VIDEO: Tour provides insight on famous U.S. president

George Washington was a hands-on farmer, credited for having the first manure composter in the country

MOUNT VERNON, Virginia — George Washington: soldier, rebel, president, slave owner, manure management expert.

Washington is better known for some of his roles than others, with his time as soldier, revolutionary and founding president memorialized in the American national capital, in a state’s name, in statues, stamps and dollar bills, but in recent years his lesser known roles are becoming better known.

Washington’s farm complex west of Washington, D.C., known as Mount Vernon, is a much-loved historical attraction, recreating a sense of Washington’s final home and profession in the years before the nearby capital city took on the form we know today.

The parcel of five farms sprawls over rolling, verdant countryside above the Potomac River and is operated by a trust founded by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the charitable group that saved the Washington farm from dispersal in 1858.

Like hundreds of other historical recreations, the farm complex at Mount Vernon is a combination of surviving structures and faithfully recreated buildings. It presents workers and tradespeople in period garb scurrying about doing activities of the time such as blacksmithing, feeding livestock and sewing.

The unique elements of Mount Vernon are the connections it makes between the U.S.’s founding president and slavery and farming.

Indeed, Washington’s role as a slave owner and his moral qualms about the dehumanization of Africans and African-Americans now play a central and even dominant role in the exhibitions and interpretive language throughout the plantation. 

(Mount Vernon employed about 350 slaves. Washington offered rewards for the return of runaway slaves. He felt that slavery needed to be abolished sometime. His personally owned slaves were freed after his death in his will. Martha Washington’s slaves and their descendants were bequeathed to her children from her first marriage.)

However, while farming is a less highlighted element of Mount Vernon, it is the underlying theme of everything there, because, after all, this was a working farm for generations of the Washington family.

The various crop-growing, livestock-pasturing and orchard-keeping activities of the farm are well-presented and not too dissimilar to those at other 18th century historical recreations, providing a pleasant setting for rambling walks through the lush, upland countryside.

But for somebody with agricultural interests, one relatively recent reconstruction could seem particularly noteworthy: the “repository for dung.”

Washington had this primitive manure and organic waste structure built in 1787 and used it to compost materials that he would later have used as fertilizer. It is unknown how much hands-on manure handling Washington performed personally and how much he had his slaves do.

According to the signpost at the dung repository, this is the first known composting structure built in the United States. It was reconstructed in 2001.

Washington was no mere pseudo-aristocrat, lording over an estate and having the farming overseen entirely by farm managers and slave-drivers. He took an active and determined interest in agriculture and was a committed farming innovator and evangelist.

He was positively glowing in how he described the value of manure.

“When I speak of a knowing farmer, I mean one who understands the best course of crops … and above all, Midas-like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold,” Washington wrote in a 1785 letter, shortly after the Revolutionary War and before he presided over the crafting of America’s constitution and serving as its first president.

Washington didn’t get to spend as much time farming as he would have liked. Soldiering and rebelling took up many years of his life, as did post-revolutionary political work. He was tied up with presidenting from 1789 to 1797 and only had a couple of years afterward full-time at Mount Vernon before he died in 1799.

But his body lies in a family crypt on the farm in the midst of his multiple legacies, and one could feel that he would not regret having his bones resting nearby the manure management system that he pioneered and promoted.

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