When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm these days, they arrive with heads full of stories and legends about the country’s first president.
One of them involves a young George supposedly throwing a silver dollar—or maybe a piece of slate or a piece of eight—across the Rappahannock River from that property on the Stafford County side of the river.
Officials at George Washington’s Ferry Farm—where the man who would go on to lead armies and the nation moved in 1738, when he was 6 years old—said they deal with the legend as best they can, noting mainly that it probably isn’t true.
Some note that during the time when Washington lived at Ferry Farm, until he was 19, there had not been a silver dollar cast.
Jessica Burger, the George Washington Foundation’s manager of marketing, communications and technology, said it’s more likely the legend had something to do with the fact that Washington was tall and strong in his youth.
“It may well have been that he threw stones across the river when he was a boy at Ferry Farm,” she said.
That’s why, every year when Washington’s Birthday is celebrated, Ferry Farm holds a simulated event for adults and children to see if they can toss a stone across the Rappahannock River to the other side in Fredericksburg.
And while that’s probably the only thing with any serious historical tie to what a young George Washington might have done, there’s no denying that the story of the youngster tossing a half dollar gained national attention in 1936.
As freelance writer Wendy Migdal noted in a recent column in The Free Lance–Star, the story that took on pop culture status was connected to the ceremonial planting of 400 cherry trees along Kings Highway from a then-privately owned Ferry Farm to Fredericksburg.
It was announced that a feature of the day’s events would see former Washington Senators’ baseball pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson attempt to replicate the mythical throwing of a silver dollar across the Rappahannock from the old ferry landing on the Stafford side across to the Standard Oil docks on the city shore.
The beloved pitcher, who’d taken the Senators to their only World Series championship, had been retired for nine years before attempting the throw.
Politicians and local folks injected themselves into the silver-dollar tossing, with local merchants putting a bounty on the finding of any dollar that made it across the Rappahannock, and national politicians casting doubt on whether the legendary feat had ever happened.
One thing lending doubt to the legend: Some maps from Colonial times showed that the distance across the river would have been 1,320 feet in George’s day, a far cry from the 372-foot width measured on the day of Big Train’s throw. (The area had received a 17– 20 inch snowfall two weeks earlier and ice was still flowing down the river).
With 4,000 spectators looking on at the event, which was carried by radio across the country, Johnson was short on an early throw. But on his third toss, he sent a half dollar across the river and 20 feet onto the shoreline.
Alma Withers, the foundation’s director of educational programming, noted two bits of research that Ferry Farm staff share with visitors in reference to inquiries about the half-dollar legend.
One is a story that artist Charles Willson Peale told about Washington’s throwing prowess. It focused on a moment in 1773, when several visitors at Mount Vernon were demonstrating their strength by throwing an iron bar at bowling pins. Washington appeared, and without removing his coat, tried his hand at tossing the bar.
Peale stated that “no sooner … did that heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation and whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits.”
Walking away, Washington wryly observed, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”
Another story came from Alexander Milliner, who served in the Continental Army as a drummer boy attached to Washington’s Life Guard.
According to Milliner: “We were going along one day, slow march, and came to where the boys were jerking stones .... ‘Now, boys,’ said the general, ‘I will show you how to jerk a stone.’ He beat ’em all.”