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.

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.