George Washington, our nation’s first president and the hero of the Revolutionary war was a hemp farmer. By now, virtually everyone knows that Washington grew hemp on his plantation at Mt. Vernon in Virginia. Much is made of his famous quote, “Make the most of the hemp seed. Sow it everywhere!” Also well known is his journal entry explaining that he was separating the male hemp plants from the female.

But there is an equally fascinating and compelling tale of George Washington and his connection with the hemp industry of Pennsylvania seldom told and known to just a few souls on this earth. It’s actually a story quite involved but for the purpose of this paper I will keep it brief.

After the Revolution, the great hero of the war, now President George Washington was on his way through Lancaster County in 1794. He had heard so much about the famous Lancaster County hemp industry, of the skill and ingenuity of our workers, and, the unique hemp mill technology brought by our German ancestors as well as the new technology being developed.

The English mills that Washington may have been used to employed heavy log stampers that pounded the hemp. The Pennsylvania mills used a large conical shaped millstone, now known as a hempstone.

Travelling on his way to Philadelphia on what is now known as Rout 30, Washington stopped at his good friend’s house, David Witmer. Witmer lived in Paradise and was considered an important resident there. In fact, Witmer was the man who named the township and town of Paradise. He was also responsible for building the ten mile section of the highway that Washington was travelling on.

David Witmer also owned a successful hemp mill that operated at the very least, for 40 years. Washington sat down with Witmer and they had an animated discussion. During the conversation the hemp mill came up and Washington was very excited to see the mill in operation. He was very much interested in finding a more effective way to mill the hemp he raised on Mt. Vernon. Witmer took the General to the hemp mill and in the excitement there was a tragedy during the demonstration.

There are several different accounts of what happened so it is difficult to find out what really happened but here are a few of the versions that are out there. This comes from the Whitmer Archives:

David Witmer, the youngest. Born Dec. 15, 1752. d. 15 August He married 21 January 1774 to Esther Kendig (born 4 October 1756; died 16 July 1831), daughter of Martin Kendig.

 In 1778, David bought from Jacob Fierre, son of Philip, son of Madam Mary Fierre, 51 acres and 50 perches, part of the original 1712 tract acquired by Madam Fierre on Pequea Creek in (now) Paradise, Lancaster County, PA. He built a large stone house to accommodate their large family in 1781, still standing in 1952. He also built a flour mill (destroyed in 1873) and a hemp mill. 

 President George Washington was thinking of having a hemp mill and wishing to see how David Witmer’s worked decided when in Lancaster in 1794 to go to Philadelphia over the new Lancaster and Philadelphia Turnpike, and stop at Paradise. While looking at this hemp mill something went wrong and there was an explosion. One man was gravely hurt and nothing was heard of Washington having a hemp mill for years after. On the north end of “my father’s store” wrote Jessie Witmer Landis could be seen the broken wheel of the hemp mill of 1794!

 David superintended building the fourth section of the Philadelphia turnpike from Coatesville westward. In 1796, David named the village of Paradise, of which legend records him saying “this place is like a paradise to me!”

He gave the land for building a Mennonite meeting house opposite the first school which he had built in 1801. At the first service February 7, 1807, he sang the 134th Psalm, which says:

“Behold– Bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
which stand by night in the house of the LORD.
“Lift up your hands, sanctuary, and bless the LORD!
The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of
Zion.”

We have this from the web site for the Creekside Inn:

David Witmer Senior and his wife Esther Kendig moved into this area in 1778. In the year 1781 they built a house along the road that now leads from Paradise to Gordonville. This house is now The Creekside Inn B&B. Two stone tablets in the wall of the house read “Bilt by David & Esther Witmer” and “In the year of our lord 1781.” David purchased this land (51 acres and 50 perches) from Jacob Fierre, son of Philip, son of Mary Warenbuer Fierre. Thus this land was part of the original tract granted to Mary Fierre {by William Penn}.

David Witmer, Senior, was a forceful figure whose talents included farming, milling, construction of bridges and roads, politics and community service. He operated a mill near the site of his home. It is possible that this mill had been operated by Jacob Fierre, who is recorded as being a miller. The house that is referred as the “Mill house” is still standing across the road from the house that David, Senior built.

 It appears that David was a personal friend of George Washington. His descendants have records to indicate that David traveled to Philadelphia to meet him while Washington was enroute to New York for the inauguration in 1789. A few years later, in 1794, George Washington visited this area and is reported to have visited a mill to study the processing of hemp. Legend states that the miller was over-enthusiastic in his attempted demonstration and a catastrophe resulted. One record states that the miller was injured and another states that the millstone was broken. At any rate, Mr. Washington decided against erecting a similar mill at Mt. Vernon.

Then we have this account of the story:

A tavern built by David Witmer, Jr. and used as a stage stop during the days of the Lancaster/Philadelphia Turnpike. George Washington is said to have dined here and there is a story in connection with his visit. Across the road was a hemp mill which the President was anxious to see in operation as he was thinking of building one on his own estate. The mill hand was careless with the machinery; something went wrong, and he was injured, which so impressed the distinguished visitor that he gave up the idea of having such a mill.

There are several other accounts of what happened that day. One states that the miller was removing some planking and got sucked into the gears. Another account states that the millers arm was crushed by the hemptsone.

At any rate, whether it was an explosion, arm crushing or getting sucked into the gears, something terrible happened and it caused much commotion. History may have been altered that day. Had the demonstration gone well, Washington may very well have erected a Lancaster County style hemp mill on his plantation in Virginia.

