George Washington, whose birthday is Feb. 22, is recalled as the "Father of Our Country." But in his heart, he was a farmer. A bicentennial celebration honoring Washington's life and legacy begins this month and continues through the year at Mount Vernon, Va.
While many Virginia planters left the management of their estates to overseers, Washington (1732-99) took an active, hands-on approach. It was not unusual for him to make personal inspections of plantation operations, and to pitch in if needed. In his biography of our first president, Washington Irving recounts an incident when Washington spent the better part of two days working with Peter, his smith, to make a plow for a new implement he'd designed. After two or three false starts, an acceptable plow was crafted.
"Then, with less than his usual judgment, he put his two chariot horses to the plow," Irving wrote, "and ran a great risk of spoiling them, in giving his new invention a trial over thick turf."
A self-taught surveyor, Washington viewed agriculture as a science. He assembled a large library on agriculture, and routinely conducted experiments on his land and crops, varying fertilizers and cultivation techniques, keeping detailed accounts of the results.
In the end, though, for all his passion and science, Washington enjoyed little success in farming. Ironically, the beautiful, pastoral Mount Vernon sat atop unproductive land. Revenues from tobacco grown there only rarely covered the costs. The crop was abandoned altogether in 1767.
Still, Washington was innovative and resourceful. He experimented with crops of hemp and flax, moneymakers during British economic blockades; built his own commercial mill operation, and created a profitable farm industry from a large-scale weaving shop at Mount Vemon.
Washington was a complex man: a conservative in both politics and philosophy, he leaned instead toward the cutting edge when it came to dress, etiquette, and furnishings for his estate. But the country was his home. In issuing an invitation to a European friend, he proudly offered nothing more than "the simplicity of rural life."
An extensive schedule of special tours, activities and events was planned in honor of Washington's bicentennial in 1999, beginning with a national pilgrimage to Mount Vemon on Presidents Day, Feb. 15, and ending with a dramatic reenactment of his funeral on Dec. 18. FC
Washington's Mount Vernon estate is open every day of the year, open daily at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through August; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March, September and October; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through February. Tickets are $15 for adults, $14 for seniours ages 62+, $7 for youth ages 6-11, and free for children under 6. On-line at http://www.mountvernon.org; phone (703) 780-2000