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VIEWPOINTS, 6/14/09: The Wilderness battlefield--Ferry Farm--Wal-Mart battles, by Bill Beck

Date published: 6/14/2009

THE THREAT of a Wal-Mart on George Washington's Ferry Farm galvanized many local preservation groups: Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., the Stafford County Historical Society, and ultimately the Kenmore Association. These groups were supported by innumerable individuals, many of whom may not have identified themselves as preservationists but held a firm sense of right and wrong.

While every effort was made to influence the Stafford County supervisors, we quickly realized that our best hope for success was to force the corporate heads of Wal-Mart to see the damage they were doing to company image. By timing the announcement of their plans shortly before George Washington's birthday they revealed an utter lack of sense of history and also provided us with an enormous opportunity.

On Feb. 22, 1996, the "Today" show did a live broadcast from Ferry Farm. Cessie Howell, her Labrador retriever at her side, discussed the value of Washington's farm. This was juxtaposed with a real-estate developer in black trench coat--collar turned up--extolling the virtues of a Super Wal-Mart.

The show was the beginning of a barrage of media coverage that included The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Fortune magazine, CBS, CNN, several D.C. and Richmond television and radio stations, Nickelodeon, and a letter in The Wall Street Journal. The Free Lance-Star provided superb coverage and powerful editorials. Through it all, the Stafford supervisors held firm in their support of the Big Box.

While the 2009 Wilderness campaign against Wal-Mart is getting national publicity, I sense it is not as comprehensive as that which Ferry Farm received. I doubt that this means the Civil War is less compelling than George Washington's youth. My fear is that it is a symptom of weariness on the part of those who care deeply about our heritage.

The majority of the Orange County supervisors seem to share the myopic mind-set of the 1996 Stafford supervisors, most of whom never won another election. Far too many local politicians allow their thirst for new revenue to block any thoughts of sustainability, quality of life, or issues of national significance. This is despite the fact that a broom bought at Wal-Mart is simply one not sold by another local store.

How will the 2009 Wilderness battlefield campaign end?

I hold little hope that the county supervisors will rise above the temptation of the fast buck. Having shown no interest in dialog with preservationists and adjacent landowners, it seems unlikely they will show regard for future generations.

The guns of the Wilderness need to echo in Bentonville.

Bill Beck was president of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation during the Ferry Farm/Wal-Mart controversy of 1996. He is former mayor of Fredericksburg.