Place, family, history

Kin: When Baltimore resident Al Berkeley heard that Ferry Farms was threatened by Wal-Mart, he stepped in to help make Washington's childhood home a historic landmark.

June 11, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

FALMOUTH, Va. - Al Berkeley can't stop yawning. The soft June breeze and lazy Rappahannock River all but command a nap. And the president of the Nasdaq stock market is spent from the market's recent roller-coaster ride.

But on this day Berkeley's mind is far from Wall Street. He perks up as he scans the grassy expanse called Ferry Farm, where George Washington spent his fabled youth in the 1740s and Union troops trained their cannons on nearby Fredericksburg in 1862.

To him this tranquil spot is more than a historic landmark. The longtime Baltimore resident is linked by blood. Alfred R. Berkeley III is - as he will tell you, if asked - the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Washington's only sister, Betty.

"This is where Washington's character was formed," he says, captivated by the 85 acres long stripped of Washington's house. "You can put a bricks-and-mortar building wherever. There is only one of these."

Shaping for the future

Between business trips to places such as China and days that start and end under a dark sky, the 55-year-old Berkeley thinks a lot about Ferry Farm. Four years ago it almost became the latest outpost in Wal-Mart's retail empire. Now Berkeley, as a trustee of George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation, is helping to shape it for future generations.

He's also been calling high-tech titans, trying to erase the foundation's $2.2 million debt. His work has borne fruit, with a $1 million pledge from a secret donor. More dollars should flow now that Ferry Farm has been named a National Historic Landmark.

The foundation's voluble president, Vernon Edenfield, speaks expansively about Berkeley's passion, imagination and devotion to Ferry Farm. But he points to another quality before all others:

"Clout," he said.

Invisible to the public

It will take that and more to raise Ferry Farm's standing in the pantheon of Washington sites. A million visitors a year pour into Mount Vernon, the plantation on the Potomac where he lived his adult years. His birthplace in Westmoreland County, Va., draws about 125,000 a year. But Ferry Farm, home from age 6 to 20, is largely unknown to the public.

Even in historic Fredericksburg, where houses lived in by Washington's sister and mother still stand, a visitor's query about Ferry Farm furrows brows. "The brewery? The subdivision?" asked Nate Donelson, manager at the Olde Town Wine & Cheese Deli.

For years, many locals viewed it as a quirky feature on the landscape. In the 1960s, a simple hand-painted sign revealed its past, and children dared each other to sip from its spring, believing one taste would end their fibbing.

In 1738, a 1 1/2 -story, six-room clapboard house stood at the site. That year Washington's father, a Virginia-born landowner of modest means named Augustine, paid 317 pounds for the house and 280 acres, according to the deed.

The land sloped down to the Rappahannock and took its name from a ferry running there. When George Washington sold it for 2,000 pounds in 1774, the holding had reached some 550 acres.

A myth is born

The first recorded tourist visited in 1777, a year after the Declaration of Independence. But it was Mason Locke Weems' 1800 book, "The Life of Washington," that put Ferry Farm on the map.

Weems spun a tale about how young George axed one of his father's prize cherry trees, then confessed, "I can't tell a lie, Pa."

If anything, historians say, the boy probably stripped bark from a tree.

Despite its storied history, the house at Ferry Farm had crumbled by about 1820. A preservation effort a century later fizzled in the Depression, and subsequent attempts met similar fates.

Over the years, commercial development encroached. Today, McDonald's golden arches rise up on Route 3, easily visible from the farm.

Family steeped in history

Berkeley vaguely recalls being dragged to Mount Vernon and other Washington places as a child. Mainly, he remembers wanting to go home and play.

But at home in Charlotte, N.C., original letters from Washington and Thomas Jefferson were on display. In the playroom, his father shellacked copies of Civil War battle maps and the Declaration of Independence to the wall.

"It kind of soaked in on me gradually," he said.

For all his good fortune and status, he speaks like a modest man. He tells people, by way of introduction, "I work at Nasdaq." He doesn't brag about his Washington clan ties, casually mentioning that "my family is from here."

Berkeley returned to his native state for college, earning a degree at the University of Virginia in 1966. The year before he graduated, he and friends somehow hoisted a 250-pound calf atop the 50-foot-high Rotunda dome, though no one knew the culprits' identities for years.

Three years ago, Berkeley, who lives in Roland Park with his wife and commutes to Washington, ended the whodunit by confessing to the deed and paying the school $1,700 for its trouble.

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