A Maryland farm was for sale. To protect it from development, she bought it. A simple act, but one that marked the beginning of a series of events that led to the founding of the non-profit Accokeek Foundation, designation of the first national park created to protect historic vistas, and using the landscape of that historic vista to engage generations of visitors in the natural and cultural heritage of Piscataway Park. As soon as Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton bought this farm, she set out for Africa on a six-week journey to explore the development of health care programs. The year was 1955. Frances Payne Bolton was 70 years old.
Bolton’s list of accomplishments was already long: first woman to be elected to Congress from Ohio, first woman member of Congress to represent the United States in the U. N. General Assembly, first woman member of Congress to visit a war theatre (Europe in 1944), and first woman to head a Congressional delegation abroad (visiting the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and Poland in 1947). And thanks to the Bolton Act of 1943, she was instrumental in seeing that over 124,000 nurses were trained during World War II, including several thousand African American women.
Frances Bolton first came to Washington D.C. with her family during World War I when husband Chester served on the War Industries Board. During the war, she inherited a trust fund from her uncle, one of the founders of Standard Oil, making her one of the richest women in the world and giving her personal resources that she would use throughout her life to support initiatives that were important to her.
After returning to Ohio, Chester served in the state legislature until his 1928 election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Frances once again moved the family to Washington, D.C. In 1938 she was elected to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as the Vice Regent from Ohio, an event that plays a key role in the Maryland farm story. This remarkable women’s group, begun in the 1850s when Ann Pamela Cunningham led the effort to preserve George’ Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, still maintains and preserves the home of America’s first president. Frances had barely begun this volunteer service when her husband died in 1939, just after being elected to a 5th term in congress. Frances decided to run for his seat. She won and took office in 1940, beginning a long and distinguished career in Congress that lasted until 1968.
But on this, the 130th birthday of Frances Payne Bingham Bolton, I want to celebrate the lasting impact of her purchase of that Maryland farm 60 years ago. Located on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River directly across from Mount Vernon, the farm had been in agricultural production for hundreds of years. The last family to own and work the farm had fallen victim to economic hard times even before the stock market crash in 1929. The property was held by a series of absentee owners until its purchase in the 1950s by a development company began to generate concern about the future of this landscape.
Alice and Henry Ferguson had purchased nearby Hard Bargain Farm in the 1920s as a weekend retreat. They then began encouraging friends and like-minded people to move to the area, giving rise to the Moyaone Reserve. This vibrant group of artists and intellectuals cared deeply about preserving the rural character of their community and worried about what would happen to the farm at Bryan Point.
Cecil Wall, resident director of Mount Vernon, was also concerned about the impact that development could have on the treasured view from Mount Vernon and began talking to the National Park Service. The area in question had first come to the notice of the park service through Alice Ferguson’s work as an amateur archaeologist on the landscape and her documentation of its significant American Indian archaeological resources that date back thousands of years. Then in 1954 the Superintendent of the National Capital Region, Edward Kelly, became engaged in discussions about creating a park to protect the view from Mount Vernon, writing “the park site offers spectacular views of the river and the surrounding countryside. Mount Vernon, the most important historic home in the United States, lies directly across the river, and the proposed park would permanently preserve this important vista from this hallowed spot.” But the wheels of the National Park Service and the Federal Government turn very slowly. When efforts to garner support in a timely fashion failed, Frances Bolton purchased the farm with her own money.
Over the course of the next year and half, a group of Moyaone residents began meeting with Bolton about the creation of a non-profit organization that could acquire and hold land, and coordinate the effort to permanently protect an approximately six mile stretch of land on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River across from Mount Vernon. The Accokeek Foundation was incorporated in 1957. Frances Bolton donated the farm to this new organization and served as its president for twenty years. Through an impressive campaign waged on the national level by Bolton and other members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and on the state and local level by the Accokeek Foundation, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, and the Moyaone Association, legislation creating Piscataway Park was signed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.
The next several years saw the passage of new tax laws permitting income tax deductions for scenic easements, and the donation of land and scenic easements from local organizations and individuals. The Accokeek Foundation donated all of its land for creation of the park and signed a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service to steward 200 acres of the park Additional properties were purchased and Piscataway Park was dedicated on President’s Day in 1968.
From inception, the Accokeek Foundation has approached its stewardship of this significant landscape in a spirit of innovation focused on engaging the public in the importance of working landscapes. The National Colonial Farm, begun in 1958 primarily as an agricultural program to back breed colonial-era crops such as Virginia Gourd Seed corn, evolved into one of the first living history farm museums in the country, as well as an important heritage breed livestock program. In 1992 came the dedication of the Ecosystem Farm, an 8-acre organic vegetable farm in the park that played an important role in the regional conversation on sustainable farming before it was the “hot new thing.” And today the Foundation continues to connect people to this remarkable landscape, preserved because of its value as Martha and George Washington’s view, but of equal significance as the traditional homeland of the Piscataway people, as an outdoor classroom for educating children and visitors in environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture, and as a beautiful setting to enjoy nature’s abundance.
And it all began with buying a farm. Happy birthday Frances Payne Bolton!
–by Lisa Hayes, President of the Accokeek Foundation
Consider making a gift in honor of Frances Payne Bolton’s legacy and in celebration of the anniversary of her birth. Make a gift today!