In April, C-VILLE reported on the potential razing of historic buildings at Fulfillment Farms in Esmont. While a demolition permit is currently on file, and the structures could be bulldozed at any time, a group of concerned citizens has come together to make a final plea for preservation.
In Thomas Forrer’s will, signed months before he died in October 1997, he left the 1,910-acre farm to the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia, which still owns the property. Officials with the foundation now plan to demolish the historic main house in order to build a hunting lodge. The property is currently used for hunting, bird-watching and hiking, according to the foundation’s website. No-fee hunting and general-use permits are issued annually.
Though Forrer gave the foundation “wide latitude,” according to his will, to use its discretion in developing any lakes or ponds, trails and campsites, and to conduct timbering operations, “so long as such activities or projects are in keeping with the basic purpose of providing habitat for a variety of wildlife in a natural setting,” some locals, including his granddaughter, Alex Forrer, don’t believe his wishes are being met.
Alex Forrer, who lived on the property until 1996, describes her grandfather as a “deliberate and precise” only child, who “studied things in-depth.” “He really made no decision without looking at all of the aspects of it,” she says.
At the time of his death, Forrer was sick with cancer and heavily medicated, his granddaughter says. “Perhaps in the state that my grandfather was in…being a civil engineer and the precise person that he was, he wouldn’t have made that decision [to gift the farm to the wildlife foundation].”
“We’re the type of people who pass things down to the next generation,” she says. “I have furniture from my great-great-grandparents because we value things like that and take care of them and encourage craftsmanship and detail. It’s kind of bred in us to take care of something that should be taken care of.”
She was disappointed when she last visited Fulfillment Farms in 2014.
“The house was a wreck,” she says, adding that the lawn was full of old lawnmower or automobile parts.
But Mary Roy Dawson Edwards, the great-granddaughter of Civil War veteran Andrew Jackson Dawson, who owned the property—then called Cool Springs Farm—for many years before selling it to Forrer in the 1950s, says she checked up on the farm on a recent Sunday after church. She describes the area surrounding the structures as “neat as a pin,” and, in her opinion, that might mean demolition could be imminent. She wrote a letter last week to the Virginia Wildlife Foundation’s executive director to buy some more time.
In the letter to Executive Director Jenny West, Edwards writes she hopes those concerned “can come up with a mutually beneficial solution” to preserve the structures. A “win-win,” she calls it.
West previously said she evaluated the cost of restoring the main farmhouse at more than $300,000. The foundation gave Edwards the option to fund the restoration with an annual $25,000 endowment. Although she originally passed on the offer, Edwards is now reconsidering and hopes to meet with West and the rest of the foundation’s board. She’s not alone.
Joining the efforts in finding a solution to save the structures is Rich Collins, a retired UVA professor of urban planning, architecture, environmental negotiation and historic preservation.
Curious about the property for many years, he has visited several times. One thing that always strikes him, he says, is the site’s memorial to Forrer—the only thing Forrer specifically asked for in his will—which states that “this land was given for the enjoyment of the devotees of nature.”
Based on the exclusiveness of access to the property (a permit is required) and the board’s seeming disinterest in preserving the historic structures, the foundation may not be honoring Forrer’s last wish, says Collins.
“It’s pretty clear that the board itself is being highly criticized by local people and others for what they could call a lack of stewardship consistent with the aims of the goal of the gift,” Collins says.
He does, however, acknowledge the conservation easement Forrer placed the property under in 1990, which was to protect Fulfillment Farms from future development. And though the deed specifically states that no permanent structure shall be built, it does allow the construction of a hunting lodge.
It also states that, “accumulation of trash, refuse, junk or any other unsightly material is not permitted on the property.”
West did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. At press time, she had not responded to Edwards’ letter.
The foundation has recently received some praise for its work at Fulfillment Farms.
In a March 4 letter to West, the executive director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Bob Duncan, wrote, “In general, we acknowledge and congratulate the Wildlife Foundation’s variety and scope of science-based wildlife habitat management techniques employed at Fulfillment Farms.” He cites the foundation’s promotion of youth, disabled and veteran hunters, timbering strategies, the conversion of 80 acres of fescue grass to native warm season grasses and the construction of a shallow marsh for wetland wildlife.
Related Links: April 27: Local woman wants to keep historic buildings standing