A Colonial-style farm in Northern Virginia is slated to close Friday after a years-long dispute with the National Park Service, which sought more control over the living-history museum that operated for decades on federal land.
Barring a last-ditch agreement, Claude Moore Colonial Farm will vacate 77 wooded acres in McLean that it has called home since 1973. The closure follows a public squabble with the Park Service over the farm’s funding and a 2015 report that questioned the farm’s financial relationships with private contractors.
In recent months, lawmakers had proposed legislation aimed at keeping the farm open as supporters embarked on a “Save the Farm” campaign. Hours before its scheduled closure, no resolution was in sight.
The Park Service proposed an agreement earlier this year with the Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm, the nonprofit group that has managed the farm since 1981. The agreement would have initiated additional oversight, such as regular financial reporting, and forced Claude Moore to get Park Service approval for a host of other activities, such as contracts with private vendors and merchandise sales.
“A long-term agreement would have required the organization to comply with current laws and policy and terms that are standard for thousands of national park partners across the country, while offering some flexibility to accommodate the organization’s interests,” the Park Service said in a statement this summer. “Although we negotiated in good faith . . . in the end, these terms were not accepted.”
Claude Moore director Elliott Curzon said trying to work with the Park Service amounted to a “cruel hoax.” He said the Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm rejected the proposal because the concessions sought by the Park Service were onerous.
“If they wanted information, financial statements, we are happy to provide them,” he said. “What they were proposing to do is require us to provide reports on a periodic basis. It’s bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. They go into a file, nobody ever reads them.”
Agreements such as the one Claude Moore rejected are common practice for many organizations with ties to the Park Service, said Pamela Goddard, a director at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, which works to protect national parks across the country.
“If all these thousands of other friends groups can work out agreements . . . why can’t this friends group do the same?” she asked.
P. Daniel Smith, deputy director of the Park Service, said in an August letter that the Park Service’s relationship with Claude Moore is “not unique” and that the agency had tried to negotiate with the farm.
As the farm’s closure draws near, several former employees and volunteers spoke to The Washington Post about conditions there. They described an outmoded, informal operation, saying the Friends group is refusing reasonable demands for oversight.
Sarah Hrechun, a staffer at the farm in 2009 and 2010 who continued to volunteer for about five years after she left, said Claude Moore has ignored standards with which other parks and nonprofits readily comply.
“It was just the wild, wild West and they loved it that way,” Hrechun said. “It seemed like everybody’s playground.”
Hrechun worked as a “farm wife” at Claude Moore, inhabiting the role for visitors who came to learn about what pre-Revolutionary War life was like on a small, low-income Virginia farm in 1771.
Hrechun said the farm’s heritage breeds, which include rare Cotton Patch geese and Ossabaw Island hogs, are not properly registered or vaccinated. Pigs have died and litters have become smaller as the animals have been inappropriately interbred, she said.
Anna Eberly, the farm’s managing director, said in an email that all animals are registered and that the reason rare-breed animals are not vaccinated is that “it can kill some of them.”
“I believe you receive most of your information from the NPS,” she wrote. “The animals are fine.”
Some employees and volunteers said the practice of transporting animals to Eberly’s farm in Loudoun County was inappropriate, but Curzon defended the practice. He described Eberly as an experienced farmer and said it was “not a mystery” that some animals were being kept at her farm as Claude Moore decamps from McLean and determines what to do with its resources, which he valued at “a couple million” dollars.
“The animals . . . need to be taken care of,” he said. “They could be sold. The proceeds of the sale would go into the farm’s assets.”
Eberly on Wednesday said her farm has the equipment for livestock moves, as well as barns and pasture, adding “there’s a lot of opinion about livestock care but they are very thin on real knowledge.”
Rachel Bartgis, who recently volunteered at Claude Moore for about a year, said the farm showed “lax oversight.” Still, she said, Claude Moore is unique in the Washington area because it depicts lower-class life in Colonial America — a contrast with attractions such as Mount Vernon, the estate in Fairfax County once owned by George Washington.
“For the community to lose that because the Friends can’t compromise with the Park Service is really a disappointment,” she said.
Some criticism was echoed in a 99-page “operations evaluation” the Park Service released in 2015, alleging shortcomings that included maintenance problems and possible safety issues, such as missing electrical plates and smoke alarms. It said that the farm had inadequate fencing in animal areas and that cattle at the property did not have “enough shelter from the elements.”
It also stated that financial relationships with some private contractors had not been approved by the Park Service and that the farm “has expanded commercial activity far beyond the scope of services” originally agreed upon.
Curzon responded to the report Tuesday, saying that some repairs were made but that others were postponed pending a new agreement with the Park Service.
“We were not willing to make those significant capital investments if the Park Service had the ability to terminate our agreement before we had a chance to enjoy those improvements for their useful life, much longer than the 10 year term the Park Service offered,” he wrote in an email.
Claude Moore had recently found defenders on Capitol Hill. A bill sponsored by outgoing congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Homes Norton (D-D.C.) sought to convey the farm directly to the Friends group.
Earlier this month, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) unsuccessfully sought a year-long extension for Claude Moore, saying there “is a reasonable path to compromise.”
“We strongly believe a win-win solution is possible here — allowing Claude Moore Colonial Farm to continue serving the community, while requiring it to follow the rules that all National Parks must follow,” the senators wrote in a letter to the Park Service.
Hrechun said she supports efforts to keep the farm operating, but not in its current state.
“There’s nothing wrong with saving the farm,” she said. “But there needs to be changes so it’s sustainable.”
In a letter Monday to Curzon, Blanca Alvarez Stransky, acting superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, said Claude Moore will have access to the farm until Jan. 20.
“While your organization has known about the end of our agreement since March 2018, which should have allowed sufficient time to plan for property removal, and we emphasized the importance of this deadline in two letters to you in August, we understand and appreciate that removing years of personal property is time consuming,” the letter said.
Park Service spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said that what would become of the land was unclear but that the agency “will listen to people’s ideas about how they would like to enjoy the park,” according to a statement. The Park Service has said it does not plan to sell or commercially develop the area.
Virginia Norton, president of the Friends board, walked through Claude Moore on Tuesday, reflecting on years at the farm. She lives nearby, and her late husband had stumbled upon the farm while walking their Irish setter in the early 1980s. The couple volunteered for decades.
Passing brown, muddy fields, some lined with makeshift wooden fences appropriate for 1771, Norton said the Park Service offered the Friends the choice to “die quickly . . . or linger on and slowly die.”
The Friends chose the former.
“Intellectually, we know it’s not ours,” she said. “When you volunteer here, you have a vested interest. You feel like it is yours.”
Correction: This story was changed to reflect that P. Daniel Smith is deputy director of the National Park Service, not the Interior Department, as originally reported.