National Kids to Parks Day: K2PD is May 16

IMHO, PPL, YOLO, so avoid FOMO and enjoy K2PD! *

Kids to Parks DayBy now you know. We don’t have to cite the numerous studies and the statistics. Kids need more time outdoors.

Okay, parents, here’s your call to action. Thousands of folks are committing to head outdoors on May 16, Kids to Parks Day (K2PD). The Fairfax County Park Authority will have a weekend full of family events then, and if you make an online pledge to head out that day, you might have a chance to win a Nikon COOLPIX L830 camera from the National Park Trust.

There are a couple of ways to find out what’s going on in local parks that weekend. Fairfax County Park Authority activities are listed on the K2PD website and in the FCPA Calendar. Either spot will get you where you need to be.

Here’s a start – 10 things to do in the parks on May 15-16-17:

There are also 12 county parks with fishing, 59 with tennis courts, 125 with bike trails, 238 with hiking trails, 130 with picnic facilities, 165 with playgrounds, eight golf courses, five nature centers, four skate parks, three boating facilities, two campgrounds, and a screech owl in an oak tree.

See you in a park on May 16.

* It means: In my humble opinion, people, you only live once, so avoid fear of missing out and enjoy Kids To Parks Day. If you knew this, you probably need less time on social media and more in a park.

Stewardship of Vernal Pools

Anybody ever say to you, “Look, but don’t touch?”

A lot of Fairfax County Park Authority programs are look-and-touch programs, but there are times that the no-touch guideline is critical.

There’s a new wayside information sign at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) with information on it about salamanders and frogs. The sign, along the south side of the gas line that runs through the north end of the park, includes life-size photos of salamanders and frogs and QR codes that link to frog calls.

ECLP has been working closely with the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS) to design and install the sign, which also has information about the best ways to interact with vernal pools and to protect those pools.

So, what’s a vernal pool, and what do they have to do with signs about frogs and salamanders and the no-touch guideline?

Vernal pools are temporary puddles and ponds of water that are large in the spring and dry later in the year. When the water is there, they teem with life. Spotted salamanders, wood frogs, American and fowler toads breed in them. There are also small insects – dragonfly larvae, water bugs, fairy shrimp and plants. Because there’s so much going on in these pools, protection of them is part of good natural resource stewardship.

ECLP Naturalist and Historian Tony Bulmer has monitored vernal pools for the past 14 years. “The best way for the public to interact with vernal pools is to stay out of them,” Bulmer said. “If they sit quietly and just watch, they will see frogs, tadpoles and salamander larvae.”

That’s the “look” part of “look but don’t touch.” Everything is working as it should.

“Many people think they are doing a good thing by catching tadpoles and relocating them,” Bulmer said. “They are afraid the pool is going to dry up. But relocating them can hurt the tadpoles, especially if they are relocated to an area that has fish.” This has been an issue in large parks like Burke Lake and unstaffed parks, where people have removed tadpoles and salamanders and taken them home. Remember, removing anything from a park violates park rules and can impact the park’s natural resources.

Bulmer says people sometimes move tadpoles to deeper water that may have pollution that the human eye cannot detect. That’s why he suggests sitting quietly and watching the magic of the vernal pools. If that desire to help is overwhelming, volunteer to be an egg mass counter or sign up for park programs about amphibians.

Habitats like vernal pools are avenues to learning about amphibians living in our forests. So are signs like the one at ECLP that grew out of the partnership between VHS and the Park Authority. It’s a terrific partnership, and VHS is an information source for FCPA employees on the front lines of stewardship in the parks. The VHS website can be a go-to place for information about reptiles and amphibians.

There’s more information online about Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and the Virginia Herpetological Society, and the Park Authority has a video on the Hidden Pond web page about frogs and their calls.

 

Cracked Shaft Stops Grinding Temporarily At Colvin Run Mill

Update:  April 20, 2015

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The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground.

Colvin Run Mill is Grinding Again

Site Manager Mike Henry says visitors often ask why it took nine years, 1802-1811, to build the massive mill that still grinds today at Colvin Run Historic Site. He’s quick to answer that it took us over 40 years to reconstruct it.

