MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- George Washington: founding father, Revolutionary War hero and . . . trend-setting farmer?
That little-known side of the nation's first president is the focus of an extraordinary undertaking at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation on the Potomac River. Craftsmen are reconstructing a 16-sided, two-story barn -- the only known barn of its kind -- designed by Washington while he was president in 1792.
The reconstruction is daring and ingenious, an effort at meticulously re-creating a novel building nearly as old as the United States. And those involved are benefiting from Washington's penchant for minutely recording every detail of its complex construction.
"This is absolutely the best-documented 18th-century agricultural building we'll ever reconstruct," says Orlando Ridout the project's architectural historian who also works for the Maryland Historical Trust.
Washington's barn was unique in form and function. It was a treading barn, where horses trudged in circles on clumps of wheat, separating grain from its stalk. Researchers at Mount Vernon say it was the only attempt in this country to carry out the untidy, tedious task of threshing wheat in a specially designed building.
"We study 18th-century buildings and social history all our careers, but we get to work on a project like this maybe two or three times if we're lucky -- and then never on a scale or complexity like this," Mr. Ridout says.
When completed next summer, the barn will serve as centerpiece of an exhibit at Mount Vernon, the museum operated since 1858 by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, a private foundation. "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer" will portray the father of our country as an agricultural and architectural innovator.
The exhibit also may answer the last lingering question about Washington's creative design for his barn-as-thresher: Did it work?
"Washington has become such a cardboard image," says Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's director of restoration and project manager for reconstruction of the barn. "Here it is 200 years later, and he is just a symbol. He is the image of the Revolutionary War, and the image of the nation.
"But he was also one of the most important and progressive farmers in the country. That was his main occupation. This project is a way of interpreting that side of Washington's life, of providing insight into his character as an experimenter and risk-taker."
In researching the structure, Mount Vernon historians relied mainly on Washington's exhaustive records and the one known photograph of the barn, taken about 1870 shortly before it was torn down. They procured about 17,000 handmade nails, 18,000 handmade bricks and more than 100,000 board feet of timber, including 1,000-year-old cypress salvaged from the muddy bottom of Louisiana rivers.
Washington designed the barn in 1792, sitting at his desk at the president's residence, then in Philadelphia. He was trying to clean up and streamline the threshing process, where slaves laid harvested wheat on the ground and either thrashed it with flails or trotted livestock over it to separate the grain.
"The problem is," Mr. Ridout says, "you couldn't avoid getting dirt and a certain amount of animal waste in the grain. We can't imagine what 18th-century bread tasted like."
Washington's crew of nine slave carpenters and a white foreman finished the barn in 1794. Livestock, probably a pair of horses, were led up a ramp into the second floor. They were marched round and round over the wheat, treading out grain. The grain fell through slats to the first floor, where it was shoveled into bins in the center of the barn.
"It's a huge step forward in terms of quality of the product and the ease of getting it into storage bins," Mr. Ridout says. "There's no question it was an innovation, a unique attempt to solve a problem."
L It was just one of Washington's innovations at Mount Vernon.
He abandoned basic Chesapeake tobacco farming and planted various crops, mainly wheat and corn -- a system more English than American. He built a grist mill and established fisheries. He developed a sophisticated seven-year crop rotation plan. He experimented with growing techniques. He designed an implement for planting seeds in rows. He even imported a donkey from Spain, bred it to his mare and introduced mules to American agriculture.
Mount Vernon historians decided several years ago to showcase this side of Washington. After unearthing extensive documentation about the 16-sided barn at Mount Vernon's library and the Library of Congress, they decided to reconstruct it as their exhibit's focal point.
They found Washington's 1792 design for the barn and his 1795 site plan for the barn with flanking stables and corn houses, all of which are being reconstructed to original specifications. They found lists of materials and voluminous correspondence between Washington and his farm manager.