Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.
AN HISTORIC REVIVAL AFTER YEARS OF NEGLECT, THE FERRY PLANTATION HOUSE WILL BE RENOVATED, PRESERVING 300 YEARS OF LOCAL HISTORY
DATE: Friday, July 26, 1996 SECTION: VIRGINIA BEACH BEACON
TYPE: Cover Story SOURCE: BY MARY REID BARROW, STAFF WRITER
STAND OUTSIDE historic Ferry Plantation House and listen and you may hear Grace Sherwood flounder in the waters of the Lynnhaven River as she is given a trial by ducking for the crime of witchcraft.
Virginia Beach’s only witch was convicted in the early 1700s and was said to have been imprisoned in a jail on the Ferry Plantation site at the end of what today is Pembroke Boulevard.
Imagine Colonial residents coming and going with court business at Ferry Plantation, where the Princess Anne County Courthouse operated from 1735 to 1755. Imagine Anthony Walke, member of a prominent Princess Anne County family, entertaining guests and drinking from handsome tankards at his home on the site, where legend says he also ran a tavern during the Revolutionary War.
Today, much is left to the imagination because the Ferry Plantation House, among the most elaborate Federal period homes remaining in Virginia Beach, needs major repairs. It sits unattended and out of place on a tiny plot of land in the middle of the Old Donation Farm neighborhood. After years of neglect, recent actions have revived hopes that this symbol of almost 300 years of Virginia Beach history will be preserved.
“To me this is the most significant historical site in Virginia Beach,” said City Councilwoman Barbara M. Henley, who’s been interested in saving the house for many years. “There’s been something happening here the whole time!”
Last month, the farmhouse, whose ownership had been in limbo for almost a decade, was deeded to the city. A nonprofit group known as the Friends of Ferry Plantation House has proposed a plan for restoring and maintaining the house, which, if adopted by the City Council, would allow Beach residents to walk on the land their ancestors once trod.
The road from country farmhouse to public property has been a long and confusing one.
The house last traded owners in 1994, when it was purchased by investors. That group tried to sell it last year, but the deal fell through when the City Council said it could not be used as a private residence because of deed restrictions placed on the house when Old Donation Farms was developed 10 years ago.
So, the investors, known as Hickory Properties, agreed to deed Ferry Plantation to the city. The company also purchased two lots, part of a paper street, from the city for $68,550. Council set the purchase proceeds aside as seed money for restoration of the house.
Now with the title clear, the Friends group will go before the council, perhaps as early as August, with a plan for a public/private partnership to restore and preserve the house as a historic structure, open to the public on a limited basis. Their proposal, if successful, will not be a drain on city coffers.
The Friends organized informally several years ago when a group of people interested in Virginia Beach history became alarmed about the perilous legal state of the historic house and site. In March, the group officially incorporated as Friends of Ferry Plantation House.
In the past, the home was known as “Ferry Farm,” but the group chose to use the name “Ferry Plantation” to distinguish it from another historic Ferry Farm that was George Washington’s birthplace.
The Friends membership includes Councilwoman Henley, who became interested in the house when she was in between council terms and was a graduate student at Old Dominion University, where she wrote a paper about a plan to preserve the home.
Another member is Friends president Jo Howren, whose interest in the house dates to the day her wedding reception was held on Ferry Plantation’s lawn. And then there’s Friends secretary/treasurer Robert Little, whose yard backs up to Old Donation Farm’s open space.
Little serves as the group’s liaison with the Old Donation Homeowners Association. Also a history buff, Little affectionately calls the old home he can see from his deck, “Grace’s Place.”
The Friends propose that they coordinate the restoration of the home and then operate and maintain it. The group would raise money, find nonprofit tenants to pay operating funds and do whatever else is required to accomplish its goals.
The Friends already have received a $1,000 grant from the Virginia Beach Foundation to hire an architect, contingent upon the city’s approval of their proposal. “The first step would be to hire an historical architect,” Howren said, “to develop a plan for what should be done.”
“The next step would be to restore the outside according to the plan,” added Henley, “so that it would be aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors.”
Sheriff Frank Drew has volunteered the Sheriff’s Work Force to do the work, Henley said. Free labor, combined with the $68,550 seed money, should be enough to complete the outside, she said.
Since the house is in the middle of Old Donation Farm’s 1 1/2 acres of open space, Little already has worked out an agreement with the homeowners association to maintain the 15 feet of property around the house. In exchange, the association could use the home as a meeting place when it is restored.
Inside, Ferry Plantation House doesn’t look pretty, but it is structurally sound. In the early 1990s, the city estimated it would take about $60,000 to bring it up to code.
“It’s going to take a lot of elbow grease,” she added, “but I don’t think it’s in terrible shape. One of the thoughts for restoring the inside is an adopt-a-room concept.”
As for operational expenses, the Friends would search for tenants, such as environmental or historical groups or even an architect or writer, to occupy several rooms on the second and third floors and pay rent.
The Friends envision the lower floor as a place to tell the story of the site and the many historic events surrounding it. “We’ve also talked about it being the center for Princess Anne County history,” Henley said.
An archaeological dig at the site in 1987 uncovered the largest collection of 18th century artifacts ever found, including a punch bowl and copper shoe buckles, all trappings of the well-to-do gentry class of that era.
The Ferry Plantation House, built in the 1800s, got its name because the site was a landing for a ferry crossing the western branch of the Lynnhaven River that began in 1696.
Ferries plied the river and delivered mail to Ferry Plantation, which served as the area post office. Post office bars are still on two of the old home’s windows.
Although usage of the house today can’t be high volume because it is in the middle of a neighborhood, the Friends do envision bringing in schoolchildren for tours or maybe opening the house for public tours on special occasions.
Over the years, when the house was in legal limbo, many argued for allowing it to become a private residence because the city could not afford to take on another historic house, like the Francis Land House. The Friends were and are against the idea.
“The house is certainly old and historic,” Henley said, “but the site is where the real historic significance is and it should be available to the public. That’s why I am convinced it shouldn’t be in private ownership.”
Now, if council agrees, it will be up to the Friends to make it available to the public. The friends would like to expand their membership, get ideas from residents and hear from prospective tenants. (Call Belinda Nash 473-5182 to find out more.) Email firstname.lastname@example.org
“I feel like we’ve had our noses pressed against the window for a long time,” she said.
Maybe before too long, everyone can go inside.