Preserving the past: Local woman wants to keep historic buildings standing

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Demolition of Fulfillment Farms’ main house, which will be replaced with a hunting lodge, is scheduled to begin soon.
Submitted photo Demolition of Fulfillment Farms’ main house, which will be replaced with a hunting lodge, is scheduled to begin soon. Submitted photo

In Charlottesville, an ordinance exists to protect historic properties, but in Albemarle County, there’s no such luck. And one woman is hoping to save three old buildings on a county farm that was in her family for several generations.

Andrew Jackson Dawson served in the 5th Virginia Cavalry and the 49th Virginia Infantry during the Civil War and owned Albemarle County’s Cool Springs Farm, which he bought from his grandfather, Benjamin Childress.

“Times were hard,” says Mary Roy Dawson Edwards, Dawson’s great-granddaughter. The farm stayed in her family until the 1950s, when her great-grandfather sold it to Thomas Forrer. Now called Fulfillment Farms, the Esmont property is under the ownership of the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.

In Forrer’s will, signed just months before he died in October 1997, he left the 1,910-acre farm to the foundation for purposes of wildlife management. Forrer gave the foundation “wide latitude” 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.”

Fulfillment Farms received statewide recognition as Outstanding Tree Farm of the Year in 2015.

But Edwards, a history buff who fondly remembers the thriving community of Cool Springs from years ago, says the wildlife foundation isn’t properly taking care of the property, which once held Dawson’s Mill, a train station, a blacksmith shop and several other buildings. And now that the foundation intends to tear down the historic main house to build a hunting lodge, and potentially also raze the old schoolhouse and smokehouse, Edwards is hoping to save those structures.

“This is not an easy decision,” says Jenny West, executive director of the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia. While West recognizes that Edwards has substantial emotional ties to the historic structures, she says the complex “has suffered through a century of neglect.”

Before Edwards contacted West earlier this year about restoring the old buildings, West corresponded with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which said the complex would not be eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places if the main building was not intact, and, according to West, it is not. She says Steven Meeks, director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, who sits on the county preservation committee, said the cost of restoring the main farmhouse could be more than $300,000 and that it would be nearly impossible.

The foundation gave Edwards the option to fund the $300,000 restoration with an annual $25,000 endowment. Unable to afford the renovation, Edwards is searching for other options.

Jared Lowenstein, head of Albemarle’s historic preservation committee, says that although the county has been unsuccessful in passing an ordinance to protect historic property, it is working on one now. In the city, the Board of Architectural Review rules on whether demolition or alterations to historic structures may take place.

Even if Fulfillment Farms were to be accepted on the National Register of Historic Places, the buildings wouldn’t be protected from demolition, Lowenstein says. That status is solely honorific.

West says she has received a permit to tear down the structures at Fulfillment Farms, and has solicited several bids. The demolition is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks.

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