- - Wednesday, February 27, 2013


By Philip Levy
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 272 pages

Back in the mists of time when the White House press corps was much smaller and far less pompous, President Lyndon Johnson often called a small pool of regulars into the Cabinet Room to casually plant some off-the-record point he wanted made without being quoted. The point often came only after some lengthy, and usually earthy, LBJ yarn.

During one such session, the name of George Washington came up, and that inspired the president to recall that his childhood home on the banks of the Pedernales River in Texas was so humble that its sanitary facilities consisted of an outhouse that hung out over the riverbank. One day, bent on mischief, young Lyndon and his brother Sam tipped the outhouse over into the river, whereupon they scampered off.

To their surprise, their enraged father confronted them demanding to know if they had toppled the outhouse. LBJ said he replied, “Father, I cannot tell a lie, I pushed the outhouse into the river.” The elder Johnson pulled his belt off and began to beat the tar out of young Lyndon who protested, “But when George Washington said he had chopped down the cherry tree, his father didn’t beat him.”

George Washington’s father wasn’t sitting in the damned tree when he chopped it down,” Mr. Johnson’s father replied and continued to whale away. True or not, it was a good yarn.

Far more than any other American icon (with Benjamin Franklin a close second) myths about George Washington abound. From Bucks County, Pa., to the green hills of Vermont, it seems that every village and hamlet has an old inn or house that boasts, “George Washington slept here.”

Myths aside, most people assume that Washington spent most of his life at his plantation, Mount Vernon, just 10 miles from Alexandria. However, in truth, Washington had three homes during his long life, and “Where the Cherry Tree Grew” tells the suspenseful story of the struggle to find and study perhaps the most important of the three. It is a timely story where the imperatives of archaeology and historical preservation collide with the realities of commerce. The author is archaeologist Philip Levy, who is Florida-based (but College of William & Mary-trained) and who headed the discovery effort. He writes in a broadly accessible style that will attract younger readers as well as more seasoned armchair historians.

Ferry Farm, which sits on the banks of the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg, can truly claim to be Washington’s home during the most formative years of his youth. He would return there often until 1772, when his mother, Mary, sold it and moved into town.

It was at Ferry Farm that two of the most potent Washington myths — the cherry tree episode and his teenage prowess at throwing river stones across the wide Rappahannock — would surely have taken place if they had occurred, which, Mr. Levy cheerfully notes, they most certainly had not.

Sadly, the Ferry Farm site has been the neglected stepchild of the three evocative Washington homes. His birthplace, at Wakefield Plantation near Colonial Beach, Va., where Pope’s Creek flows into the Potomac, drew early restoration efforts in the 1920s, with an infusion of Rockefeller grants and congressional appropriations.

Today, Wakefield is a quite interesting national park with a re-created house and grounds of where young George was born in 1732. Interestingly, Wakefield is near the birthplace museum at Stratford Hall where Robert E. Lee was born.

Young George moved around a lot, it seems. His father, Augustine, left Wakefield to build an estate near the site of the present Mount Vernon. By 1738, however, he had moved Mary, his second wife, and his large brood of children south again to Ferry Farm, and for the next decade George would study and grow into young manhood there. At the age of 16, he would leave to begin his first career as a land surveyor for the powerful Lord Fairfax, who had huge holdings stretching toward Ohio.

George would inherit the Mount Vernon estate in 1754 and devote considerable time to developing it over the next 20 years. Thereafter, however, George was a largely absentee landlord during the period from 1775 until he retired from the presidency in 1797. Indeed, during the eight years he served as president, Washington only visited Mount Vernon for a total of 443 days.

While the interest in Washington’s youth saw a bicentennial wave of national interest through the 1920s that renewed the futures of both Mount Vernon and Wakefield, efforts to preserve Ferry Farm fell victim to a parade of greedy landowners, loony promoters, ineffectual preservationists and a particularly philistine Stafford County government that, by the 1990s, became part owner of a portion of Ferry Farm.

Enter Wal-Mart. The mega-discount chain had been blocked by local preservationists in a number of efforts to build an outlet in the history-rich and rapidly growing communities thereabouts. Ferry Farm, with its proximity to Fredericksburg and the Northern Neck, seemed ideal and the Stafford County fathers were greedily cooperative.

As it turned out, however, it proved to be a mall too far. The normally somnolent Fredericksburg citizens went so ballistic that the national news media took note, and Wal-Mart settled and moved elsewhere.

The most interesting part of Mr. Levy’s story starts when he and his team of archaeologists arrive at Ferry Farm in 2002 to begin the daunting task of locating where the main house and attendant farm buildings were actually sited.

The vandalism of so many of our historic sites at the hands of greedy developers and compliant local governments — think Gettysburg or Antietam — show that the threat to our collective heritage is constant. However, this story is both instructive, and it has a happy ending.

James Srodes’ “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father” (Regnery, 2003), won Philadelphia’s One Book award for the 2006 tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth.

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