National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and the National Register of Historic Places, Oh My!

Throughout my time as a museum professional, I have worked at several different museums each with different classifications, rules, and operating procedures. Before entering the museum world, I used to think that most museums operated in a similar way. However, that could not be further from the truth. One of the most common questions I have gotten since leaving the National Park Service for the private sector has been some variation of: “Why can’t I use my National Park Pass here?” It is an understandable question that I am here to answer.

Museums can be categorized by many different subjects. For example, there are art museums, history museums, science museums, zoos, gardens and more! There are also different categories on how museums operate, fundraise, and are preserved. For example, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore are both historic house museums. They are owned by The George Washington Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that is charged with caring for the properties. Ferry Farm and Kenmore are funded by your donations, admission fees, and fundraising events. However, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is a National Park Service (NPS) property, operated by the government and funded, in part, with tax-payer dollars.

Aerial view of the Washington Monument

In addition to the NPS sites, the United States government also created the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is a list of places that are worthy of preservation but are not necessarily and, in fact, are not usually operated by the U.S. government. Sites on this list are able to apply for certain grants and funding through the NPS. They also receive certain tax breaks and can work towards becoming a National Park Site. Fun fact, there are almost 100,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

Of those 100,000 National Register properties, some also have the distinction of being National Historic Landmarks. Landmarks are sites that are again, not necessarily government-run, but have been recognized by the federal government as being nationally significant, meaning they correlate to a significant part of our nation’s history. These properties are also able to apply for certain grants and tax breaks. Not all properties on the National Register of Historic Places and not all properties listed as National Historic Landmarks are museums and not all of them are open for public visitation. However, being on these lists adds a layer of protection should the owners of that property need assistance in preserving the site.

Marker noting Historic Kenmore’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Marker noting George Washington Ferry Farm’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

Along with National Register and National Historic Landmark status, there are also several types of Easements that can be put in place to protect historic sites. Two types of easements often used in the museum world are Conservation Easements and Preservation Easements. These easements are agreements between the government and a property’s stewardship organization that allow for the government to step in and take over the operation of a property if the private owners are not caring for it properly or it becomes endangered in some fashion. Easements also allow the government to have approval over major changes to the properties to ensure they maintain their historic or natural significance. Private easements can also be created between two parties such as a historic site and a local conservation organization to protect the natural areas of a historic site.

The George Washington Foundation is a 503(c) (3) non-profit. This designation gives our organization certain tax exemptions. We are a private foundation that operates the two historic sites. These sites are not National Park Service sites and do not receive direct taxpayer funding from local, state, or federal governments. Both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm are on the National Register of Historic Places and also are both National Historic Landmarks. Additionally, Ferry Farm is under a conservation easement with the National Park Service. All of this means that while we still operate as a private foundation, there are several layers of protection to ensure these treasured historic properties are preserved and protected for decades to come.

Ferry Farm
Kenmore

As a private organization, we rely on admission fees and your generous donations to fund our sites. We are not part of any National Park or state park pass system. Your ticket purchase helps preserve and promote the legacies of these two sites. Perhaps that is why we are so appreciative for each and every guest who visits. If you would like to support The George Washington Foundation, please consider a donation. We hope to see you at the National Historic Landmarks of Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm soon!

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

The Surveyor’s Shed at Ferry Farm

Surveyor's Shed in Spring

The “Surveyor’s Shed” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

It isn’t known when the myths about the small white building called the Surveyor’s Shed at George Washington’s Ferry Farm began, or why it was believed by so many that the structure existed during George Washington’s childhood. It was long-held myth was that Augustine Washington taught his son, George, how to survey in this building but, in truth, the structure was built after the Civil War. As with many historic structures, the years have not been kind to the little frame building. Repairs and renovations over the years have periodically exposed its architectural secrets, revealing the true story of Ferry Farm’s oldest standing building. The collection of myths about this structure, referred to as the “Surveyor’s Shed” or “Surveyor’s Office” are of equal importance to its documented architectural history. Valuable oral histories from the people who once lived, worked, or visited at Ferry Farm include their own interpretations of the land on which George Washington spent his boyhood. Collected by Ferry Farm staff, these oral histories offer insights into the myth of the Surveyor’s Shed and give us clues as to why the story has remained so entrenched, regardless of the fact that the structure was built a century after George’s mother, Mary, left the property.

The Myth

For decades, the Surveyor’s Shed was believed to be and indeed was introduced to visitors as George Washington’s first surveying office, where his father, Augustine, taught George how to survey. Having purchased the property years earlier, James B. Colbert built a large Victorian-style farm house at Ferry Farm in 1914. This farmhouse changed hands multiple times and was occupied for most of its existence. The house burned down on the morning of September 26, 1994.