Colvin Run Mill today is as close to its historic origins as it has ever been.

The broken shaft discovered last year has been replaced. The final phase of reconstruction, which started in 2014, is complete. And this marvel of history is grinding once again.

The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground. The long-planned restoration is complete, and Colvin Run Mill is ready to run at full capacity for the first time in decades.

Colvin Run is part of a rare group of historic sites. Normally a visitor to a historic site looks and sees what was there. But at Colvin Run Mill, you can experience the exact same smells, sounds and sights that people of 200 years ago experienced. This was American industry and American life in the 1800s.

Colvin Run Mill is at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, Va.

Grinding takes place at the mill from noon to 3 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month, April through October.

 

 

UPDATE: February 6, 2015

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

It is a beautiful piece of wood. Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says the white oak that arrived at the park on Feb. 3 is perfectly straight and doesn’t have a knot in it.

The tree was felled in New York State during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. It’s finding a second life as a main shaft at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. It will create its place in history this spring, and site staffers hope to have the mill grinding again in April.

The replacement was needed after Miller Mason Maddox found a crack in the old shaft during a routine inspection. When the old shaft was removed, Henry said staff learned that wood rot fungus had taken hold where moisture had penetrated the wood, so the crack was a timely discovery in a shaft that had limited life remaining.

Henry said the new shaft will be kept under wraps and out of the weather while given time to acclimatize to its environment. Millwright Ben Hassett has braced the mill’s water wheel, and removed and supported the greater face gear in the gear pit. Metal gudgeons will attached to the ends of the new shaft, and metal bands will wrap around the shaft to keep the gudgeons in place.

Fingers are crossed, but the massive project that began last year at the mill is still on track for a scheduled April 19, 2015, gathering to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

Broken Shaft

Shafted!

The staff at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site was hosting a lunch for its volunteers and was planning to unleash its waters for a spin of the big wheel and the grinding of some flour when miller Mason Maddox delivered the bad news. He’d found a crack in the axle of the mill’s main water wheel.

The water wheel can’t spin on a cracked shaft, which leaves no way to capture any power from the water flowing through the millrace. Tours and interpretation continue at the mill, and a smaller system at the historic site can be used to grind flour for sale, but there will be no grinding with the mill’s big stones for several months.

The 6,000-pound shaft that cracked was made from the trunk of a single white oak tree and was installed as part of an update at the mill in 2001 when the existing water wheel was built. Its demise was not unexpected. Although some last longer, the lifespan of woodwork like this is typically 10-to-15 years, and it’s been 12 years since this wheel was installed. In addition, the wood had a fungus growing on it, and it had become infested with woodborer beetles.

There’s work ahead to determine how long the mill will be sidelined. The water wheel will be disengaged and the broken shaft removed. Colvin Run’s Assistant Site Administrator Ann Korzeniewski says that, in a perfect world, a new shaft simply would be slid in place, although that’s not a simple operation. In addition, the spokes and the wheel were also installed in 2001, and those spokes are attached to the bug-infested axle that broke.   Until all the parts are removed and analyzed, staff won’t know how much of the mechanism will need to be replaced.

The Park Authority is researching options for funding the project, estimated to cost approximately $83,000. There may be limited funding available because the current restoration that is taking place at the mill appears to be coming in under budget.

There is good news in the midst of the problem. Because millwright Ben Hassett is already working on a restoration project at the mill, arranging a time for B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, Inc. to take on the new project may be just a matter of adding time to the current project. Pending any further setbacks, replacement of the cracked shaft would likely take about 75-90 days. In addition, there is another white oak tree trunk immediately available at a lumber yard. That alone will save a year of time finding a suitable tree, felling it and curing the wood.

The restoration project to restore the second grinding stone at the mill, already well under way, will continue. That project will allow the mill to run at full capacity for the first time in decades, however that new installation cannot be tested until the water wheel shaft is replaced and the big wheel is turning again.

Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says “There are a lot of wild cards in this mix,” but he is hopeful that with a little luck the historic site still will be able to hold its planned April 19, 2015 ceremony to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

October 19, 2014 is Friends of Colvin Run Mill Day at Colvin Run Historic Site. Any visitors at the mill that day who sign up to join the Friends group will receive a free Four Floor tour – a rare chance to see the entire mill, including areas not usually open to the public.

