6. Work continued throughout the winter months
On December 13, 1799 – a Friday – George Washington arose at dawn, as was his wont. Despite a sore throat he rode out on his farm, through a storm of sleet and freezing rain. It was to be his last ride. He died of a “throat distemper” late the following night. Yet his ride had been one of necessity for the operation of Mount Vernon. Washington had gone out to mark trees to be felled. The removal of trees during the winter months was a common event on the Virginia plantations. They were removed to provide additional acreage for planting in some cases. In others they were felled to provide lumber for the plantation’s buildings and cooperage. Cutting down the trees took place during the winter months occurred because it was then, with the fields fallow, that the field hands were available to do the work.
Trees were trimmed, felled, and hauled away, using oxen, draft horses, and enslaved labor to accomplish the task. Some trees were selected specifically for the shape of lumber pieces they would produce. Others were selected to be sawn into logs, and then boards, for use on the plantation. Still others could be sold, floated downriver in the spring, to be used by shipbuilders or carpenters. Nearly all of the tree cutting took place in the period between the harvest and the following spring planting, when the field hands would otherwise be idle. Trees, and the scrap wood they provided, produced fuel for cooking and warmth, charcoal for the plantation’s forges, and lumber for maintenance and construction of the plantations’ many buildings. At Monticello, Jefferson constructed a saw pit, and later a water-powered saw mill, for his slaves to produce the prodigious amount of lumber his construction projects required.