James B. Colbert

James B. Colbert

It is believed that Mr. Colbert began the Surveyor’s Office myth, since the building was not referred to by that name before Colbert owned the property. In Where the Cherry Tree Grew, Philip Levy, describes the relationship between J.B. Colbert and the Ferry Farm myths:

“Was it Colbert’s idea to serve up these stories in aid of his own ends, or were visitors bringing their beloved Washington tales with them? There is no way to know for sure,  but J.B. was orchestrating these stories- adding to them, accommodating them, making the most he could of them, and seeking ways to profit from them. He may not have set this Ferry Farm Weemsian renaissance in motion, but he certainly kept it rolling along and was its principal beneficiary.”[1]

In an oral history interview, Charles Linton, a later resident of the home, remembered that Belle Colbert — J.B.’s daughter — came to pay her respects once a year at the Surveyor’s Office.

The Linton family continued to share Ferry Farm’s most famous myths with visitors to the property during the 1940 and 50s. While the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm, tourists were welcomed. Charles Linton recalled two or three guests showed up unexpectedly in a single day. The family kept a guestbook inside the Surveyor’s Office and greeted anyone who showed up to visit. When guests arrived, they were offered a tour that included the Surveyor’s Office and a cherry tree stump purported to be descended from the tree George cut down with his little hatchet. This stump was revered by visitors and treated as a shrine.  The Lintons never questioned the authenticity of the shrines.

Boy with Cherry Tree Shrine

A young boy stands proudly by the cherry tree stump. The rear of the Surveyor’s Shed is visible in the background.

Additionally, a trunk of a cherry tree was housed inside the Surveyor’s Office, and the Linton children cut off pieces of its bark to sell as souvenirs. Charles Linton remembered in his interview, that when one trunk was used up, he and his brother, Tayloe, crossed Kings Highway to cut down another cherry tree and sell parts of that trunk, as pieces were in such high demand.

Paul Millikan moved into the Colbert house with his wife and children in 1962. He recalled during an oral history interview that upon moving in, most of the downstairs of the home was used as a museum and the upstairs was the family’s living area. He also noted that the Surveyor’s Office had surveying equipment on display, although the equipment was not of the Washington’s era. Like the Lintons, Millikan did not immediately question the authenticity of the Surveyor’s Office at first. Over time, he began to question the possibility that the building was not of Washington’s time, but remained inspired by those who revered this land and its shrines as authentic Washington era relics.

The Truth

The Surveyor’s Shed was officially listed as “George Washington’s First Surveying Office” in the Historic American Building Survey of 1935 but this listing was accompanied by a note stating that the claim was not supported with written proof.  In 1972, the Surveyor’s Shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form (PDF) described the building as a 13’ x 12’ frame house sitting on loose stones, 20 feet to the south of where “George’s mother’s house stood”.  While the structure was referred to as “George Washington’s surveying shed” on the NHRP application, this document clearly stated the building was not of colonial origin.

In reality, the construction of the shed likely began when the Carson family owned Ferry Farm in the late 19th century; a full 100 years after Mary Washington left the property.  To build the structure, the Carsons used materials from other structures owned by the family on the property. Machine-cut lath in the original plaster walls and ceiling, the cut nails holding the structure together, and the platform framing are all evidence the building was constructed after 1870. The onslaught of the Civil War and the occupation of Ferry Farm by Union soldiers would have almost definitely caused major damage, if not complete destruction, of a small building like the shed if it had been standing pre-war. The war’s destruction was immense as evidenced by letters and photographs of Ferry Farm from the Civil War show a land denuded of trees or wood of any kind. Soldiers used every scrap of wood they could find to fuel fires for cooking keeping warm.

Surveyor's Shed in Winter

The Surveyor’s Shed in winter.

Nevertheless, the Surveyor’s Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was again carefully recorded and repaired by historic preservationists after suffering damages from weathering, aging, and even wildlife.  Ferry Farm’s oldest building, while not from George Washington’s times, is still an important part of George’s boyhood home, and is considered an important American shrine by Fredericksburg locals. The myth of the structure being from the Washington era has been dispelled, but the little building is close to its sesquicentennial year as a symbol of the importance of the property it sits on. The myth behind the Surveyor’s Shed has become valuable in its own right, similar to the Cherry Tree Story. Both myths have affected the way we look at George Washington’s formative years. Had it not been for this little white building, and J.B. Colbert propagating these myths as facts, the narrative of the Surveyor’s Shed might not be as well-known, and Ferry Farm itself might not have been saved and protected as it is today.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

[1] Levy, Philip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2013: 148.