The Brick Building Where George Didn’t Sleep: A History of Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center

The Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is a lovely red brick colonial revival building with towering white columns and cool architectural details built in the 1960s.  What’s not to love?  The only problem with having a 20th century building that looks like it could be from the 18th century is that people who visit sometimes assume our visitor center is actually Washington’s boyhood home, a mistake that’s easy to make.  Even though our building dates from just 50 years ago, it does have its own fascinating history. Here is the tale of this often misunderstood yet beloved structure.

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (2)

The Colonial Revival-style exterior of the Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

In the 1950s, The George Washington’s Boyhood Home Restoration, Inc. (GWBHR) owned Ferry Farm and was dedicated, as many groups had been before, to transforming the property into nationally-renowned historic site dedicated to the young life of the first president.[1]  By the end of the decade, the group’s hopes had dimmed and, in 1961, board member “Joe Zenker . . . brought Ferry Farm to the attention of Youth for Christ International” (YFCI).[2]

Youth for Christ emerged out of a series of Christian youth rallies centered in Chicago during the Second World War.[3] By the 1960s, the organization’s Lifeline ministry was working with social welfare services to help children deemed troubled, disadvantaged, or as having difficulties living in foster homes.[4]

Youth For Christ was interested in Ferry Farm as the location of a boys home and initially hoped to purchase the site from GWBHR but that was not to be.  Instead, a YFCI majority was placed on the GWBHR’s board and they launched their plan to build the home.[5]  It was hoped that by living where Washington grew up the young men would “develop character . . . and become leaders in our country.”[6]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (3)

A visit to Ferry Farm begins at the welcome desk inside the Visitor Center.

By 1962, Youth For Christ was using an existing farm house on the property called the “Colbert House” after the family who built it in 1914.  Paul Millikan was placed there to curate the George Washington Museum on the first floor and to function as YFCI’s on-site representative while a suitable boys’ home was constructed.[7]

The architects hired to design the boys’ home were Robert Sully and Stephen Oppenheim. They envisioned a large Colonial Revival structure with a formal symmetrical garden on the grounds.  Construction of the home was started in fall of 1965 by Nice Brothers Inc. of Newport News, Virginia and was completed by January 1966.[8]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (4)

A museum gallery in the Visitor Center displays artifacts excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm and panels chronicling George Washington’s boyhood and the construction of the Washington house replica.

By the fall of 1966, boys were living in the house and spent time “taking meals, being bussed to local schools for class, performing chores, working on homework, and participating in recreational activities.”[9]  There was time for play as well.  Archaeologists have excavated toys and game pieces such as “Hi-Ho Cherry-O” cherries throughout the property. Whether or not these games were provided as a reminder of Washington’s youth and the myth of the cherry tree is unknown, but it is certainly possible that this game was part of YFCI’s plan to evoke Washington ideals even through play.[10]

While the local community donated food, gasoline, and household items, these gifts did not provide funds to address the house’s mortgage payment. The live-in house parents at the time, Gilbert and Kathe Nichols, were critical of this lack of involvement as seen in The Free-Lance Star on February 16, 1968:

Frankly disappointed in support the home has received here, the Nichols say their critics are honest in wanting to know why the home needs money and how it can expect local aid when it refuses to take local boys into its care….  All monetary contributions must, in the home’s financial arrangements, go toward the mortgages, [Gilbert] Nichols says. Support money from the court and a small income from the George Washington Boyhood Home shrine go toward operating expenses. . . .  Nine of the 10 boys living at GWBH now are from Virginia, but not from Fredericksburg or nearby counties. And the fellows are mainly ones who need a new environment to get on the right track in society. This is why local boys aren’t accepted. Too close to home and old peer groups, boys wouldn’t feel the impact of the normal, yet professionally guided life.