To help fund the mill restoration and repairs, contact the Fairfax County Park Foundation at 703-324-8582 or email.

Author David Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Digging Old Colchester Park and Preserve

There’s a group of people who, in recent years, have dug up facts about Fairfax County history. Check out this summary of what Fairfax County archaeologists and volunteers have found at Old Colchester Park and Preserve.

image001Old Colchester Park and Preserve is in southern Fairfax County. The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) acquired the 150-acre wooded area in 2006. It’s a strategic location near the junction of the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers and along the main land route travelers used when passing through early Virginia. That location makes this area rich with history.

Archaeological investigations completed by the FCPA’s Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at Old Colchester Park during 2013 uncovered a stone foundation and a multitude of artifacts which date to the later part of the 18th century. The park soon will have walking trails with informational panels about the various natural and cultural resources that are there.

CART has a blog for weekly informational posts about Old Colchester Park artifacts, archaeology happenings and lab processing.

Colchester was established in 1753. It was a small shipping town which moved tobacco and other goods from farms further upriver to markets along the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. There’s a 3-D model of what Colchester looked like around 1820 that illustrates the area’s structures such as barns, houses, warehouses and ordinaries. You can see it through a virtual tour online.

Blacksmiths, coopers, sailors, a vintner and tobacco inspectors lived and worked in the town during its heyday, but moved away by the 1840s when the port silted in and trade became more difficult.

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Click on the photo to take a 3-D, virtual tour of Old Colchester.

image005During the Revolutionary War, French General Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau passed through the area of Colchester in 1781 and 1782, crossing the Occoquan River and passing through the town of Colchester. His map notes the Occoquan River and Colchester along with a camp north of the town. The map contains no scale, but structures were noted along the intersection of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road. The town of Colchester was well established by the last quarter of the 18th century, so the buildings could represent homes and other structures, which Rochambeau drew to mark the busy port town.

The nearby Enyedi property is a 1.45 acre tract of land on the north side of Old Colchester Road near the intersection of Old Colchester Road and Furnace Road. The Park Authority acquired it in 2012. Located on this property are a large metal barn, a house, and a small shed. The core of the house dates to the 1870s, and it was built by a family named Clark. Archaeologists recovered various artifacts and 18th century concentrations of artifacts near the house and near the intersection of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road.

image007In a place like Old Colchester Park or on the Enyedi property, archaeologists explore small sample areas in great detail. For example, they excavate a one-meter-by-one-meter area on hands and knees with the smallest of tools. When full meter-by-meter test units were opened in the Enyedi property, they discovered a stone wall. Each layer of the fill near the stone wall contained mortar, slate, window glass and brick fragments that indicated the material that was used to build the structure. The bottom of the feature fill was about a meter below the ground surface and exposed a charred structural timber there along with the stone wall. That led interpreters to note that this structure at the corner of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road is similar to a structure still standing which was built as an ordinary for the Town of Colchester.

Wrought nails, glass and ceramics, including creamware, pearlware, tin glaze and agateware, were the majority of the artifacts recovered, and the deposit was dated to the 18th century. A large metal hinge was recovered near the bottom of the feature fill. This hinge is over a meter long and contained six hand wrought nails, some of them clinched at the end. A hinge of this size would be used for large doors like a barn door or, possibly, a large cellar door to a bulk head entrance.

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Artifacts of bone, ceramics, glass, and nails recovered during CART excavations in 2012.

This is where archaeologists put their discoveries in perspective and become interpreters. They have a map of the area from 1782 with a stone foundation marked on it. That foundation was capped and filled with layers which date to the late 18th or early 19th century. The foundation’s building was erected alongside a colonial port town with the same foundation construction as a standing historic building. All of this leads to the conclusion that the stone wall is associated with another domestic dwelling that was used about 1753 to 1840. More information about the function and full size of the structure will need future archaeological research, as only two meters were exposed during a 2012 excavation by CART. A small excavation under the pines, at the intersection of Old Colchester Road and Furnace Road, has answered some questions and, of course, raised more questions about the historic happenings within southern colonial Fairfax County.

