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September 2017

September 2017 — Have You Been Inside George Washington’s 16-Sided Barn?

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.

Here’s to bringing American history to life! — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, /

Here's another reason why historians consider George Washington to be one of the most savvy businessmen of the Revolutionary Era

George Washington is considered a visionary farmer by historians. See for yourself in our video starring historian Deborah Colburn and three student reporters from Fairfax County’s Longfellow Middle School. Also be sure to stop by Mount Vernon to take the Visionary Farmer tour. The 60-minute walking tour provides information about Washington's forward-thinking approach to crop rotation. As the landscape of Mount Vernon changes, the program's focus varies to highlight different innovations and contributions throughout the year. Offered: Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, May-October 14, 2 p.m.

Grateful American™ Series

George Washington's Brilliant Idea

By Dennis J. Pogue, PhD, University of Maryland

By fall 1792, George Washington fully developed plans for the barn complex at Dogue Run, one of five working farms on his 8,000-acre estate. The new barn was to perform the same function as the English-style barns Washington had been studying for many years — grain processing and storage — but in a radically different manner and with several novel features.

Washington was well-acquainted with using animals to separate grain from stalk by treading, and he had very specific goals in mind that he wanted to achieve. Beginning with a simple concept — to construct a circular wooden treading floor large enough to accommodate horses that were enclosed from the elements of weather — Washington sought to improve the efficiency of this basic treading process and simultaneously reduce opportunities for theft. The barn included a treading floor located on the second floor of a two-story structure that the horses could access via an earthen ramp.

Washington conceived of the innovation of leaving spaces between the floorboards so that the heads of grain, once separated from the straw, would fall through to a granary below. There they could be temporarily stored in a central octagonal structure, then winnowed, and sent to the mill. The result was a building that was conceptually as much a machine as it was architecture.

Polygonal structures were unusual but not entirely rare in 18th-century Anglo-America. Although the shape was the structure’s most distinctive feature, it was not the polygonal shape of the barn that was Washington’s innovation. Rather, the innovation was in taking an agricultural process and designing a structure to accommodate it. The roughly circular footprint was chosen to facilitate the treading of the horses. The reason for the structure being polygonal instead of perfectly circular in shape was due to the greater ease of constructing straight sides instead of curved walls.

The selection of 16 sides rather than any other even number is more difficult to explain, although it was also probably related to the octagonal shape of the interior framing system. Since the treading floor was to withstand the weight and punishment of trotting horses, durable white oak was selected. Most of the remainder of the wood for the barn, except the roof and the ground floor interior octagon posts, was made of pine.

Although it appears steep, the slope of the barn roof (approximately 43 degrees) was not unusual for 18th-century buildings. Roof pitches between 42 and 48 degrees were typical in this period. The steep pitch encourages faster run-off, resulting in less time for water to penetrate the wooden shingles.

Because the barn has an unusual shape, it must have been a difficult building to construct for Thomas Green, Washington’s carpenter, and the Mount Vernon slave carpenters. One of the most important decisions Washington made was to design a building comprised of two nested polygons. This refers to the 16-sided outside wall, enclosing the interior octagonal framing system. This design was the most straightforward way to support the roof since the same system for laying out the rafters could be continued from the eaves to the peak of the roof.

The transition from the exterior 16 sides to the interior eight meant that the structure of the roof had to undergo some subtle adjustments as construction continued upward, including the reduction of the number of rafters from 80 to 48. Since the rafters were the only structural members spanning that space, they served the crucial function of binding the exterior wall to the frame.

See the barn for yourself! Click here for information on taking the Visionary Farmer tour at Mount Vernon. During this 60-minute walking tour, learn about George Washington’s forward-thinking approach to crop rotation. As the landscape of Mount Vernon changes, the program’s focus varies to highlight different innovations and contributions throughout the year. Offered: Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, May-October 14, 2 p.m.

Dennis J. Pogue, PhD, has more than 30 years of experience working as an archaeologist, museum administrator, and historic preservationist in Maryland and Virginia. He holds the Doctorate in Anthropology, with an emphasis in historical archaeology, from American University, in Washington, DC.  He also consults to historical and historic preservation agencies, museums, and private citizens in the studying, interpreting, and preserving of their artifacts. Click here to learn more.

This month in history

Why was the Battle of Yorktown so important?

September 28, 1781 — General George Washington commanded a force of 17,000 French and Continental troops, thus beginning the siege known as the Battle of Yorktown against British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and a contingent of 9,000 British troops at Yorktown, Va. Historians consider this the most important battle of the Revolutionary War. Click here to learn more.

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History Matters

"Wine Meant to Toast John Adams’ Presidency Was Just Discovered," Architectural Digest reports

July 11, 2017, Architectural Digest — Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in New Jersey discovered several cases of Madeira wine from 1796 that had been shipped from Portugal for the celebration of John Adams' presidency. The wine, which is nearly as old as America, is the largest known collection of Madeira in the country, reporter Nick Mafi explains in the July issue of Architectural Digest.

“The museum always knew they had bottles of antiquated wine in their possession, they simply never felt compelled to learn how old they were or why they had been purchased,” Mafi writes, adding that researchers believe the wine was originally purchased in the late 18th century to celebrate the inauguration of the second president.

“Researchers came to this conclusion because of the date of the wine, coupled with the fact that Madeira was almost exclusively consumed by the elites of the day, primarily because the liquid traveled so well across the Atlantic Ocean, losing little to no flavor.”

Museum officials filled a decanter with a sampling from one of the original casks, and described the taste as similar to a sweet sherry. Click here to read the entire article.

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In The News

Oldest Surviving Photograph of a U.S. President Has Surfaced: The 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams was discovered by a descendant of Vermont Rep. Horace Everett

August 18, 2017, Smithsonian magazine — Smithsonian magazine's Ben Panko reported today that someone will soon have the chance to own a 174-year-old piece of American history — the oldest-known original photograph of a U.S. president that surfaced and is set to go on sale this fall.

"An invaluable document, this daguerreotype [crystallizes] a remarkable moment in the history of photography and American politics," the auction house Sotheby's announced in a statement detailing the auction, which is planned for October 5.

Taken in March 1843 in Washington, D.C., the daguerreotype beats out another surviving photograph from just a few months later, when Adams sat for a portrait in New York that he later deemed "hideous," reports Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times. That image is now held by the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

Click here to read more about it!

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