You’ve heard that George Washington had wooden false teeth. Whether that’s truth or fiction, what can be proven is that our nation’s first president had a sweet tooth. When he was itching for something sweet, he turned to maple sugar.
In fact, if George Washington and his friend Thomas Jefferson had their way, today consumers would think of maple syrup and a state that begins with V in the same instant: Virginia.
Virginia was the home state for both men, and they were excited about the idea of expanding maple sugar production there. In August 1791, President Washington received a shipment of maple syrup from Arthur Noble and William Cooper. The two New Yorkers told the president they were soon ready to sell enough to supply the entire country (there were only 13 states at that point, but still a pretty heady business plan). Probably as part of their early public relations efforts, Noble also sent along a packet of sugar maple seeds for Washington.
Back then, it seems, producers took a long-term view of production. Still, both Washington and Jefferson were well known as agricultural experimenters. Both Virginians had the patience and resources to grow trees from seed.
One-stop ag experiment station
About 75 years before the Morrill Act, George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation was a one-stop agricultural experiment station, research school and extension service. He experimented with everything from tropical plants (growing degree days were not part of the vocabulary then) to hemp and brewers grains. So, little wonder that he wanted to give sugar maple a shot. The Virginians recognized the potential.
Jefferson wrote to Washington on May 1, 1791, “A mister Noble has been here, from the country where they are busied with the Sugar-maple tree. He thinks mister Cooper will bring 3000’s worth to market this season, and gives the most flattering calculations of what may be done in that way.”
Maple was not seen as just for pancakes. Jefferson was on top of its potential for liquor, although his sources said it was more profitable as sugar. Jefferson wrote that Noble “informs me of another very satisfactory fact, that less profit is made by converting the juice into spirit than into sugar. He gave me specimens of the spirit, which is exactly whiskey.”
(These letters are courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Learning Center at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon, where historians can find Washington’s complete papers. The spelling and punctuation are as in the original letters – but fun to decipher.)
On Oct. 16, 1792, Jefferson wrote to Washington again: “Th: Jefferson has the honor to inclose to the President some letters just received. Colo. Fay having sent him a paper of Sugar-Maple seed, Th: J., on his request, asks the President’s acceptance of the within.”
Washington appeared sold on maple sugar. He wrote to Edward Newenham in Philadelphia, Sept. 5, 1791, “The manufacture of maple sugar is in a very promising train, and, as the tree grows in several of the States, there is every reason to conclude that its cultivation will be prosecuted with success.”
Exchanging seed was commonplace among early agricultural leaders. There surely was little doubt in Jefferson’s mind that those seeds would see soil soon.
Even those far from the United States approached Washington about maple syrup – not always in ways that might favor the industry. “Should not the cultivation of the sugar cane be tried in Georgia, that so if it flourishes the United States may not depend upon a precarious supply from the West India Islands? And should not the ravages, likely to be made on the maple trees for the obtaining of sugar, be speedily circumscribed, that so the back country may not, through the heedless destruction of the tree without ever planting or promoting its growth, cut itself off from a future supply of sugar?” asked William Gordon of the president. He wrote from St Neots Huntingdonshire [England] on Jan. 31, 1791, “Uh, Mr. Gordon, sir, tapping trees does not kill them.”
The president would have cared about that possibility, however, as he cared about all of agriculture. Frequently, he acted as his own extension agent. In fact, he was well aware of his position as a leader in ag experimentation and was happy to reach out to others with his observations or to ask questions.
On Oct. 31, 1792, Anthony Whiting corresponded with the president about sugar maples. He was confused and wrote, “Your Letter of the 21st I had the Honor to receive on Wednesday last with the Bill of Scantling & List of plants from Norfolk these the Gardener had plac’d in the Green House, The Sugar Maple seed (not knowing the time for sowing it) I persuaded the Gardener to sow a part of it immediately & keep the Other ’till Spring.”
Within a couple of days, Washington had the letter in hand and he replied on Nov. 4: “Let the Gardener put all the Seeds of the Sugar Maple in the ground this Fall; but not to cover them more than very slightly indeed, with Earth. What kind of preparation, and what kind of a Crop Do you mean to put the clover lot (front of the house) into, in order to prepare it for Grass?”
That kind of turnaround for correspondence in 1792 is nothing short of amazing. Even today, FedEx would be pretty pleased with four-day turnaround on correspondence from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
Tobias Lear, Washington’s friend and secretary during his first year as president, knew about the president’s sweet tooth, too. On Oct. 24, 1790, he shipped maple sugar candy to the president. Lear, at the time, was hard at work furnishing what would be the president’s home. He was unpacking large and small looking glasses, china, mahogany furniture and other effects. Yet he took time out to indulge the boss.
“By a Captain Vance who sailed last week for Alexandria I sent two loaves of maple Sugar which had been refined at New York by Mr Roosevelt. Altho the Sugar in its original State was not of the first quality, yet the sample will shew how well the attempt to refine it has succeeded: And Mr Roosevelt assured me that he had no doubt, when the best quality should be sent to the Sugar house, of its making a good loaf Sugar as could be produced from the best muscavado. He sold what he had refined of this @ 2/ (two pounds sterling) NYk Curry per pound, which is 3d. (pence) more than the same quality made from imported Sugar sells at; which advanced price he said was owing to the small quantity that was refined (at 2 or 300 c[w]t) which occasioned the same expense and trouble to the refiner that a much larger quantity would have done. But if it was refined in large quantities it could be afforded as cheap or cheaper than any other.”
How important was that maple sugar? It was the only item Lear mentioned again in his long report, telling the president in a postscript, “Captn Vance will deliver the Sugar to Mr Murray in Alexandria.” The subtext was to be sure someone was at the docks to pick it up.
Even though he was the president, his staff knew he had to be kept up on where the good stuff was! Washington’s maple sugaring legacy endures to this day. The Highland County, Virginia Maple Syrup Festival, typically held in early March, is a major event in the mountain area of the state.