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.

 

The Truth As We Know It

I love stories.  I mostly love true stories but I also love those stories that may not actually be true but are perceived by many to be true.  It is in those perceived truths that one can make discoveries about how people and societies see history. Likewise, studying a collection of one’s own oral stories that have come down through generations in a family can help bring into focus how we view our own personal histories.

Have you ever played the game “Telephone”?  A group sits in a circle and each participant takes turns whispering the same sentence into the ear of the person next to them.  When the sentence has gone around to everyone, the person who started the game announces what the original sentence was and then, giggling, the last person reveals what the sentence morphed into as it passed along from person to person.  Oral histories can be like “Telephone” as they pass through the generations.  Nevertheless, they are important stories from which we glean cultural information.  We should be keepers of them for future generations.

Stories about historical figures and historical places can be like that, too, as they pass through people, time, cultures, and ideologies. In my professional life, I am privileged to explore the narratives of a life well lived by the Virginian, George Washington.  Most of these narratives are well known to the world and have inspired Americans for centuries.  They are big, important stories that resonate with countless people young and old.

The two functions I serve in my work for The George Washington Foundation are as Archaeology Lab Supervisor and Oral History Project Coordinator.  These two positions offer me the unique opportunity to “read” stories in excavated trash (archaeological artifacts) and to listen to and record oral stories collected from people associated with our sites like former residents, visitors, and employees.  At first glance, one might seem more scientific and the other merely anecdotal.  But these two jobs, even though they appear at odds, are not necessarily so opposing.

Both activities illuminate what we know about the history of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore and both can serve as interpretive tools for museum exhibit content.  I often tell groups of school children who visit us in the Archaeology Lab that I would be able to tell a lot about them if I could look in their trash cans at home. This helps them to understand that looking at George Washington’s excavated trash is informative in the same way.

As an employee of an organization that relies on careful archaeological data, I feel very strongly about doing my part to provide the public with information that is as accurately interpreted as possible given the scientific techniques, processes, and experts used to gain the truths we seek.  These truths reach far beyond the Washington years.  The artifacts deposited at our active dig site at Ferry Farm also inform us about Native Americans who lived here, early settlers of this property when it was the frontier of Virginia, Civil War soldiers who were encamped here, and several families that lived here throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our archive of oral histories works hand in hand with scientific archaeology to fill in the details of what we know to be true “from the dirt.”  For example, one interviewee who had lived at Ferry Farm in the mid-20th century asked if any of the archaeologists had ever found metal army men on the site.  He explained that he and his brother had a mold from which they would make lead soldiers.  They had melted down Civil War minie balls they found in the yard around their house and used the liquefied lead to make their toy soldiers.  They were simply recycling, as it were.  So, if our archaeological team were to excavate such a soldier, it would speak to both the Civil War and World War II era histories of Ferry Farm.

Oral histories collected from people associated with Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the 20th and 21st centuries have made significant contributions to our understanding of the inhabitants and activities at both properties. These histories have also helped document important preservation initiatives aimed at protecting George’s boyhood home and the home of Betty Washington Lewis and her husband, Fielding.  The GWF Oral History Project overall has created a community, however disparate, of citizens supportive of Ferry Farm and Kenmore and the stories they tell.  If you have a story to share, please contact me!

Melanie Marquis
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Oral History Project Coordinator

OralHistoryFlier

 

 

Being Part of the Story: Collecting Oral Histories about Ferry Farm and Kenmore

Have you ever seen ads for museums inviting you to “be part of the story”?  Well, at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, many people are part of the story and have been for a long time.  Those who have played an integral part in the ownership, history, preservation, and work of the properties have long had a spot for these two places in their hearts.   Collecting and processing the oral stories of those people is an important part of understanding the historical scope of The George Washington Foundation’s properties.  In fact, oral history programs and collections have become an important component of many museums around the world.

