Ben Bolen, Virginia's director of parks for 17 years, tramped through the wild lilies, briars and poison ivy that now flourish on the site of Robert E. Lee's grandfather's home, looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.
The Lee land, jutting into the Potomac River to form Freestone Point in eastern Prince William County, has been offered for sale to the state and Bolen will play a key role in deciding whether it will become a park.
"I thought about a half hour ago this would make a lovely park," Bolen, 58, quipped as he climbed a steep hill during an hour-long hike Tuesday, "Now I'm not sure. This may be the best way to sell me a park."
The owners of the 508-acre tract - the American-Hawaiian Steamship Corp - have told Bolen they will sell the land to Virgina at half its appraised value, although no recent appraisal has been made. Bolen rejected, the offer when it was first trade earlier this year by American-Hawaiian lawyer, George Hartozog, former director of the National Park Service.
"We haven't had any money in Virginia to acquire parkland," Bolen said, " and there's not much use in shopping if you can't buy."
But under the urging of Harsog, Prince William environmentalists and the Society of the Lees of Virginia, Bolen is now reconsidering.
Though Virginia has no money to buy land, the gift of half the value; can have double value for the state. If Virginia decides-after a long review process - to accept the land it can claim the gift as its part in a matching fund formula under which the federal government would pay 50 per cent of the property's total value. That money would go to American-Hawaiian and Virginia would get the land at no cost to the state.
The land was appraised at $2.6 million by Prince William in 1974 so the gift would be worth a minimum of $1.3 million. A new appraisal would set the value for the actual sale to the state.
American-Hawaiian, owned by Daniel K. Ludwig, one of America's richest men, would get the cash from setting the land and could also deduct the gift ot Virginia from its net income before taxes.
American-Hawaiian bought the land in 1961 for $138,338 and the balance due on two trusts and now pays $38,542 a year in property taxes.
Hartzog, who tried as National Park Service director to develop the Potomac shore as parkland, said this tract is "the last big undeveloped piece of property on the Postomac" near Washington. "I concluded thiswas prime parkland a long time ago."
If does not become a park, he said, the land probably will be sold to land developers.
As Bolen toured the tract, Don Curtis, vice president of the Price William County Historical Society, pointed out the location of the Lee home, the lilies that had spread from the Lee gardens and the cemetery where many Lees are buried.
"Come see what the ghouls have been doing. Thet stole all the the stones from the Lee graveyard," Curtis said.
"I heard a rumble down there. Didn't know who it was," said Bolen, peering at the mossy ground.
Asked how the park would be developed, Lewis King, state park commission planning chief, said he wouldn't know until studies were completed. Bolen interrupted, "Don't lie to the press, Lewis. We'll put in massage parlors and make lots of money."
The proposed park is part of an original tract of 3,000 acres that came to the Lees through a marriage in 1675. The Lees farmed "Leesvivania," as the land is called, but none lived there until 1747 when Henry Lee III, Robert E. Lee's grandfather, moved there, according to a history of the Lee family by Eleanor Lee Templeman, Lee Society historian.
Henry's eight sons included Lighthorse Harry, a evolutionary War hero, Virginia governor and father of Robert, and Charles, an attorney general of the United States, who inherited the property.
Charles' son sold the estate to the Fairfax family in 1825. The Fairfax home lasted until 1910 when it burned. The Lee mansion had burned in 1790.
Freestone Point, which ends in a high cliff overlooking the Potomac, was used by a Confederate artillery battery in the early years of the Civil War.
Freestone gathered a bit of infamy in the late 1950s when a gambling boat was operated there. The river belongs to Maryland up to the high water line so Virginia's strict antigambling laws did not apply on board.
Leesylvania has remained undeveloped in part because of a sewer moratorium. The area surrounding it, a 45-minute drive from Washington, is now being rapidly developed.
Bolen's staff will now draft a study of Leesylvania's soil type, accessiblity, historical value and potential for park development. If the study results are favorable, a recommendation will then then be made to a 12-member board appointed by the governor.
The next step would be action by the Virginia Commission on Outdoor Recreation, which in turn would present a plan to the U.S. Interior Department, At some point in the process, the Virginia General Assembly would be asked for $50,000 a year to maintain the site prior to its development.
With favorable action on all these levels the land could be taken by the state and evnetually turned into a park.
Bolen said it was too early to predict what the state might do on Leesylvania. But as Bolen left the estate, he said "Leesylvania is uinque in that you don't find that much available land on the river that close to populous areas. Usually land is offered in far-away places where developers aren't doing as well."