About a month ago many FFA chapters were celebrating National FFA Week which is celebrated during the week of George Washington’s birthday. So, what is the relationship between George Washington and the FFA? Our guest columnist for this week, Dr. Jim Connors of the University of Idaho, explores that connection.
George Washington and the FFA
By Jim Connors
Washington owned and operated Mount Vernon on the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA. The first National FFA Center was located on land once part of Washington’s Mount Vernon farm. In 1939, the FFA purchased 28.5 acres of land a short distance from the Mount Vernon plantation.
The cover of The National Future Farmer Magazine in August-September 1957 included a color drawing of the National FFA Center over the title The FFA Home at Mount Vernon (1957). The description included the statement:
The rituals of the FFA are interwoven with ideals and principles that are a heritage from the Father of Our Country…and the manner in which he managed his farmstead at Mount Vernon. The traditionally colonial structure…is appropriately located on a part of George Washington’s old farm near Mount Vernon. Thus it is that from Mount Vernon comes not only a heritage of the past…but also added strength for the future.
During the American Bicentennial Celebration, The National Future Farmer Magazine published an article titled FFA ~ Built on the Spirit of ’76 (1976). The author asked the question – “Ever wonder why George Washington keeps popping his powdered wig into FFA ceremonies? Or why his name appears six times in our FFA manual – more than all other U.S. presidents combined?” The article points out that:
- From its very birth in 1928, the FFA has relied heavily on our early American leaders for its very character, culture and tradition.
- Both men [Washington and Jefferson] were known for their extreme love of agriculture.
- So, from the very start of FFA, the underlying ties to our early presidents and their beliefs had been established.
- As expressed by Washington in his farewell address as President, “I am a farmer, first, last, and always.”
Figure 1: George Washington’s Mt. Vernon Plantation
When the Future Farmers of American purchased the land for a National FFA Camp (which eventually became the National FFA Center), it included a grist mill. The building was a reconstruction of a grist mill Washington built in 1771. The FFA gave tours (for a small admission fee) of the grist mill from the early 1940s until 1962 when it was returned to the Virginia Park Service.
Figure 2: George Washington’s Grist Mill (reconstruction)
Figure 3: Historical Marker
When the Future Farmers of Virginia was organized in 1926, Henry Groseclose chose to use a bust of Washington as the symbol for the office of Treasurer. The official opening ceremony part for the Treasurer reads:
“I keep an accurate record or all receipts and disbursements, just as George Washington kept his farm accounts, carefully and accurately. Washington was better able to serve his country because he was financially independent.”
Swift & Company provided FFA chapters with framed images of Washington and Jefferson to display in agriculture classrooms (See Figure 4).
Figure 4: The Swift Company picture of Washington given to FFA Chapters
The Chapter Supply Company of Danville, Illinois sold Plaster of Paris busts of Washington and Jefferson for use by FFA chapters in the early days of the FFA (Moore, 2018). After the FFA Supply Service was created in 1948, busts of Washington could be ordered from them. See Figures 5, 6, & 7.
Figure 5: Treasurer’s Station Marker (c. 1950)
Figure 6: Treasurer’s Station Marker (c. 1990)
Figure 7: Treasurer’s Station Marker (c. 2018)
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington had to figure out how to train his new troops and to also enforce discipline. One action was to forbid his troops from cursing. In August of 1776 Washington issued an order against using profanity.
General Orders – August 3, 1776
The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this it is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.
In the early days of the FFA there was concern about the language used by FFA members. At the 1936 FFA convention (Proceedings, p. 20), Maddux of Tenessee moved “…that the national organization furnish copies of the ‘General Order of Profanity’ issued by George Washington in 1776 to all FFA chapters.” The motion passed. If you are in an FFA chapter that has existed for a while, you might see a copy hanging on the wall (If you can zoom in on the bottom of the image you will see the FFA citation, See Figure 8).
Figure 8: George Washington’s General Order of Profanity
On June 12-14, 1933 the National FFA conducted a 3-day pilgrimage to the White House, Mount Vernon and Monticello. At the White House, the group was greeted by President Roosevelt and had a picture taken on the White House lawn. One thousand FFA members and officers participated in the event. (Stimson & Lathrop, 1942) (https://www.ffa.org/timeline/1933/).