Author Megan Veness is the Field Director for the Colchester Archaeological Research Team working at Old Colchester Park and Preserve.

 

Bluebell Watch Returns at Riverbend Park

Update:  April 8, 2015

image001Blue is the color of April at Riverbend Park. The Virginia Bluebells are bursting into bloom and the Eastern Bluebirds are busy checking out nest boxes as they search for a good nesting site. On Saturday April 4 only a few bluebell plants were flowering, but as the warmer weather continues more and more are beginning to open. By April 8 approximately 20% were in bloom. Before they open the flower buds are a pinkish blue. Once the flowers are fully open they are a beautiful light blue, and as they fade after pollination they may turn slightly pink again. Look closely and you may see some pink or white flowers amidst the mass of blue. As the warmer weather continues look for bumblebees visiting the flowers and hanging upside down under the blooms or hovering nearby as they insert their long “tongue”, or proboscis, into the blossom in search of nectar and pollen. Bumblebees are popular pollinators in the spring ephemeral world, in part because they can be found flying at temperatures as low as 41 degrees which makes them ideal pollinators for these early spring bloomers. The bumblebee also benefits by collecting pollen and nectar with which to stock her new nest.

The new leaves are beginning to turn green as they develop

New leaves are beginning to turn green as they develop

Virginia Bluebells in bloom along the floodplain

Other spring ephemerals are also beginning to put on a show. Spring Beauties are springing up everywhere, on the floodplain and woodland banks alike. The showy but fragile Bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis) is making an appearance on some of the drier parts of the Potomac Heritage Trail. These lovely plants have a single leaf which clasps the stem and which persists long after the flower has vanished, increasing in size for many weeks as it produces food for winter storage in the underground rhizome. The many petaled flowers are very striking but are also subject to changes in the weather. A heavy rain or wind storm will see the end of these flowers and so they must be pollinated and set seed as soon as possible.

Bloodroot flower

Bloodroot leaf

Like many of our native wildflowers Bloodroot seeds are dispersed by ants which are attracted to a small fat body – the Eliasome – that is attached to the seed. The ants carry off the seed to their nest, where they eat the eliasome and discard the seed in or around the colony, where it is free to germinate in the rich ground.

And let’s not forget the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) busily prospecting for desirable spring residences, zipping around in their smart blue and red spring plumage. Check out some of our many nest boxes near the Visitor Center and in the Meadow and you may see a Bluebird sitting on top of the box scanning for insects.

Bluebirds are quite sociable little birds and can often be seen on top of the boxes near the picnic areas. They prefer boxes that face an open meadow or green space, where they can easily see their insect prey. Last year one bird even took a fancy to the wing mirror of one of our naturalists’ cars and spent many happy hours perched there surveying the parking lot. Riverbend Park’s Bluebird boxes are monitored throughout the summer by volunteer monitors, and this is a fun way to learn more about these and some of our other cavity nesting birds such as Chickadees and Tree Swallows.

Eastern Bluebird in spring plumage

Bluebird perched on car wing mirror

If you are interested in becoming a Bluebird box monitor contact Marijke Gate at Riverbend Park at 703-7598-9018.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park

 

Update:  March 30, 2015

The Bluebells Make Their Debut

Virginia Bluebells are coming up everywhere along the banks of the Potomac. On March 15 we saw the emergence of the first purple leaves through the sand and dead leaves littering the floodplain. The deep purple color rapidly turns to green as the leaves develop. Just one week later the first buds were spotted, protected by the new leaves, and schoolchildren on a field trip were excitedly pointing out the hundreds of plants dotting the bare winter earth. Soon the plants will cover the ground with their large green leaves and the buds will blossom into beautiful blue flowers. Although called Bluebells they are not related to the bluebells of the English countryside, or the harebells of Scotland. Members of the Borage family, they are also known as the Virginia Cowslip. The drooping nature of the flowers helps to protect the pollen and nectar on rainy days.

