George Washington’s Whisky -The first step in bringing it back
Another in a series by Tom Rozman
It was February 1996 and the Virginia Legislature had passed a bill into law that pulled together several disparate initiatives into a larger three-phased project. Using as a base an earlier general obligation bond project to restore the gristmill at George Washington’s Grist Mill State Park, the Act of the Legislature envisioned a phased project that would first restore the wooden machinery of the mill to operation. Phase two after the mill was brought to operational status would transfer the interpretive operations at the Mill to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the organization that operated Mount Vernon. Phase three would transfer the entire park to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union to become part of the Mount Vernon expanded interpretation of George Washington. In case of the mill, the story of his business entrepreneurial side would be told where he showed economic vision and reached out to leverage cutting edge technology of his time. The phasing of the project seemed simple enough but the devil was in the details.
One example of the details was the project assumption that the wooden mill machinery could be salvaged saving some expense. As well, even with the mill restored and operational, it only told part of the story. The unrestored foundation of the adjacent distillery, a stone outline in the ground that begged for rebuilding, was a question mark at this point without an answer.
The existing mill was a reconstruction of the original mill using the best available information to include surviving tax records. The restoration was an initiative of a prominent Washington DC attorney in the 1930s using Works Progress resources (WPA), a New Deal program of the Roosevelt Administration as part of the effort to pull the United States out of the Great Depression.
The mill machinery was made entirely of wood. It was one of the cutting edge innovations by George Washington as he moved his plantation from tobacco to grain crops. George Washington was one of the first planters to move away from tobacco to grain. He did a detailed for the day market analysis to identify the markets for various grain products like flour. He determined the type of flour that would sell well in the American market and overseas.
He then identified the most advanced means of producing product for the times. The mill machinery was a cutting edge English design that could be operated by two workers instead of the more common five worker systems then in place in the country.
And George built a “round barn.” The design used draft animals harnessed by spokes to a shaft that allowed them to move in a circle. Their hooves then chafed the grain from the cut grain stalks placed on the slatted floor. The grain fell through the slats to the floor below where it was swept up to be transported to the mill for grinding into the grades of flower to be shipped to market. The round barn was a more efficient cutting edge technology that was only used for about two years before being replaced by an even more efficient technology.
As well, George Washington championed the “significant” Kanawha Canal project that would allow commerce into the interior of the early American Republic. And, he recognized the commercial value of another significant grain product—whiskey.
Not only did the beverage have its market for liquid refreshment but it also was considered a medicinal product. To produce this additional grain product for market, George Washington constructed a substantial stone distillery adjacent to his large three-story gristmill making for a significant complex with the nearby round barn.
The above story about George Washington’s role as a visionary agriculturalist, producer of product and commercial and technological visionary heretofore had not been interpreted by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union in their operations at Mount Vernon. Up to this point, the Association concentrated on telling only the story of the first president in terms of the Mount Vernon complex.
In fact, Virginia State Parks, not a history-oriented agency, had several times made offers to the Association to assume operations of the grist Mill State Park that had been deeded to the State of Virginia and placed under the Parks Division by the attorney that had caused it to be reconstructed.
However, by the early 1990s, the Association was beginning to rethink its interpretation strategy at Mount Vernon. It was becoming increasingly aware and committed to telling the important story of George Washington as an innovator and entrepreneur with products and systems that had tremendous economic and social situation in the early days of the United States after the Revolution. Additionally, the General Obligation Bond allocation of $400,000 to restore the mill machinery provided a base of funds from which a program might be put into place to move toward telling this important story about George Washington.
In February of 1996 following the enactment of the Act of the Assembly to initiate the envisioned three phase initiative, the Operations Manager of the Design and Construction Office of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, that agency’s design, engineering, construction and real property office, was assigned in addition to operations and other special projects as the project leader for this high visibility project.
The project had acquired some significant political interest and a legislative oversight committee had been appointed to monitor project progress. The Act specified that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) would be jointly signed by the Commonwealth’s representative, the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and the Chief Executive Officer of the not for profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union on 1 July of 1996. The MOU would be interesting in its own right as it not only would define the conditions of the three phases of the project, it would also articulate the justification for exception to state procurement policy to engage a sole source contractor for the restoration project but also, the applicable portions of the states capital outlay process.
Adding to the challenges of developing the MOU and obtaining approvals from such agencies as the Attorney General’s Office (AG), the Departments of General Services and Legislative Services, there was an element that was politicizing any transfer of state real estate out of the public domain. At this early point, to ensure that the legislative oversight committee did not become a major inhibitor to moving the initiative forward, some quick research was necessary by the project manager regarding the true nature of the Ladies Association.
