Founding Farmer - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Founding Farmer February 11, 2004
by Eric A. Powell and Amélie A. Walker


Are history books selling Washington short? (Courtesy History Channel)

A grumpy bore? Or a robust, adventurous, eighteenth-century innovator? If you followed our Interactive Dig at Mount Vernon, you already know all about George Washington's post-presidential career as a whiskey distiller. Now the History Channel is highlighting this and other lesser-known professions of the first American president in "Save Our History: George Washington's Workshop," premiering Friday, February 13, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Just in time for President's Day, the special brings a much needed fresh perspective to a figure who most still associate with cherry trees and dollar bills. "I think he's a much more complex character than we give him credit for," says Mount Vernon Executive Director Jim Rees, who adds that the dollar bill, which some say portrays Washington as an old grump, has not been the best PR for the founding father.

The program aims to change this stolid image by following Steve Thomas, formerly the host of This Old House, as he tours the grounds of Washington's estate with archaeologist Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director for preservation. Seen through Pogue's eyes, Mount Vernon is the physical embodiment of Washington's innovative approach towards business, architecture, and especially agriculture. The program emphasizes that Washington was a sophisticated farmer who stressed risky experiments and departures from commonly accepted agricultural practices. As evidence, Pogue shows off innovative structures like Mount Vernon's dung repository, reconstructed based on results from Pogue's own excavations and thought to be the first building dedicated to composting in North America, and a large two-story threshing barn that Washington designed to replace the wasteful practice of threshing on open ground.

We also learn that the founding father developed sophisticated crop-rotation plans, an innovative practice in the eighteenth-century when most farmers still exhausted one field before moving on to another. Washington was also an accomplished livestock breeder, doubling his wool production through careful management of his sheep. But Washington's most surprising legacy might be his role as America's foremost champion of the mule. The offspring of a female horse and a male jackass, the mule was an efficient alternative to the workhorse. Washington actively promoted the hybrid, even collecting stud fees for a jackass he received as a present from the king of Spain.


Mount Vernon archaeologist Esther White gives Steve Thomas a tour of the distillery excavation. (Courtesy History Channel)

Washington's brief career as a whiskey distiller towards the end of his life is an inevitable highlight of the program. Viewers are treated to a short tour of the distillery site by archaeologist Esther White, but it is disappointing that the excavation of the distillery, now thought to be the biggest of its kind in North America, isn't featured more prominently (a complete account of the dig is at Another highlight is footage from a recent event at Mount Vernon in which master distillers--in period costume, no less--gather to re-create Washington's rye whiskey. The distillers used a replica of an eighteenth-century still in the Smithsonian that may have been used at Mount Vernon.

Actor Martin Sheen lends the program some gravitas by reading agriculture-related excerpts from some of the estimated 40,000 letters Washington wrote over his lifetime. The voice-overs may be a little jarring for fans of Sheen's "The West Wing," but they do save the program from relying on the embarrassing historical reenactments that typically plague this sort of documentary.

"George Washington's Workshop" is an installment in the "Save Our History" series, which showcases prominent examples of historic preservation in America. The History Channel's Save Our History philanthropic campaign is also working with the government Preserve America initiative to educate communities about America's national and local heritage. Mount Vernon is an appropriate choice for the series, since the historic estate was the nation's first high-profile preservation fight. In 1853, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association formed to purchase and preserve what was then a rapidly deteriorating Mount Vernon. Thanks to their efforts, Mount Vernon is still standing and Washington's surprising legacy as a dynamic Virginia farmer is still alive.

For more information and clips from the program, see

Eric A. Powell is assistant editor and Amélie A. Walker is online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America