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 The tiny purple shoots that emerge from the soil soon become greenish leaves

Within days the first flower buds can be seen

Within days the first flower buds can be seen

The Bluebells are accompanied by the bright green shoots of Ramps or the Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum). These can be easily identified by breaking off a piece of the leaf and sniffing. It has a very pungent onion smell and is a great favorite as a spring food. All parts of the plant can be used like garlic or onion, and there are hundreds of Ramps recipes. There are even Ramps festivals in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. The word Ramps is thought to come from the old English word ransom. Ramps are unusual in that the leaves develop during the spring and form large clumps, and then die back in early summer. The white, onion-like flowers then appear in June and July.

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Ramps leaves form large clumps in spring before dying back and giving way to the white flowers produced in summer.

Spring has come late this year, and the first wildflower blooms were only seen in late March with the appearance of the tiny flowers of Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa). This tiny plant is one of our earliest spring bloomers and can only be spotted by careful examination of the leaf litter in drier areas of the river bank. Once you have seen one you will be able to see hundreds of the plants with their five tiny white petals, deep red stamens and deep green, divided leaves. Like many of our native spring ephemerals, such as Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), the Harbinger of Spring develops from a small underground bulb or corm. The corm and other parts of the plant were once chewed to alleviate toothache.

Spring Beauty, aka Fairy Spuds, a common companion plant to both Virginia Bluebells and Harbinger of Spring, is also becoming visible along the floodplain. The small white or pink flower is open on sunny days but closes when it’s shady or when it rains. This helps to protect the pollen and nectar for the small flies and other early insects that help to pollinate the plants. Look for the small, grass-like leaves of the Spring Beauty scattered throughout the floodplain and the nearby woodland areas. In a few weeks you will be able to see large swaths of Spring Beauty carpeting the banks of the Potomac. The corms would be dug up and roasted to provide a spring treat for Native Americans.

Harbinger of Spring

Harbinger of Spring

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

The Potomac River is also showing signs of spring. The air is filled with the call of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) as they float down the river and then fly back upstream, snapping up the Stoneflies that are emerging from the water in massive numbers. Pairs of Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), strikingly beautiful fish-eating ducks, are beginning their courtship in preparation for nesting, and perky little Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are still dashing about the river in search of food before heading north to their breeding grounds. Spring warblers will be moving in any day and Eastern Bluebirds are prospecting nest boxes to complete nature’s buffet that is Riverbend Park in the spring.

Don’t forget to join us on Saturday April 11, 2015, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for our third annual Bluebell Festival. Come celebrate the return of the Bluebells and the arrival of spring with activities for all the family including wildflower walks, face painting, live animals, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Riverbend Park on April 4 and Scotts Run Nature Preserve on April 23 are a great way to get to know these lovely spring flowers and discover the folklore associated with them.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Written by Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park

 

 

 

Bluebells

Bluebell

The Bluebells are coming. There’s still some snow on the ground and the wind chills have been at record levels, so it may seem strange to be thinking about Bluebells, but spring will soon be upon us despite the dire predictions of the groundhog. Our spring ephemerals are getting ready to put on their annual show and in a few weeks the floodplains of Riverbend Park will be carpeted in blue as the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) reach their peak. They are already preparing to send their early purple shoots up into the light, along with the many other species of native spring wildflowers that grace the banks of the Potomac River. The rich floodplain soils are host to numerous wildflower species, such as Spring Beauty, Bloodroot and Trout Lily, that take advantage of the early spring sunlight that falls to the forest floor before the trees have fully leafed out.

The Virginia Bluebell, also known as the Oysterleaf (for the faint taste of oysters released by chewing the mature leaves) and the Lungwort (for its supposed efficacy in treating lung ailments), produces masses of drooping blue flowers for several weeks in the spring.

Flower buds of the Red Maple tree primed for blooming

Flower buds of the Red Maple tree primed for blooming

The plant thrives in the moist soil of the floodplain and is one our most showy spring blooms. Unlike the Cherry blossoms, peak Bluebell blooming can be difficult to predict so watch this space for regular updates on the plants’ progress.

While waiting for the Bluebells to appear take a walk along the trails of Riverbend Park and you will find some early signs of spring. Look up to see the flower buds of the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) ready to burst into bloom on the next warm day.

