Presidents Day rolls around once a year, like clockwork.
But at the place where the United States’ first president left boyhood behind, 2017’s holiday will be like no other.
Not for 350-plus years has there been a sight at Ferry Farm like the one that’s rising there now. The Washington family’s home, or a good facsimile of it, is taking shape near the north bank of the Rappahannock River.
Motorists passing by on Kings Highway have noticed the project, though it’s set back from State Route 3. But this Saturday and Monday, during Presidents Day weekend, people can get close to this most-unusual construction zone.
“This is one of the best times to see the archaeology up close in our laboratory, learn about the research that has taken place here to help the foundation understand the Washington house, see how the replica house is being constructed,” said David Muraca, the foundation’s vice president for museum content.
Generally, the historic site in southern Stafford County is closed for January and February. The George Washington Foundation, however, will open it for its Washington’s Birthday celebration on Saturday and its Archaeology Day festivities on Monday.
Those annual occasions at Washington’s boyhood home are family-friendly, with lots of activities for all who are young at heart. But what’s new is the handsome wood-frame house being carefully knit together on the brow of a bluff overlooking Fredericksburg.
When most visitors came calling last year, they would have seen men toiling on a stone-clad foundation where the Washington dwelling sat opposite City Dock. Now, they’ll see a whole different animal—the nearest thing to the home of George’s parents, Augustine and Mary Washington, since Augustine’s death in 1743.
The dwelling is not complete or ready to open for tours. That will require many months more of interior carpentry, plasterwork and item-by-item refurnishing.
But it sure looks like a house, albeit one echoing a design from the early 18th century. One can imagine a Colonial gentry family living here, with the hustle and bustle of plantation life swirling about them.
The structure’s timber framing is in place, sheathed in beaded weatherboard. The roof is on, topped by hundreds of cedar shingles whose handmade precision is a work of art. The windows are in. One of three brick chimneys has gone up. And scaffolding rises along the front facade, facing town, to allow craftsmen to carve its roof shingles and start applying long-lasting “Spanish brown” paint to the exterior.
Over the weekend, visitors will be able to see all that up close and talk with some of the experts who are making the multimillion-dollar project happen.
“There are not many people in the world who can do this work,” Muraca said in an interview. “We’ve been lucky that they’ve gotten excited about Ferry Farm and committed up to a year of their busy schedules to come and work here. The house is better for it, and the result just blows your socks off.”
The care taken by the tradesmen involved is evident, as are hints of the Washingtons’ affluence. You can see it in the decorative ends of the roof’s rake boards, the lamb’s tongues in the rear porch’s chamfered columns, and the curve of the “swept valleys” where the dormers merge with the rooftop.
A chat last week with three of the house’s finish carpenters—Steve Chronister of Ivy, Tom Rainey of Falmouth and Josh Schwenk of Spotsylvania—revealed their quiet pride in the job and the materials they are using.
“All of the visible fasteners and hardware are very true to the period,” said Chronister, who previously helped restore Montpelier and Monticello. “All of the interior nails are hand-wrought and hand-headed. We’re keeping blacksmiths busy making things for us.”
The men said they’re doing the replica’s joinery just as it would have been done in the Washingtons’ time. The foundation’s consultants designed all of the house’s finishes based on other houses of their period.
In that era, for example, each of the roof’s scallop-butt shingles would have been hand-shaped with a hatchet and a draw knife, Chronister noted. And given all of its shingles, the original house’s roof required an extraordinary investment of time to make.
“This roof was probably the largest example of the Washingtons using architecture to announce their station in life. That’s a decorative element that people then would recognize, and it says, ‘We are somebody,’ “ Muraca added. “There’s a dialogue between all of the house’s elements—the shingles, the cut stone, the weatherboard—that makes an announcement about the owners. Plus, the house speaks to the landscape, conveying a message.”
Seeing the replica house provides a sense of its scale that’s long been missing. From Route 3, it looks like a small house. From up close, you realize the Washingtons had a big place that looked imposing from the river, much grander than the houses in which most Americans lived in the early to mid-1700s.
Visitors also will notice a lot of earth moving as the foundation restores part of the site’s 18th-century landscape, builds a new entrance and service road, and clears land for a maintenance facility planned near the Blue & Gray Parkway. The next phase of site work calls for a new visitor center and a trail from the Washington replica house to the waterfront, where a ferry once carried visitors between Ferry Farm’s historic river landing and Fredericksburg’s City Dock.
On Saturday, Ferry Farm will herald George Washington’s 285th birthday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The fun will include games, crafts, exhibits, history theater, birthday cake and the Stone Throw Challenge (weather permitting) on the Rappahannock, where legend has it that Washington hurled a stone across the river (Washington Senators pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson did it on a Depression-era February day in 1936.)
The Washington Nationals’ “Racing President,” George, will visit from 1 to 2 p.m. “General Washington” will attend and talk about his youth on the farm. Admission costs $5 for adults; those 17 and younger are free. Details? Call 540/370-0732, ext. 27, or email email@example.com.
On Monday, Archaeology Day—also from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—will offer crafts, theater performances, the science of “grossology,” presentations by Muraca the Magnificent—Guru of Glues, and behind-the-scenes visits to the archaeology laboratory. Visitors can hear firsthand from archaeologists about their excavations and the 735,000 artifacts unearthed to date. See the visitor center’s exhibits, tour the historic landscape with experts, and learn about the Washington replica house under construction. The event is free.
The foundation manages two national historic landmarks: Ferry Farm in Stafford and Kenmore in Fredericksburg, home of George’s sister Betty. Updates on both sites’ 2017 events can be found at farryfarm.org and on Facebook’s Ferry Farm and Kenmore page.