Did you know that George Washington invented and designed a 16-sided treading barn for processing wheat on his plantation at Dogue Run Farm?
It was in the fall of 1792, and the barn was desperately needed on Dogue Run, one of five working farms on Washington’s 8,000-acre estate.
“When Washington moved from tobacco to wheat as his cash crop, he faced the challenge wheat farmers have always encountered — that is, how to separate the wheat berry from the top of the wheat stalk,” explains Deborah Colburn, interpretive programs supervisor of the historic trades at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
She notes that after wheat is harvested, the common way to separate the wheat berry from the stalk was to thresh it with a flail. “A laborer would literally beat the grain to separate it from the straw. This was very time-consuming and exhausting.”
Fortunately, there was another way to thresh wheat: treading.
“The animals on the farm could walk over the sheaves of wheat and the impact of their hooves would separate the grain from the straw,” Colburn adds. “Treading was done outdoors, which exposed the wheat to the elements and mixed dirt in with the grain. A significant portion of the grain was ruined or lost as a result. Both methods are fraught with problems in that once the wheat is harvested it must be kept dry. Processing the wheat out of doors left the crop exposed to fast-moving thunderstorms that could ruin a crop in moments. Washington could lose up to 20 percent of his harvest to soil and sky.”
The brilliance of the 16-sided treading barn was taking the most efficient method of processing — horsepower/treading — and moving it under cover, Colburn shares.
To learn more, watch our video featuring Colburn and three Grateful American™ Kids — AJ, Avery, and Callie. She takes these students from Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, VA, inside the barn for a history lesson. Don’t miss their excellent questions!
Be sure to scroll down for additional information about Washington’s barn by Dennis J. Pogue, PhD, adjunct associate professor in the historic preservation program at the University of Maryland.