We have a unique situation here at the Ferry Farm Archaeology Lab. One of our volunteers, who has spent hundreds of hours washing, sorting and labeling excavated artifacts, is oddly enough, also partially responsible for creating some of those artifacts in the first place!
Robert Bailey, his father Ray, mother Peggy and older brother Ray Jr., lived here at Ferry Farm from the late spring of 1957 until August of 1959. His parents rented what was referred to as the “Colbert house,” a large three-story home built in 1914 by James Colbert, a farmer and businessman.
Robert was only five years old when he moved to Ferry Farm. He vividly remembers playing in the many barns, running through the fields and woods that surrounded the farmhouse, and swimming in the stream that runs alongside the historic Ferry Road on hot summer days. He and his brother also showed visitors stopping to see George Washington’s boyhood home around the property and invited them to sign the guest book located inside the small late 19th century building called the Surveyor’s Shed.
Robert as a child (foreground left in the rocker) in the Colbert House back yard.
He also remembers playing with lots of toys typical of the time, most notably glass marbles, plastic army men, toy cars and trucks, and especially a new toy called Play Doh, a wallpaper cleaner compound that had just been reinvented as a moldable clay product for children.
Collection of 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm. Clockwise from left: portion of a Playdoh canister lid, marbles including a large green shooter, green plastic army man, red plastic Indian, blue plastic Civil War soldier, four .22 caliber shelling casings.
Over 800 toy-related artifacts have been excavated and catalogued in our artifact database. As a collection, these toys span all time periods, from colonial clay marbles, to Civil War-era dice, to a Cold War-era Sputnik ring, and most recently, Dora the Explorer sunglasses! We have also catalogued fragments of bicycle parts, dominoes, board game pieces, dolls, plastic figurines, toy guns and planes, toy cars and trucks, and dishes and tea sets.
Of course, Robert and his brother were not the only children who lived on or visited this site. Other children lived in the Colbert house before and after the Baileys resided there, and hundreds have visited the site on field trips and for special events, such as our annual Fourth of July celebration.
Robert cannot say with any certainty that any of the marbles he has washed in the lab once belonged to him, but the conversations that those marbles start are an important part of the oral and archaeological history of the site. Robert Bailey has participated in the Foundation’s oral history program with a detailed accounting of his memories of the house and grounds. Because he experienced living at Ferry Farm, he can tell us about not only the events and activities his family took part in, but also of the perceptions that visitors to the farm had about the importance of this site as Washington’s boyhood home.
Another vivid childhood memory that often comes to Robert’s mind is of his mother shooting at the black snakes that appeared in and around the house and yard. According to Robert, one day a snake came out of a hole in an old gnarled tree located near the Surveyor’s Shed. His mother dutifully brought out her rifle and proceeded to, as Robert says, “blast away” at the snake. Despite the countless number of bullets expended, she missed and the snake eventually slithered back into its hole.
Surveyor’s Shed in the foreground left with Colbert House in the background right.
While washing artifacts in the wet lab, Robert has come across a lot of .22 shell casings. Just this past week he washed seven. Each time one appears in an artifact bag, Robert chuckles and says “this shell casing might be one that my mom shot at the snake in the tree – and missed!”
Robert looks over some of the 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm that, who knows, might have belonged to him in his youth.
Sixty years have passed since the Bailey family first came to live at Ferry Farm, but the past certainly comes full circle and is alive again when Robert empties another artifact bag onto the tray and begins to sort its contents. His connection with our archaeological site provides staff with many opportunities to record and analyze more about Ferry Farm in the 20th century. Robert’s deep commitment to helping preserve George Washington’s boyhood history, combined with his own unique insights, creates a new understanding about Ferry Farm for Robert too.
Robert’s history lies mostly in the topmost soil layers of the site as not enough time has passed to deeply bury his things. Although Robert’s lost marbles and plastic army men are mixed in with excavated toys dropped by other boys and girls, it’s fun to hear him say “I wonder if this was mine?”
Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor