In the late 1700s, before the federal government moved to area, the land which would become the Mall was mostly farmland owned by residents of Maryland. After the city was established, large-scale farming was replaced by small household gardens, such as the house and kitchen gardens of the White House. The Department of Agriculture has occasionally used the Mall as a site for experimentation and education since it was founded in 1860.
Was the Mall ever used as farm land?
This 1874 map shows the ownership of Mall land around the year 1790. Most of the Mall was owned by David Burnes, Notley Young, and Daniel Carroll, who used it as farm and grazing land. Their crops included wheat, corn, rye, and tobacco.
Once Washington City began, the Mall was no longer used for large-scale farming, although locals still grazed their animals. However, the White House maintained an extensive garden to for cooking as well as for decorative flowers and medicinal herbs. In this 1827 diary entry, President John Quincy Adams estimated that the two-acre garden had over a thousand kinds of plants, many of which he did not recognize.
In 1865 the Department of Agriculture took over a stretch of the Mall between 12th and 14th streets. Part of this area was used as an experimental field. The Department tested out new varieties of crops, assessing their success before sending seeds out to farmers across the nation. Although no crops are visible in this photograph of the Department of Agriculture fields, it demonstrates their location and size. The scale of the experimental crops quickly outgrew the plot of land on the Mall; by the 1880s, the field was no longer in use.
By the mid-1900s, most of the Mall was given over to offices, monuments, and museums; the gardens at the White House generally grew flowers rather than food. But in 1943, an 11 year old girl was allowed to grow vegetables on the Mall. Under the guidance of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Diana Hopkins planted a small Victory Garden on the White House grounds. Hopkins lived with her father and step-mother in the White House. Although her garden did not grow nearly enough vegetables to feed the White House, it served a symbolic role as part of the war effort.
In 2009, the Department of Agriculture opened a new garden on the Mall. It is called the People's Garden, the first of many gardens of the name meant to promote collaborative, sustainable gardening which support the community. Employees from nearby offices volunteer their time in the garden, and all of the produce is donated to local food kitchens and charities.