When the first warm winds of March rustle the stillbare oaks and willows beside his century-old ferry landing, Ned Hocker looks out, as his father and grandfather did before him, onto the riffles and eddies of a James River swollen with rainfall and the promise of spring.

Spring means people to Hocker, a bull-strong man of 64 who powers one of the nation's last pole ferries - a Pogpstyle barge he guides as much through timw as through distance.

On warm weekendeds about 50 cars a day may ride his tiny craft, which carries Virginia Rte. 625 from a bare Albermarle County riverbank 600 feet southward over the water to the equally empty Buckingham County shore. Hocker likes the company.

"Poeple come from all voer the ride this ferry," he said with some pride and more understanding. "Fast as people go nowadays, it seems to mean something special."

The Hatton ferry is one of only four left in Virginia - a monument to the past preserved by people of Albermarle County and the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation.

Roughy the length and width of a flat-bed truck, it rides a Rube Goldberge cable apparatus essentially unchanged since its debut in 1835 - a model of energy efficiency that makes the river current do most of the work while Hocker pokes the barge this way and that with an 18-foot, hand-hewn pine pole.

The trip which costs nothing, takes about 5 minutes. Time, of course, isn't the point.

"Actually, if you're on the other side of the river and I'm over here," Hocker said, "by the time I come over and get you, load you on, carry you over and unload you, you could have drove around over the bridge at Scottsville. It's only three miles down river . . .

"But when I started on this river 46 years ago, they was mules and wagons crossing and it made a difference. There was a lot of ferries like this one then."

On a thriving river crossing where the railroad stopped to load pulpwood, Hatton is mostly given over now to time and the river.

J.B. Tindall's general store closed when Tindall retired in 1972. A rural mail route replaced the post office. The normally placid James rose up the same year during Hurricane Agnes and carried off a barn and two frame houses that stood on the bottomland houses just down the tracks. They never were replaced.

There's nothing much here now but Hocker's cinderblock ferry master's hut, the bottomland cornfields and the faint remains of the Kanawha Canal towpath, where Hocker's grandfather drove lead horses for the canal boats in the 1870s.

When the 1972 flood waters receded, leaving the ferry landing clotted with mud and debris and the cable damaged, the highway department, faced with millions of dollars in flood damage all over the state, decided anachronisms like the Hatton Ferry were aluxury.

They decided to close it, together with the almost identical ferry that operated then at Warren, six miles upstream.

History dies hard in Virginia. Before the link was dry on the announcement, preservationists had petitions circulatind, Albermarle County had formed a ferry commission to chech into the matter.

Finally the highway people agreed to let the county pay the $9,000 annual cost of Hocker and his boat out of the county's secondary road funds.

At the time of the decision, Hocker was down at Cartersville with his ferry, doing stand-in duty for a washed out trestle.

He returned in time for a gala reopening here on Sept, 22, 1973, when 10,000 ferry fans turned out to see Richard Thomas, "John Boy" of "The Waltons" television series, christen the rebuilt ferry with a bottle of champagne and ride across the James in a Model A Ford.

"Waltons" creator Earl Hammer, after all, grew up just up the road at Schuyler.

Virginia probably could make the Hatton Ferry as much a magnet for tourism as Vermont's covered bridges are for New England.

The state has never done so. You can't even find it on a state map.

Ferry freaks from around the country usually just drive to Scottsville, 65 miles west of Richamond, and ask around.

Eventually they find their way doen the hill to HOcker, who's on duty 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday and always glad to see them.

"I hardly ever get lonely," he said. "When the people aren't here, the river keeps me company.