We do know that there were some similar hemp mills in Virginia, Kentucky and other states, some of them erected by former Pennsylvania hemp millers. Not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mt. Vernon for example. a hemp millstone was recovered from the banks of the Queens River near Williamsburg. It is now on display at the Colonial Williamsburg museum.

As a hemp historian I find the tale of Washington’s visit to the Paradise hemp mill fascinating. But, is it true?

I have tried hard to verify the story since I first read the legends about 20 years ago. Here is what I can verify – David Witmer did own a hemp mill in Paradise. His hemp mill is consistently listed in the tax assessment records of Lancaster County in the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s. My research shows he operated it from about 1778 to at least 1824. It seems to have been built as early as 1748 by Jacob Feree.  That means it had a useful life of about 76 years.

It is also true that David Witmer was a friend of George Washington. It is true that Witmer was a very important man who was responsible for building a ten mile section of highway that Washington would have travelled to Philadelphia on. Washington did indeed pass through this area and travel on this road. So while it is perfectly plausible and many of the facts line up unfortunately it cannot be 100% verified.

The visit to the hemp mill by Washington would seem to fit a pattern though because there is one story that is 100% verified and I can relate with absolute confidence. The first American president most definitely visited a Pennsylvania hemp mill in 1797.

Washington’s journal entry from January 3 reads:

Snowing from 10 oclock until 4—Wind westerly. Went to see Davenports Duck Manufy.

Washington After the Revolution: 1784-1799 has this account:

1797.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 3rd 

At Philadelphia: Visits the Globe Mills, situate at what is now the intersection of Germantown and Girard Avenue.

“1797 – One of the earliest manufactoriess of the United States, of any extent, for spinning and weaving flax, hemp and tow, by water power, was that of James Davenport, put in operation with patent machinery, within the last twelve months, at the Globe Mills, at the north end of Second Street, Philadelphia. It was visited at the beginning of the year (1797) by Washington and several members of Congress, who were highly pleased at the ingenuity and the novelty of the machinery. The President in particular expressed a high opinion of the merits of the patentee, Mr. Davenport; and an earnest wish that a work so honorable to the infant manufactories of the Union, might be extended to diffent parts of the country. The labor was chiefly performed by boys” – Bishop’s Histories of American Manufactories from 1608 to 1860, Vol. I, P. 71

By the time Davenport’s mill was erected there were already hundreds of water-powered mills for processing hemp fiber but the Globe Mill was the very first mill to use water-power to operate looms for weaving hemp, flax, wool and cotton. It was indeed the first textile factory in the United States. It was said that one boy could spin 292,000 ft. of hemp or flax thread or weave 15-20 yards of sail-cloth.

From Northern Liberties: the Story of a Philadelphia River Ward we read:

The first U.S. patent for a textile (carding and spinning) machinery was granted to James Davenport on February 14, 1794. Davenport set up his patented devices at the Globe to manufacture sailcloth yarns in 1796. His machines were conceivably the first water-powered looms in the world. Labor was chiefly performed by boys: one was able to spin 292,000 feet of flax or hemp thread in a 10 hour day. President George Washington and members of Congress visited Globe Mill to see the devices in action, as the new federal government was investigating ways to nurture American industries. Unfortunately, James Davenport died in 1798 and his business ceased; his machines were auctioned off. A Calico printing works was then handled at the Globe.

On a side note, In September of 1777, a delegation from the Continental Congress led by future president John Adams visited the hemp mill and oil mill where both hemp fiber and hempseed oil were processed in Bethlehem by the Moravians. Adams wrote about it in his diary. On September 23, 1777 he recorded:

“Mrs. Langley shewed Us the Society of Single Women. Then Mr. Edwine shewed Us the Water Works and the Manufactures. There are six Setts of Works in one Building. An Hemp Mill, an Oil Mill, a Mill to grind Bark for the Tanners.

Then the Fullers Mill, both of Cloth and Leather, the Dyers House, and the Shearers House. They raise a great deal of Madder. We walked among the Rowes of Cherry Trees, with spacious orchards of Apple Trees on each Side of the Cherry Walk. The Society of Single Men have turned out, for the sick.”

The year earlier, the Provisional Convention for the state of Pennsylvania had recommended the erection of a large number of hemp mills and urged every farmer in the state to grow as much hemp as they could.

The Moravians had been milling hemp and hempseed oil in Bethlehem since at least 1752 but the times were getting serious. Hemp was popular all over Pennsylvania since it’s founding by William Penn in 1681 but now with the ongoing Revolutionary War the cultivation of hemp became of vital importance in order to establish self-sufficiency and independence.

Hemp was already one of the four staples of trade in Pennsylvania as early as Penn’s day but the period of 1765-1820 was the golden age of hemp in the state. The culture of hemp in that era was nearly universal and remained quite common for many decades hence.

Bethlehem was the center of the early Moravian settlement. The Moravians owned 12,000 acres of land, farmed communally and raised hemp as a major crop. In 1752 they erected a hemp stamping mill and an oil mill to process hemp fiber and hempseed oil. In 1767 they replaced the hemp stampers with a large conical-shaped hemp millstone, common in hemp mills around Pennsylvania.

The Moravians kept meticulous records and show that many tons of hemp was processed for decades in the mill along with great volumes of hempseed oil.  For a fascinating account of these mills please refer to The Bethlehem Oil Mill.

So there you have it, the legend of George Washington’s visit to the hemp mill of Paradise in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that is likely true and his visit to the hemp mill textile mill in Philadelphia, which is definitely true, along with future President John Adam’s visit to the hemp fiber and hempseed oil mill in Bethlehem, stories that have seldom been told and known to a very few.

~Les Stark