Our Foundation’s own oral history project officially began in 2007.  My requirement was to interview someone for a Historic Preservation Department course I was taking at The University of Mary Washington.  I was to record recollections of a person describing the layout of a house he or she previously lived in and detail how the rooms and landscape around the person’s home were used by its occupants.  Since I worked in the Archaeology Lab at Ferry Farm, I decided to ask David Muraca, director of archaeology, if he knew of someone I could interview associated with the property or who had lived at Ferry Farm during the 20th century.   He suggested Charles Linton, Jr, a local gentleman who had lived in the 1914 two-story frame house on the property as a boy with his large family from 1942 to 1956.

ColbertHouse

The Colbert House (right) built in 1914 by James Colbert, owner of Ferry Farm for much of the early 1900s

In our oral history session, Mr. Linton and his wife, Pat recounted many specific remembrances of the Linton family’s time living on the very same river bank where George Washington grew up He told of the aftermath of the historic 1942 Fredericksburg Flood, rationing during World War II, and his parents’ efforts to house soldiers and provide medical supplies for the troops.  There were many tourists who visited the property during the time that the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm. So many, in fact, that they kept a guest book!  People traveling through wanted to visit the place where the nation’s first president had spent his boyhood.  They wanted to buy tiny jars of homemade cherry preserves from Charles’s mother, postcards from his sister Barbara, and get a tour of where young George had cut down the cherry tree.  The visitors were not disappointed either as Charles and his brother, Tayloe, sold wood pieces cut from the trunk of a cherry tree (with a hatchet, no doubt) for one dollar each…not a bad income for two industrious boys at that time!  Tiny cherry wood carvings of hearts and hatchets were whittled and sold, too.

Heart and Hatchet

Carved cherry wood heart and hatchet (approx. 1” each) dating from the 1940s. Gift of the Linton family.

The stump of a supposed scion of the cherry tree that Washington had barked was also on the property for visitors to see and was known as “The Shrine Tree.”  It was, no doubt, an important reminder to visitors of Washington’s honest character.    While those early 20th-century attractions no longer exist on the property at Ferry Farm, the Cherry Tree Story is still a subject that is inquired about by the visiting public just as it was in Linton’s day.

BoyCherryTreeSign

A young visitor stands next to “The Shrine Tree.”

Some important revelations came to me as a result of doing this assignment for my class.    I began to really recognize the sacred nature of our presidential property and how deeply affected the public had become by that nature over time.  In the case of Ferry Farm, tourists and travelers have been fascinated by Washington’s boyhood home for 230 years mentioning it in diaries and letters over the centuries.  This realization spurred me on to research the publics’ fascination with Washington’s character via the Cherry Tree Story. Why do so many still ask about this tale?  Why do so many acknowledge that the story probably isn’t true but, in their heart of hearts, they want it to be?  To get the answers to these questions it would be necessary to ask more questions by collecting more oral histories and to begin a Foundation archive.  In doing so, it became clear that the recent past, brought to life by the personal stories of so many who have been involved with Ferry Farm, proved a new and fascinating way to look at our archaeologically-rich property and gain understanding of its social and cultural impact over the decades.  I got to work interviewing and, before I knew it, an archive of stories about Ferry Farm and Kenmore Plantation was created.  Not only did I discover more about the 20th century history of our Foundation properties, but documenting the preservation efforts associated with them proved critical to remembering the hard work of the many dedicated people who saved them.

By creating a formal database with the mission of gathering oral histories, I saw that we could document much personal and institutional memory about our museum sites and couple the insightful perceptions collected about the Washington and Lewis Family’s with our scientific and historical research findings.  Eight years later, the archive is well on its way.  Samplings of some of the amazing stories collected so far will make their way into future blog postings so you can view for yourself the peoples’ passion for Ferry Farm and Kenmore’s historical treasures.   Anyone wishing to participate in this project is encouraged to contact the Foundation at (540) 370-0732 extension 14 or healy-marquis@gwffoundation.org.

Melanie Marquis
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Oral History Project Coordinator