As former director of the home Gary Foss recalled, Fredericksburgers probably expected a large, well-funded national group like Youth for Christ to fully fund the house.  The sizable mansion-like building itself surely exacerbated this feeling.[11]  Moreover, its appearance confused visitors, who mistakenly thought it to be George Washington’s actual boyhood home.[12]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (5)

Visitors may watch archaeologists analyze artifact findings through these windows that look into the Archaeology Lab in the Visitor Center.

Faced with growing debt on the new building as well as day-to-day costs, YFCI sold access rights to the southern portion of Ferry Farm to be used to quarry stone for gravel to form the roadbed of I-95.[13]

Operations at the boys’ home ceased in the summer of 1968 because a fundraising drive by Youth For Christ to keep the home open was not successful. On August 2, 1968, The Free-Lance Star reported that “The George Washington Boys’ Home in Stafford County is being closed after more than two years of operations. . . .  The phase-out marks the end of a dream for Youth for Christ, Inc.”[14]  By 1969, there were no longer any boys living at the George Washington Boys’ Home.

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (6)

The office of a member of the museum education staff in Ferry Farm’ s Visitor Center.

On March 27, 1969, Samuel and Irma Warren bought the property containing both the historic area and the closed Youth for Christ boys’ home.[15]  The Warrens rented out the boys’ home building to a variety of religious groups.

The first tenant was the Fredericksburg Bible Institute and Seminary and the related Crossroad Baptist Church.  The institute, founded by Dr. George Albert Brown, Jr., moved into the building on the first day of January 1970 while, later in the decade, Brown’s newly formed Crossroads Baptist Church met for three years in the building.  In 1981, the church and institute vacated the property to move into a new building in Fredericksburg.[16]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (1)

The Warrens’ next tenant was Calvary Chapel starting in 1985.  Three years later, Calvary tried to use the building once more as a foster home for teenage boys.  Six boys, ranging in age from 12 to 18 years, were placed in the home called Samuel House.  This effort lasted only two years and was the final attempt by anyone to make Ferry Farm into a residential youth home.  Calvary Chapel did continue using the building for church services until 1995.[17]

Today, the boys’ home building serves as the Visitor Center for George Washington’s Ferry Farm and houses the Archaeology Lab and staff offices for The George Washington Foundation, which has operated Ferry Farm as well as Historic Kenmore as historic sites together since 1996.  This is the building where your visit to Ferry Farm and the newly built Washington house replica begins and we hope to see you soon!

Sasha Erpenbach, UMW student
Fleming Smith Intern

 

[1] Rebekah K. Wood, “History of the Visitors Center Building, George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm,” The George Washington Foundation, October 15, 2010: 1.

[2] Philip Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 169; Wood, 1.

[3] Dr. Art Deyo, “Celebrating 70 Years of Youth for Christ: YFC’s History,” https://www.yfc.net/images/uploads/general/YFCs_History_by_Dr._Art_Deyo_-_Final_Version.pdf [accessed July 29, 2019]: 1-4.

[4] Oral History with Gary Foss, January 18, 2008. Interviewers: Melanie Marquis and Rebekah Wood. The George Washington Foundation Oral History Project, The George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA: 2, Deyo, 8.

[5] Foss oral history, 8.

[6] Foss oral history, 6, 10, 22.

[7] Wood, 3; Oral History with Paul Millikan, Jay Kessler, Bruce Love, and Gary Foss, July 1, 2008. Interviewers: Melanie Marquis and Rebekah Wood, The George Washington Foundation Oral History Project, The George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA: 22.

[8] Wood, 3-4.

[9] Wood, 4.

[10] Melanie Healy-Marquis, “Souvenirs from Ferry Farm: Two Centuries of Myths at George Washington’s Boyhood Home,” 2009, 11.

[11] Foss oral history, 10, 18.

[12] Wood, 5-6.

[13] Levy, 173.

[14] John Goolrick, “Boys Home Here Begins Shutdown,” Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, August 2, 1968: A1.

[15] Wood, 8.

[16] Wood, 8.

[17] Wood, 9.

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