George Washington, The Revolutionary Farmer:
America's First Composter
A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert
everything he touches into manure,
as the first transmutation towards gold.
--G. Washington (1785)
By Dennis J. Pogue and Robert Arner
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
Dennis Pogue is Director of Restoration at Mount Vernon. He holds a master's degree in American Studies from George Washington University and a doctorate in archaeology from American University. He has 20 years experience in colonial plantation archaeology.
firstname.lastname@example.org or mountvernon.org
Robert Arner is a solid waste program manager for the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has 16 years experience in dealing with various facets of solid waste and recycling issues.
We hope to reconstruct the Dung Repository as an active composting facility in the next few years. Anyone interested in contributing to the @$75,000 needed to carry out the reconstruction, please contact D. Pogue.
Two weeks after George Washington died, he was eulogized by Henry Lee in a memorial address delivered at the request of Congress: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." But in addition to his famous public career, there was a less well known, "earthier," side to George Washington.
For 45 years George Washington was the master of Mount Vernon, and he viewed his occupation as farmer very seriously. Beginning as a tobacco planter like his father and older brother before him, Washington devoted himself to producing bounteous crops of the weed for export to England. He realized early on, however, that this plant was ruinous to the fertility of his soil. Therefore, he soon stopped growing tobacco and took up the cultivation of wheat as his primary money maker, complemented by corn and a variety of lesser crops aimed at sustaining his family and slaves. The quest to improve his yields led Washington to explore a wide range of agricultural experiments, including composting as a means of restoring soil nutrients.
In 1794 Washington sadly noted in his diary that, "Unless some practice prevails, my fields will be growing worse every year, until the crops will not defray the expense of the culture of them." Unfortunately for his successors who attempted to farm Mount Vernon after the death of the great man in 1799, this gloomy prediction was all too true. For Mount Vernon's soils were simply too poor to be a good producer no matter what innovative measures were employed. Thin topsoil overlying a dense, impermeable clay foundation was the main culprit, exacerbated by severe erosion caused by the poor practices of the day.
Washington never gave up the challenge to improve his soils, however, and he undertook numerous experiments to find the best form of fertilizer. He subscribed to John Spurrier's The Practical Farmer, which advocated the wise use of agricultural by-products and adding organic matter to improve the soil. Washington revealed an experiment in composting in his diary on April 14, 1760, when he "Mixed my compost in box" with different types in the various apartments. He planted the same number of seeds in each compartment and systematically recorded the results. After many trials, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads, and plaster of paris to his fields with some success.
As evidence of George Washington's devotion to composting, he erected a highly unusual building specifically designed to compost "manure" and to facilitate its "curing" into usable fertilizer. Mount Vernon archaeologists have excavated the site of this building, called the "dung repository" or the "stercorary", to gain more insight into Washington's farming activities and to provide the information necessary to reconstruct this interesting structure.
Washington's typically detailed directions for constructing the repository provide several important clues to building details. In a letter to his farm manager in May 1787 he lectured:
When you go about the repository for the compost ... if the bottom should not be of good clay, put the clay there and ram it well before you pave it, to prevent the liquid manure from sinking, and thereby being lost.
He also directed that the manure pit have masonry sides and that the bottom was to be paved with cobble stones.
The archaeological excavations have revealed that the repository was a long, narrow building (31x12-ft in dimension) supported by posts on a brick foundation on three sides and by posts set directly into the ground on the fourth. The interior stone floor is recessed almost two feet below the ground surface, presumably to aid in the composting. A depiction of an idealized dung repository published in an agricultural journal in Philadelphia in 1808 shows a remarkably similar building. It is open on all four sides, to improve ventilation and facilitate curing the compost, complete with a floor paved with stone.
The plans for a dung repository were published by the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, along with an essay on composting in general and on the benefits of this structure in particular, under the authorship of Richard Peters. Both Peters and George Washington were members of the Society, and they corresponded at great length pertaining to a wide range of agricultural issues. Whether Peters' dung repository drawing was partly based on Washington's stercorary is impossible to tell, but the marked similarity raises the possibility of a connection.
In his book, The Practical Farmer, Spurrier recommends an impressive diversity of materials -- waste from a wide variety of animals, leaves, domestic trash, corn stalks, the carcasses of dead animals, and many more -- as potential sources of manure. Little information is available as to what was actually composted in Washington's dung repository. One reference from 1796 provides some insight, however, as Washington instructed:
Let others rake, and scrape up all the trash, of every sort and kind about the houses, and in the holes and corners, and throw it (all I mean that will make dung) into the Stercorary.
Less than half a mile from the site of the dung repository is a new educational project devoted to portraying the way Mount Vernon was farmed in the 18th century. Known as "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer", this interactive exhibit shows how Washington experimented with crop rotation and with different crops, fertilizers, and soil amendments. In addition, by 1794 Washington built a novel 16-sided barn at one of his outlying farms to more efficiently process wheat. This structure, which was round to enable horses to tread the wheat on the barn's second floor, has been authentically reconstructed and is a working reminder of George Washington's commitment to agricultural experimentation.
Washington's devotion to implementing the agricultural innovations of his day was more than just the natural desire of a farmer to improve his yields. He was acutely aware of the need for the new American nation to establish itself in the world, and farming was the first occupation of the country. His championing spirit is expressed in a letter to Samuel Chamberline from April 1788:
Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interest and lessening the labor of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view; for, in the present state of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage.
Thus, Washington viewed his own efforts at Mount Vernon as experiments that could benefit all of his countrymen. Even when testing the relative restorative values of cow manure, fish heads, and creek mud, or when calculating the returns from his many different crop rotation plans, George Washington still had the welfare of his beloved new nation closest to his heart.
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