George Washington: Designer

Sixteen-Sided Barn @ Mount Vernon

Sixteen-Sided Barn @ Mount Vernon, replica completed in 1996

We all know General George Washington as the first President of the United States and the first Commander-in-Chief. Some might even know of his interests in agriculture. But who knew he was a designer?

Last Sunday afternoon I visited the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens along the Potomac, outside of Washington, DC and it was more impressive from a design standpoint than I expected. And for me the mansion wasn’t the high point; rather it was the Sixteen-Sided barn.

Washington designed this nearly circular barn, also called a treading barn, to more efficiently separate grain from the straw of wheat. Before this method, wheat was usually threshed by hand or trampled by horses on open ground. This new building brought the process indoors (kept the grain dry) and also separated the unsanitary elements (a.k.a. horse excrement) out of the grain.

Here’s the threshing process:
After wheat was harvested, it would be gathered and put into the center of the barn. A layer would be put out into the treading lane and then horses would run around the lane, treading the grain out of the wheat. As the horses trod out the grain from the straw, the grain would fall between the gaps to the lower level, where it was gathered up and stored until being taken to the gristmill to be ground into flour.

Treading Lane Floor Detail

Treading Lane Floor Detail

Here’s the exciting design part:
Washington calculated the supplies required for the construction of the barn, including the 30,820 “hard and good” bricks that would be used in the building. (Apparently he calculated this amount exactly.) He specified the size and amount of lumber required, including the measurement of the gaps between the floorboards of the treading lane.

Ground Floor Detail - Handmade Bricks

Ground Floor Detail - Handmade Bricks

Washington dreamed of making the United States the “granary of the world” and he led the movement by concentrating his effort on growing wheat rather than the more common Virginia crop of tobacco. He experimented with composting and crop rotation and brought about improvements to the designs of seeders and plows. He was a real Renaissance man!


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