They cannot tell a lie: They're mad Boyhood home of Washington is gone

make way for Wal-Mart

March 03, 1996|By Jeff Stein

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- George Washington slept here. And there, and everywhere, as every school child once learned. But he grew up here, in the "town of my growing infancy," he once said. It was here, on a sweep of farmland overhanging the Rappahannock River, that he spent his young boyhood, learned how to grow crops, supposedly flung a silver coin across the river and, according to his spinmeister Parson Weems, confessed to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie.

For years the Ferry Farm, as it was called, languished in the shadow of Mount Vernon, where Washington lived his adult years. Fifty miles to the north, just across the Potomac from the nation's capital, Mount Vernon became an instant tourist attraction after our first president died (being a Washington insider wasn't considered such a bad thing in those days), while Ferry Farm was largely forgotten.

Last month, however, in the worst example of dramatic timing since John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln after the South lost the Civil War, the local gentry chose the week of Washington's Birthday to announce a deal with Wal-Mart to build a 93,000 square-foot "superstore" on Ferry Farm's pristine doorstep.

This, of course, was an act of supreme irony. Suddenly, the national media had the first interesting George Washington birthday story since Congress created "Presidents' Day" to honor Washington, Lincoln, Ford, Chrysler, Chevy and Toyota.

And it wasn't, of course, the story that Wal-Mart wanted. It was basically, "Rapacious retailer paves paradise."

First, the Associated Press, then the "Today Show" showed up to do stories on the gentle bluff over the Rappahannock. The "CBS Evening News" was hot on the trail. Protests were mounted, rallies planned, a general wailing broke out with its own Web site (

There was only problem. Ferry Farm wasn't there anymore.

The only original thing at Ferry Farm today is a ramshackle shed where young George may have studied surveying. On the spot where the original house stood is a protective building covering the stone and brick remnants of a 1995 fire that obliterated a dwelling whose only connection to the original Washington home was its foundation.

"A gravel pit," a slick young Wal-Mart developer snorted.

"We don't understand the confusion surrounding this site," said Russell Harper, the developer, standing before Ferry Farm for Jane Pauley. "This property has been used as a gravel pit since the 1950s." In an aside before the cameras blinked on he joked, "Think George would have dug shopping at Wal-Mart."

Dug? Cool.

"Precedents are dangerous things," George once said.

Still, it was hard to argue with Wal-Mart, especially when you saw the place through the tight lens of a television camera.

Local critics could repeat the mantra that Wal-Mart would destroy the "heritage and fabric of what made George Washington great," as e pluribus unum put it, but the camera didn't lie. There was nothing much there. A wide, grassy lot was all, unless you count the peace of mind a visitor feels walking down the shady back path to the river, steps that Washington himself took many times.

Nor were the hands of the people protesting Wal-Mart exactly clean. They'd been trying to turn it into "a tourist attraction" for years. Unfortunately, I suppose, a foundation set up a few years ago to reconstruct the original Washington manse had gone broke, according to a series of embarrassing reports in the local paper last year. And that was before the dwelling there -- which was not Washington's home -- burned down.

So it was hard to fault Wal-Mart for basically saying, "Hey, what's the big deal?"

Lots of people, meanwhile, were scribbling notes to the local paper saying they wanted Wal-Mart there. Good Lord, they have to drive all the way to the other side of Fredericksburg to get to a Wal-Mart now, they said. Or 10 miles north on Interstate 95 to the next one. Give me my Wal-Mart, they demanded.

The Ferry Farm defenders just rolled their eyes.

You didn't have to be a Wal-Mart booster to suspect that the hidden injury here was class: The upper-crust historic types, one suspected, just possibly didn't want the Spandex crowd from Wal-Mart impinging on quaint little Fredericksburg, a charming 40-square block gaslight district which a friend of mine who lives nearby, the novelist Sloan Wilson, once dismissed as "a hundred antique stores and a gas station."

It was when Wal-Mart and its boosters began touting the badly needed jobs and tax revenues of the planned "superstore," however, that they revealed the fatal flaw in their argument.

The fact is, Wal-Mart provides about as much financial help to a community as Chernobyl. You might was well invite the Chinese in to build a pirate CD factory.

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