Four years ago, the farm where George Washington was said to have chopped down that mythical cherry tree was on the verge of becoming a parking lot and shelf space for the far more contemporary American institution of Wal-Mart.

Today Washington's boyhood home, Ferry Farm, is on the verge of becoming a National Historic Landmark, and a concerted effort to restore the property is underway.

"It's really a wonderful thing," said Jim Pepper, assistant regional director for the northeast region of the National Park Service. "This is a real way of looking outward," to help protect the site.

The Park Service recommended last month that Ferry Farm receive National Historic Landmark status, and the proposal awaits final approval from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Park Service officials expect the approval in a couple of months.

The special status does not guarantee protection from commercial development, but it will increase the property's exposure and prestige and it will help enable backers to raise restoration funds, said Vernon Edenfield, director of George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation, which owns and operates the site.

In addition to the prestigious landmark recommendation, Ferry Farm received $2 million from the Park Service last year toward a conservation easement and a $225,000 matching grant from a state conservation agency in December to preserve and expand the site.

The solid standing of Ferry Farm marks a major turnaround. In 1996, Wal-Mart sought to set up shop on the site, and Stafford County officials welcomed the retail giant because the county needed more tax revenue.

Wal-Mart was short steps away from receiving approval when a cadre of citizens and preservationists objected the store's impact on Ferry Farm. As the battle between tax dollars and historical significance raged, the foundation stepped in and bought the land for $2.2 million, the same amount offered by Wal-Mart.

Ferry Farm, which drew 25,000 visitors last year, sits on 85 acres in southern Stafford County, a legendary stone's throw across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Little remains of the original property, with the only lasting edifice a recently refurbished surveyor's cottage. A school, built in the 1960s, sits on the land and serves as an administrative center, but it will be torn down in time.

Indeed, there is little that would indicate that this tract of Virginia, which is across the street from McDonald's and just up the road from a Wal-Mart, was where Washington lived from age 6 to 20.

Underground, however, is another story. Preservationists believe there is a plethora of buried artifacts, and an archaeological dig is underway to unearth historically significant relics. So far, the dig has found parts of the original Washington house and other remnants.

Though it is best known as Washington's boyhood home, Ferry Farm also played a pivotal role in the Civil War. Union forces camped on the strategic site to attack Confederate troops in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The Union Army lost the fight and retreated across the Rappahannock and through Ferry Farm.

Northern soldiers again positioned themselves at Ferry Farm during the Chancellorsville Campaign in 1863 and the Overland Campaign in 1864.

Because of its many historical ties, the refurbishment of Ferry Farm has drawn high-profile supporters. For example, Alfred Berkeley, president of the Nasdaq Stock Market, became a foundation board member almost three years ago after his aunt, who lives in Richmond, brought the site's plight to his attention.

"I just couldn't believe it," said Berkeley, recalling the news clippings about the proposed sale to Wal-Mart. "I got emotional about it. How could anyone plow over that particular piece of land?"

Since getting involved, Berkeley, a native Virginian who said he had always admired Washington but knew little about the relevance of Ferry Farm, has helped raise about $1 million for the foundation and has expressed a desire to remain on the project "as long as they'd like me."

Although Ferry Farm is on its way to being restored, it's hard to determine exactly what tourist attractions will be rebuilt as the foundation tries to piece together the original layout, Edenfield said. But whatever the long-term outcome--whether it be rebuilt structures or some other re-creation of Washington's boyhood life--the foundation's main goal is to add the story of Washington's coming-of-age years to the other Washington attractions in the area.

"We're looking at what created him," Edenfield said. "Mount Vernon was the pinnacle of his life. But what was the world, what was the environment that created him? That's the story of Ferry Farm."

CAPTION: The surveyor's cottage is one of the few old buildings remaining at Ferry Farm in southern Stafford County. At left, archaeologist Paul Schuster stands inside the building. The farm's most significant artifacts, however, most likely are buried, and an archaeological project is hoping to find relics. Experts have found parts of the original Washington house and other remnants.