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By CLINT SCHEMMER
Lynda Baer admits she fell in love with Chatham at first sight.
The beauty of the estate's physical setting, the elegance of its great house and the fascinating tales from the 18th-century home's long history worked their magic on her, starting years ago.
Now, the Fredericksburg woman wants to help ensure others who visit Chatham Manor for the first time can have that sort of magical moment, and feel a connection with the place.
Tomorrow evening, Baer and other longtime area residents are inviting people to the Stafford County historic site to toss around ideas and organize a group to help the National Park Service care for the old plantation--the only home in America to have hosted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
"It's a 'witness building' built before the American Revolution. That's amazing to me; just think about all of the people who have walked across its floors," Baer said.
"The Park Service and volunteers do a great job in interpreting it and keeping it open to the public. But these days, Chatham needs a little more TLC. It needs more money."
That's where a Friends of Chatham group could be vital, she believes. A private, tax-deductible entity could fund costly and out-of-the-ordinary repairs, upgrade exhibits and finance special programs, Baer said.
"I got to thinking, 'Wouldn't it be fun to start a nonprofit friends group to raise money and give the buildings and grounds a real shot in the arm?'"
That was more than a year ago. The thought took Baer to Mount Rushmore and a national conference where she met people from across the country who are doing all sorts of things to support national parks in their communities. Back home, she roamed all of the Fredericksburg-area Civil War battlefields, talked to friends and neighbors, and consulted local history-minded groups about the work they do.
A few weeks ago, Baer and five others--Jane Conner of Stafford, Charlie McDaniel of Fredericksburg, Jim Padgett of Stafford, Sara Poore of Stafford and Scott Walker of Fredericksburg--wrote history-minded people proposing such a group. Tomorrow's meeting starts at 7 p.m.; everyone is welcome.
Baer made clear that a new group, should it be established, would have a mission quite different from other local organizations such as the Chatham volunteers, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield or Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.
Pure and simple, it would be focused on fundraising.
Chatham's volunteers put in thousands of hours each year keeping the house--the largest and stateliest in the area--open to the public. FOWB does the same at Ellwood Manor on the Wilderness battlefield, and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the circa-1790 house. FOFAB supports the park's education programs and has recently partnered with it in publishing a series of snappy, richly illustrated histories of Chancellorsville, Ellwood and the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.
"Friends of Chatham would be super-inclusive," said Baer, who has volunteered her time at Chatham since 2005. "But all of its dollars would go to fix up Chatham and support programs there. It wouldn't duplicate what people are already doing."
The need for such a group became clear to Baer, she said, as she guided visitors through its ground-floor rooms and their historical displays. Those exhibits are the same "temporary" ones that the Park Service put in when it acquired the property as a gift from the estate of its last private owners, industrialist John Lee Pratt and his wife, Lillian.
Park Superintendent Russ Smith welcomes the idea, noting the strides that friends groups have made at places such as Ellwood, Gettysburg, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Philadelphia's revolutionary-era sites.
"Ellwood is open only because the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield staffs it for visitors, takes care of its grounds, and provides other programs and services," Smith said.
"Because of them, Ellwood went from being a shell of a building to being a very nice introduction to the whole Wilderness battlefield for park visitors. We're very grateful for that."
Similarly, Chatham is kept open because of its dedicated volunteers, he said. Overall, volunteers do 25 percent of the work that gets done in the park, Smith said.
"People have the idea that a lot of federal agencies have unlimited resources," he said.
"The National Park Service has a $10 billion backlog in unmet maintenance needs. So we really count on friends groups to help the national parks achieve their mission. Chatham has a lot of physical needs, big and small, that we would like to tackle with help from the community."
"Parks' needs outweigh their resources," Smith added. "And there is every indication the federal budget will shrink. The National Park Service, as part of the government, isn't held harmless from budget cuts."
With four major battlefields, the park includes 7,342 acres spread over 145 square miles in four counties. Of its $4.5 million annual budget, 98 percent goes to keeping buildings open, maintenance, interpretations and other things, Smith said. That leaves 2 percent for everything else.
"For new programs or services, we have to rely on our friends for a lot of help," he said.ON THE NET: nps.gov/frsp fowb.org
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029