the inedible portions of the fish were used as fertilizer for crops such as wheat
But it is the distillery may offer the most fascinating example of Washington's entrepreneurial prowess. After retiring from the presidency and returning to Mount Vernon -- setting a precedent for voluntarily relinquishing power -- Washington built a distillery in 1797 on the advice of his plantation manager James Anderson, a native of Scotland who knew a thing or two about distilled spirits. The whiskey was made largely from crops grown at Mount Vernon. As one Virginia magazine describes it, "rye, malted barley and corn were mixed with boiling water to make a mash in 120 gallon barrels."
This process is now reenacted at Mount Vernon at the distillery that was reopened in 2007, thanks to a grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. A few times a year, Washington's whiskey -- using one of the old recipes -- is even sold to Mount Vernon visitors.