Look down as you walk along a stream or creek and you may find signs of our earliest wildflower, the Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetida), as it pushes its brownish-purple spathe through the snow and ice.

Skunk cabbage (break off one of its leaves later in the season and you will understand why it is so named) generates enough heat to penetrate the frozen winter earth. Look inside the pod-like spathe and you will see the small yellow flowers carried on the spadix, ready to be pollinated by the flies that are attracted by the plant’s foul smell.

Skunk cabbage emerges through the ice and snow of winter

Skunk cabbage emerges through the ice and snow of winter

The pod-like spathe of the Skunk cabbage

The pod-like spathe of the Skunk cabbage

The spadix with tiny yellow flowers

The spadix with tiny yellow flowers

Skunk cabbage leaves appear next to the withering spathe

Skunk cabbage leaves appear next to the withering spathe

A walk along the Potomac Heritage Trail will lead you past Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with its delicate yellow flowers blooming right on the twigs. Gently scratch the bark to release the aromatic scent that gives Spicebush its name. Native Americans used all parts of the plant to make tea and to add spice to their food.

Northern spicebush
Northern spicebush

As spring progresses different wildflower species come to the fore while early bloomers begin to fade. By late spring there will be little trace of these “ephemeral” plants as the more showy summer flowers take their place. Make sure to come out during the spring months to watch the parade of early wildflowers that make Riverbend such a special place. 

Join us on Saturday, April 11, 2015 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for our third annual Bluebell Festival and celebrate the return of the Bluebells and the arrival of spring with activities for all the family including wildflower walks, face painting, live animals, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities in celebration of spring.  Bluebell Festival:  $5 per person.  Wildflower Walks: $6.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Riverbend Park (April 4) and Scotts Run Nature Preserve (April 23) are a great way to get to know these lovely harbingers of spring, and discover the folklore associated with them.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend-park/

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Author and photographer Marijke Gate, is a Naturalist at Riverbend Park

The Ash Grove Meathouse – Big Finds from a Small Building in Tysons

There’s history, and a lot of it, smack in the middle of Tysons.

Ash Grove Historic Site is one of the many historic jewels in the Fairfax County Park Authority system. Nestled amidst the sprawling development of Tysons, Ash Grove transports visitors to Fairfax County’s rural past.

The ownership history of Ash Grove is remarkably simple. The land was part of the Northern Neck Proprietary, a 5.2 million acre land grant controlled by the Lords Fairfax. Thomas, the sixth Lord Fairfax, first visited his holdings in the 1730s and reportedly had a hunting lodge constructed. Imagine that today in the middle of Tysons.

Named the “white house,” the lodge was the first structure built at the current Ash Grove site. The “white house” was moved shortly thereafter in favor of a more formal structure. Ash Grove remained in the Fairfax family until 1851 when it was sold to James Sherman. Sherman descendants proffered Ash Grove to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1997.

Location of Ash Grove in Fairfax County

Location of Ash Grove in Fairfax County

image004The core of the site contains a manor house constructed about 1790, a small detached brick kitchen, and an even smaller frame meathouse. The meathouse, or smokehouse, is where large cuts of cured meat would be suspended from a framework while a fire generated smoke that permeated the meat. The fire would be low, and green wood may have been chosen for its high smoke output and relatively low burning temperature. The purpose of smoking meat is not to cook it, but rather to keep bugs and bacteria at bay.

After more than 200 years, the structure built to preserve meats recently was in need of preservation, and that work is under way. On the exterior, the clapboard skin occasionally contacted soils and, after rains, standing water.

Meathouse

Meathouse

The wooden sill plate that supported the massive framework touched a brick floor. There was rot both inside and outside that could have compromised the structure.

The first step necessary to remedy the situation and stabilize the meathouse was minor exterior grading and lowering of the inside floor. However, because this kind of work could disturb archaeological items associated with the Fairfax family, the Park Authority conducted an archaeological study in concert with the preservation efforts. The study goals included determining whether the meathouse was built at the same time as the manor house and, if possible, to learn about the day-to-day activities of the people who lived at historic Ash Grove.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Archaeological excavations began along the outside of the meathouse, where a shallow builder’s trench was found. This small trench would have been excavated as the foundation of structure was being built and then filled in immediately after completion. Because it was sealed at the time of construction, this deposit offered insight into how and when the meathouse was built. Small fragments of decorated pottery of a style common to the first quarter of the 1800s were recovered from the builder’s trench. That indicates that the meathouse was likely built approximately one or two decades after the manor house. Though likely not built at the same time as the manor, the meathouse was nonetheless constructed during Fairfax family ownership.

