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Wal-Mart battle over Ferry Farm site recalled
George Washington's boyhood home might have turned out very differently, had big-box store and shopping center been built

 People gather for a protest on March 4, 1996, against the building of a Wal-Mart next to Ferry Farm.
file/SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 7/5/2008

By RUSTY DENNEN

The last time Ferry Farm made big news was February 1996.

That month, George Wash-ington's boyhood home was featured on the "Today" show, CNN and CBS.

Wal-Mart planned to build a store and shopping center right next door and the proposal created a major controversy.

It spawned a grass-roots movement comprised of preservationists, local officials and ordinary people, the likes of which corporate America has rarely seen.

And several tumultuous months later, the retail giant backed down, eventually opting for a different location farther east on State Route 3.

Cessie Howell of Stafford, an ardent opponent of Wal-Mart's encroachment on one of Stafford's most revered historic sites, was among those in front of those TV cameras that February.

And Howell, the wife of Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell, was among those on the speakers' platform this week when Gov. Tim Kaine announced that archaeologists found the remains of Washington's boyhood home.

It is a find of great sig-nificance that might never have happened had Wal-Mart had its way.

Before introducing Kaine, Cessie Howell talked with a reporter about the battle with Wal-Mart.

"The big picture is, this is beautiful, historic land," she said, pointing a spot just south of the Washington house site, "and to think they wanted to put up a huge berm there" to hide the store. It was just the scariest time. This is the place, I feel, that George Washington's character was made."

Howell remembered an exchange with a Wal-Mart lawyer on CNN.

She smiled, "I went on and on. The lawyer was very frank" about the company's plan to push on. "I said, 'You are going to have to roll over my body before you ever get that property.'"

Jane Conner, a local historian, was also on hand for Kaine's announcement Wednesday. She was president of the Stafford County Historical Society in 1996, which was working hard to keep Wal-Mart away from Ferry Farm.

Help, in many ways, came from all over the country, Conner said.

A well-to-do woman who lived in California but had Stafford County connections read about the fray and asked Conner to speak at a meeting in Washington of the New England Historical Society.

Conner took with her a pewter plate that had been found at Ferry Farm.

"I stood with that pewter plate and passed out papers" outlining the fight against Wal-Mart, she said.

Within days, Bentonville, Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Arkansas, "was deluged by messages from every state in the union," Conner said.

Within months, a deal was worked out in which the property was acquired by what's now The George Washington Foundation, and Wal-Mart got its alternate site.

Looking around at the crowd assembled at Ferry Farm on Wednesday, Conner declared, "This is the icing on the cake."

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com