St. Olaf College | News

An internship that follows in the footsteps of the first president

SchonbergSam400x450Immersive public history, farm work, academic research … and a chance to live on the estate of the first president of the United States.

That’s what an internship at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate meant for Sam Schonberg ’15.

This summer Schonberg secured a George Washington: Entrepreneur Internship at the revolutionary general, statesman, and farmer’s plantation, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I worked five days a week, and I spent most of the day discussing the history of the area with visitors,” says Schonberg. “The rest of my time was spent taking part in small chores on the farm, such as weeding or chopping wood. I dressed up in accurate 18th-century apparel to give the image of what the farm may have looked like during Washington’s time.”

In addition to immersive historical interpretation, the internship incorporated study and research, and Schonberg is completing a paper on 18th-century agriculture and industry.

“I’m studying historic trades, essentially looking at how historic processes were in the late 18th century as opposed to now,” says Schonberg. “One of the most fascinating things that I have found is how innovative Washington was and how he truly believed that he defined himself. To Washington, he was neither a general nor a president first and foremost. Before all else, he considered himself a farmer.”

One of Washington’s goals, Schonberg says, was to establish new farming techniques that could potentially make the United States the “storehouse for the world.” One such innovation was the 16-sided treading barn.

“It is essentially a method of extracting wheat seeds from their stalks that uses gravity as one of the main ways to sort it upon separation,” says Schonberg of the complicated structure. “I usually use a lot of gestures when I talk about it.”

“I’m also fascinated with the issue of slave life at Mount Vernon,” he adds. “By the time of his death, Washington had 316 slaves. It is clear that he was a conflicted man, and studies into his life really reflect this.”

Thanks to this academic tilt, the internship will fulfill the experiential component of Schonberg’s environmental studies concentration at St. Olaf, which requires students to engage in “an experience that applies basic knowledge in a setting beyond the classroom.”

“I am personally very fascinated with the meeting of economic feasibility and environmental sustainability, and it seems to me that Washington succeeded in achieving both,” says Schonberg. “Not only did he run a strong economic enterprise, but he successfully managed his forests in a manner that was absolutely sustainable. It is a model that proves to be successful and the fact that one of the founders of our country chose to utilize it is fascinating to me.”

Schonberg says he never thought of Washington as a conservationist before beginning his research, and gaining that kind of insight into such a significant historical figure was one of the most rewarding parts of the internship.

“Washington was just extremely multifaceted and interesting, which makes it awesome to study him,” says Schonberg. “I love delving into this history and trying to discern what he was like and how he truly felt.”

To top it all off, Schonberg and the other interns were given the opportunity to live on the estate for the duration of the internship.

“We spent many evenings sitting on the back piazza of the mansion, and it was wonderful,” he says. “I had an absolute blast and am incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to study and live there.”