Other artifacts recovered from the builder’s trench included a glass “jewel.” This would have adorned a large button, cufflink, or broach-like accessory. Mortar samples taken from the foundation were considerably harder than what would be expected of the time period. This type of mortar was more expensive and exclusive to the elite classes. The trench also contained small glass beads. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these glass beads were ost commonly associated with enslaved African Americans. Evidence from the builder’s trench reminds us that the wealth accumulated by Virginia planters depended on slavery.

Decorated Pottery from Builder’s Trench

Decorated Pottery from Builder’s Trenc

Glass "Jewel" and Beads

Glass “Jewel” and Beads

Expecting the unexpected was the norm during subsequent excavations on the interior of the meathouse. Upon cleaning the brick floor of debris, mouse dens, snake skins, charcoal briquettes, and other sundry items, a small firebox was exposed that had been previously unknown. Removal of the surrounding brickwork and the soils around the firebox proved that it was relatively recent, probably an attempt by previous owners to recreate how they thought a historic meathouse should appear. However, floor removal also revealed another surprise — original brick lining that extended deeper on the inside than the foundation. The attempt to make something look old actually obscured aspects of the structure that would have been visible when the Fairfax family used it.

FCPA archaeologists remove the brick floor.

FCPA archaeologists remove the brick floor.

After fieldwork was completed, the inside was backfilled to the base of the interior brick liner, recreating the historic appearance. On the outside, excavations were backfilled in a way that improved drainage away from the structure. Next, FCPA carpenters will replace some of the clapboards that have decayed beyond repair. They will use historically reproduced square nails to further enhance the original feel of the building. When complete, the meathouse will be stabilized and provide visitors with a sense of how the county’s founding family lived. The collaborative effort between the Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch architectural historian, archaeologists, interns, volunteers and the Park Operations Division of FCPA has led to a fuller understanding of a Fairfax family property, ensuring its enjoyment and historical value for generations of Fairfax County residents.

Brick Lining Exposed during Excavation.

Brick Lining Exposed during Excavation.

Author Christopher Sperling is the Senior Archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Spring Symphony Stroll

HM0513Spring.  A time to celebrate!

The earth is warming, the days are getting longer, the animals are becoming more active, and there is a feeling of excitement. This year there is extra excitement in the air, because Huntley Meadows Park is celebrating its 40th Anniversary!

In 1975, Fairfax County purchased 1,261 acres for just $1 from the federal government under the Federal Legacy of Parks Program. Over the years, additional gifts and purchases increased the size of the park to 1,557 acres.

woodcock

Woodcock

Huntley Meadows staff has planned several programs over the next few months for the community to celebrate this important milestone. This month is Spring Symphony Stroll, March 28 at 7:30 p.m.   Please see the registration information below.

During the last weekend of March 2014, the evening chorus was so loud the male Woodcocks couldn’t perform their dance. However, the buzzy, nasal call of these plump, short-legged shore birds could still be heard.

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

Besides the American Woodcock, hopefully, other feathered callers will be heard including a Barred or Great Horned Owl, longtime residents of the park’s forest.

With spring in full swing, the soundscape will abound with males of numerous species competing to be heard by their ladies. You’re guaranteed to hear Spring Peepers on this evening stroll, for they begin their call of love in March and can continue into April. Other amphibian callers will be the Southern Leopard Frog, Pickerel Frog, and American Toad. These amphibians make their appearance in late March to early April (depending on the weather).

The Spring Symphony Stroll , Saturday, March 28, 2015, will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the parking lot at the park’s entrance on S. Kings Highway (6901 S. Kings Highway.) Bring a flashlight if you wish and dress for the weather.

Register online with Parktakes and join us for a stroll!