Figure 9: FFA members participating in Pilgrimage to White House on June 12, 1933
The following is a color flyer promoting the F.F.A. Pilgrimage to The Nation’s Capital, Monticello, & Mount Vernon. It states that the room in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello would be dedicated to the ideals of the Future Farmers of America.
Figure 10: FFA Pilgrimage flyer (Jefferson Library)
In preparation for the pilgrimage, C.H. Lane, Chief of the Agricultural Education Service sent a letter to Harrison Dodge, Superintendent of Mount Vernon requesting that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union which operated Mount Vernon, waive the entrance fee for the FFA members participating in the pilgrimage. The minutes of the May 11, 1933 meeting of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union (1933) includes the following passage:
The letter stated that about 2,000 boys were expected to be in Washington, Mount Vernon and Charlottesville, Va., June 12, 13, and 14; that they were coming primarily to dedicate a room in Monticello, to the ideals of the Future Farmers of America, and on Monday afternoon, June 12, they expected to journey to Mount Vernon to lay a wreath at the tomb of George Washington, one of the patron saints of the organization.
The handwritten daily journal of Col. H. Harrison Dodge on Monday, June 12, 1933 recorded that the weather was “clear, warm” and there was a “Wreath – placed by Future Farmers of America.” The Chapter Chats newsletter (Future Farmers of Virginia, 1933) reported that the FFA members would travel to Mt. Vernon on the afternoon of Monday, June 13, 1933 to place a wreath on the tomb of George Washington.
While there is no record of a photograph of the wreath-laying ceremony, the National FFA Archives at Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis (http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/special/ffa) includes a picture of the National FFA Officers laying a wreath at George Washington’s tomb on April 7, 1932 in commemoration of Washington’s Bicentennial Celebration. National FFA Advisor C.H. Lane is third from left in the photograph. National FFA President Kenneth Pettibone is placing the wreath.
Figure 11: National FFA Officers Placing Wreath at Washington’s Tomb – April 7, 1932
National FFA Week
George Washington also plays a big part in the FFA organization through National FFA Week. National FFA Week is the one week a year when FFA chapters across the country celebrate the FFA, their chapter, and agriculture. The National FFA offers ideas and materials for chapters to utilize in their celebration activities.
However, FFA Week actually started as FFA Day in 1933, just five years after the Future Farmers of America was established. The FFA Day celebration occurred during the week of the national FFA Convention. In 1947, the National FFA Board of Directors voted to expand FFA Day into a whole National FFA Week. It was decided that the first National FFA Week would be celebrated in February 1948, not the best time of year to celebrate agriculture (Kristy, 2018). February was selected because it would include February 22nd, George Washington’s birthday. The U.S. Congress voted to make Washington’s Birthday a federal holiday in 1879. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the celebration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. However, it never officially changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.
So, the 3rd week of February has become National FFA Week each year. Many people may not know the relationship between President George Washington and National FFA Week. How many FFA chapters include references to Washington and his agricultural heritage during National FFA Week.
George Washington is widely known as the Father of our Country. He was a farmer, military hero, and our first President of the United States. His dedication to the ideals of this country and leadership have given all FFA members a role model to look up to. The strong connections between George Washington and the Future Farmers of America continue to this day. Washington will forever remain the symbol of the FFA Treasurer’s position and strong leadership for all former, current, and future FFA members.
In a later Friday Footnote, we will look at Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to agriculture and the Future Farmers of America.
Future Farmers of Virginia (May 1933). National F.F.A. Pilgrimage to Washington – Monticello. Chapter Chats, 6(3), p. 1.
Kristy (2014, February 20). George Washington Plays a Major Role in National FFA Week. Why? [Web log post]. Retrieved from: http://www.lautnerfarms.com/george-washington-plays-a-major-role-in-national-ffa-week
Moore, G. (2018). The answer is not Amazon. Friday Footnote. Retrieved from: https://communities.naae.org/groups/friday-footnotes
Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union (1933). Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. Mt. Vernon, VA: George Washington Library.
“Presidents’ Day”? The Truth Behind the Holiday. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-man-the-myth/the-truth-about-presidents-day/
Proceedings, National FFA Convention, 1936
The FFA Home at Mount Vernon (1957, August-September). The National Future Farmer, 5(6), Cover.
Verzagt, H. (1982). The pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. The National Future Farmer, 30(3), p. 26-27.