Working with his counterpart at the AG, the project manager promptly initiated research regarding the Ladies Association status as well as real property status of the holdings of the Association. The research determined that though the Ladies operated as a not for profit limited liability corporation, it had been created a body politic by an act of the Virginia General Assembly before the 1861-65 Civil War and again by a following act in the 1870s. If for any reason the corporation became insolvent, the real property reverted to the state. In effect, transfer of the Grist Mill was essentially the state giving the property to itself by transferring the mill essentially to another state agency. Publication of the research’s findings quickly killed resistance from this quarter.
The sole source contract award issue was a bit more of a concern. One aspect of the concern was the documenting of justification for going with a single contractor, in this case the Ladies Association. Another aspect was the competence of the entity to perform a major capital project. As it happened, the Ladies Association was a fairly large organization of well over 100 employees. One part of the organization that was counterpart to The Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Design and Construction Office was a similar office. The project manager had already been in contact with his counterpart in the Ladies Association’s design and construction office and had arranged to have a meeting and tour of that office and visit a recently completed project—the reconstructed George Washington round Barn.
The visit verified that the Associations design and construction office was a well-staffed and highly competent capital project organization. The round barn proved to be a major piece of reconstruction. The detailed research into the original structure had even uncovered photographs from pre-Civil War times of the original structure with supporting tax and estate records that described the structure in some detail. The work on the reconstructed barn demonstrated an outstanding attention to detail supported by superb craftsmanship. The project was beautifully executed.
It was at this time that the project manager met the “millwright” that would superintend the Grist Mill Project when awarded. Millwrights skilled in mill restoration of this type were a rare breed and the millwright in the wings was one of the best available.
It was also at this time that the project manager gained a full sense of how fully the Association had changed its position on expanding its interpretation of the “larger George Washington Story” from their previous position. When he asked his counterpart what the Association envisioned long term if the Grist Mill Project was successful, he was told something very interesting.
The association had bought at auction in Tennessee the original copper stills of the distillery. In a nutshell, the Association’s long-term strategy was to restore the entire footprint of George Washington’s initiative to shift to grain, produce a range of grain based product for which he’d done the market research and put in place the high tech capability to produce product and bring it to market. In other words—when the mill project completed, it would be followed by a reconstruction of the distillery and very likely production of one of the signature products—whiskey. <
The project manager was able, despite some resistance in some quarters, to proceed rapidly on building and obtaining the necessary approvals for the MOU. It was signed on the designated date in July specified in the act. Shortly afterward the procurement and capital contracts were awarded.
However, shortly after work began, an issue surfaced. An initial phase of the capital project was the assessment by the millwright of what of the wooden machinery of the existing mill was recoverable. The assessment determined that the wood was unsound due to insect damage. This was just as well, in that the millwright determined that one of the reasons the machinery in place had never worked properly was that it deviated from the original design.
This development introduced a new problem, the need to replace all wood of the machinery with the mature types of wood specified in the design presented a potentially project killing unfunded expense that could climb into a $100K+ cost level. The massive main axle powered by the huge exterior wheel in the spillway alone would be hard to replace. The size logs of the right age and properly cured would not be a small matter to obtain.
At this point, the project manager had to scramble and innovate. As it happened, there was a Virginia Institute of Technology forestry research station near Fredericksburg. Coordination with Virginia Tech quickly determined that the university was very interested in signing on as a partner in the project. It was also determined after checking with the research station’s supervisor that all the types, ages and dimensions of timber were available on the station’s holdings.
A site visit by the expanding project team was scheduled—the millwright and station chief being key. During the site visit every needed tree was identified and marked and subsequently harvested. These project resources were a contribution by Virginia Tech to the project. Thanks to this generosity and spirit of partnership, the project forged ahead.
The three phases of the MOU successfully completed. The mill returned to operation and its new mission as part of the Mount Vernon interpretive program. On its heels, a following project reconstructed the distillery and began production of George Washington’s whiskey to his original recipe. Since resuming operations the distillery produces a batch of GW whiskey annually that the public is able to purchase.
Today, the two impressive stone structures of the mill and distillery stand as a testament and memorial to the visionary nature of one of the United States’ most significant founding fathers as an entrepreneur and businessman. And a citizen of the United States today may acquire a bottle of George’s whiskey distilled to the original recipe and toast the Republic 241 years after its birth.
As a leadership example the project manager and the several key members of the project team that developed, especially the Attorney General’s Office and the Ladies Association members, demonstrated a resolute dedication to task, even when significant, road blocks occurred they persevered to completion of the project, and on time. As well, these leaders developed an early belief in the project that inspired others to believe in it, see its importance and value such that the others became supports and leaders in their own right. The complexities of the project were such that it could have failed—it did not because of the leadership demonstrated.