In honor of Independence Day, this week's TV show is from Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, first president of the United States. Thomas Jefferson called Washington "the best horseman of his age" and history credits him with introducing the mule to America.
At 6’2” and 200 pounds, Washington towered over most of his contemporaries. Like most Virginia farmers, Washington first raised tobacco, but in the mid 1760s, he was one of the first to switch to growing wheat with the vision that America could someday be a source of grain to the entire world.
Wheat farming back then was very labor-intensive. One back-breaking part of it was thrashing, or whipping the cut wheat about to separate grain from straw. This was where Washington got really creative. In 1792, he built a two-story, sixteen-sided treading barn. On the second floor, horses trotted around, trampling on the wheat and knocking the grain loose. The grain fell through cracks in the floorboards to the first floor where it would be collected. You can see a working replica in the TV show.
Washington engaged in other progressive farming practices such as composting manure for fertilizer, rotating his crops on a seven-year plan, and plowing his fields in such a way as to prevent soil erosion.
Washington raised sheep, hogs, turkeys, chickens and cows. He liked all animals, but he loved horses. He loved to buy them and sell them. He loved to race them, train them, hunt on them, drive them, and work the fields with them. Washington owned all kinds of horses, from Arabians, Andalusians, and Narragansetts, to Chincoteague ponies.
During the Revolution War, General Washington took two of his favorite horses to the front with him. One was a hunting horse called Blueskin, a spirited blue-gray horse with a lot of stamina. This is the light-colored horse you see in many paintings of Washington. But during most battles, Washington actually rode a horse named Nelson, a chestnut gelding that could handle cannon fire better.
Back on the farm, Washington's favorite horse was an Arabian stallion named Magnolia, one of the most beautiful horses in the colonies. Magnolia stood 16 hands high, was chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, and was a direct descendant of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed.
You mule lovers will appreciate this: the father of his country was also the "Father of the American Mule." Washington believed that the mule was the key to more profitable farming. They're stronger than horses, they eat less, they're more sure-footed, and they have greater endurance than horses. So after the war, Washington began to concentrate on breeding mules.
Washington's mule breeding program started with three stud donkeys, two of which were gifts from foreign leaders. Washington bred these jacks to his very best mares. He also sent his studs on a tour of the South to start a selective breeding program. Soon mules were in use across the country, working the land and serving the military.
George Washington died on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Ironically, the great warrior, farmer, and statesman died of complications from a cold. This threw the country into despair as Washington was universally loved and respected. His friend, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, captured popular sentiment in his eulogy for Washington, calling him, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Almost immediately after his death, writers began romanticizing Washington's life. Today it's sometimes hard to separate fact from fable. For instance, the famous story of young George fessing up about chopping on a cherry tree? Pure fiction.
Interesting fact: The great turning point in Washington’s life may have been the death of his father, Augustine. Although born in Virginia, George was to be educated in England and dreamed of going to sea with the British navy. All that changed when he became the man of the house at the tender age of 11.