Fairfax County’s Spy Park Featured at New Spy Museum

Foxstone sign_edited-1Foxes have a reputation for stealth and cunning, but for many years, a far more dangerous predator was at work in Foxstone Park in Vienna. His actions are so notorious, the park is now in the crosshairs at a new spy museum in New York City.

If you tour the SPYSCAPE museum in Midtown Manhattan, look for the exhibit showcasing one of the Fairfax County Park’s Authority’s iconic brown and yellow wooden signs. It is there to help tell the story of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of spying for Russia after using the entrance sign at Foxstone Park as a signaling device for dead drops.

Foxstone is a 14.4-acre park in the Hunter Mill District. It includes trails, playgrounds and a foot bridge that Hanssen used to conceal packages of government documents and disks. He would let his handlers know it was time for a pickup at the bridge by attaching a piece of adhesive tape to the park sign.

SPYSCAPE’s Deception Gallery is devoted to Hanssen’s story. The museum originally asked to purchase the actual park sign for display. However, the county has a responsibility to appropriately curate its collection pieces to preserve Fairfax County’s history. In the end, park staff and the museum agreed that a replica of the sign would be made to help tell the espionage tale the museum weaves.

Alan Crofford, Facilities Support Manager for the Park Authority’s Park Operations Division, says the request was a first for the agency. “It’s ironic that the request came to me, because I was the area manager for Foxstone Park when the arrest happened.” Crofford says he “never thought” back then that one day he would be handling such request.

SPYSCAPE emailed its original request to the Park Authority in June 2017, and by October, the replica sign was on its way to New York. It was crafted by Lee Sites, the carpenter behind all of the agency’s familiar wooden park signs. SPYSCAPE paid $982 for labor and materials, plus shipping, and had the sign in place for the museum’s February 2018 opening.

Foxstone Park has been included in local spy tours and class outings over the years as fascination with Hanssen’s story continues. In his counterintelligence role at the FBI, Hanssen had access to information about KGB agents who had defected or were secretly working for the Americans. He passed information to the Soviets and Russians that led to the compromise of three of those agents, revealed that the FBI had built a tunnel under the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, and provided details about America’s nuclear operations.

In the book “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked, and Loved,” author Pamela Kessler described Hanssen this way: “His colleagues at the FBI called him Doctor Death and The Mortician. He had a sallow complexion, a humorless stare, and stood as somber as a funeral director in his dark suit and white shirt. Robert Hanssen stuck with the old G-man dress code long after casual Fridays had begun.” While over time he had come under suspicion to some at the FBI, he was known to most as a caring father of six and a devout Catholic. Many colleagues were shocked at his arrest, but at the time, the Justice Department considered him “the most damaging spy in FBI history.”

Hanssen’s downfall came at Foxstone Park. He was arrested there on February 18, 2001, when he was caught hiding a bag of documents under the bridge. To potentially avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy charges for selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period.

Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility near Florence, Colorado. Known as the ADX, it is the highest-security prison in the country. The man who once walked the trails of Foxstone Park, within a mile of his Vienna home, is now in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Trees, Trees Everywhere, But None to Share

Tree 3Within the Fairfax County Park Authority is a group of skillful folks responsible for care of the multitude of park facilities, grounds, sport fields and trees. FCPA’s Forestry Operations has a unique role in Fairfax County in that it has responsibility for tree care in all 427 county parks. Ideally, the job would be a mixture of pruning, tree health management, specialized young tree care and tree removals. Sadly, tree removal accounts for 99 percent of Forestry’s work.

Not by choice.


Fairfax County’s ash trees are under attack from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This pest destroys 99.8 percent of all native ash trees it infects. Their activity causes trees to quickly die and become dangerous. The way EAB attacks, or feeds, destroys the tree’s water and nutrient-conducting ability, and essentially the tree starves. The result? A dead tree that could pose a serious risk to people and property.

Forestry and county contractors work daily to remove these trees. Since the start of 2015, Forestry has taken down nearly 1,000 ash trees, and the work has only just begun. This number will likely increase to upwards of 3,000 over the next three to four years.

Tree 1In the same recent time period, Forestry took down approximately 2,900 trees, in addition to the ash trees. More than 1,000 of those were oaks. Over the past five years, Fairfax County saw severe and environmentally stressful weather conditions, especially high summer temperatures and extreme drought.

In the spring of 2016, the area had a late frost, and it is likely this frost took place at the same time as oak bud break began. Many trees were not able to overcome the effects of that frost damage because of stress from the previous drought and temperature extremes. As a result, the weaker trees had higher mortality rates. Unlike EAB’s impact, the oak decline syndrome should lessen in the years ahead.


Do you remember the windstorm on March 2? It was so windy that day, I got to work a half-hour before I left home. We had quite a blow, and the old yarn about how March comes in like a lion couldn’t hold a candle to what we experienced this year. The storm damage was county-wide, mostly broken and uprooted trees.

Forestry crews worked all day Saturday, March 3, and will continue to work on storm clean-up for several weeks to come. The county tree service contractor will be busy with clean-up, too. The combination of extreme high wind gusts — up to 75 mph at Dulles Airport — and wet soil set up a “perfect storm.” Within three days, the Forestry Operations call center received more than 100 calls for tree damage, and more calls continue to trickle in daily.

The trees most often seen during site inspections were Virginia pine, red maple, tulip poplar and ash. Limbs and branches made up much of the debris and often made access difficult in some locations. Nevertheless, many county parks were open within a day or two after the storm, and park patrons had the opportunity to enjoy parkland due to the efforts of all the Park Operations staff.

If you have a tree concern, visit the Park Operations work request page: Report A Parkland Tree Concern

If you have storm damage, visit this county site: What to Do If You Have Storm Damage From a Tree (Insurance Info)

Author Scott Diffenderfer is an Urban Forester for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Learn more about tree health in the blog post, “The Wind in the Willows…” at https://ourstoriesandperspectives.com/2018/03/14/the-wind-in-the-willows-and-oaks-and-pines-and/.

The Wind in the Willows, and Oaks, and Pines, and …

Upright Kidwell Farmhouse tree

March of 2018 came in like a lion, roaring with sustained winds of 25 to 30 miles an hour. Predictably, trees fell on power lines causing fires that Virginia Department of Forestry personnel worked hard to put out. News outlets reported on the mayhem falling trees caused – power outages, traffic snarls, property destruction and, unfortunately, some fatalities.  While the short-term focus in the emergency was on the death and destruction caused by several thousand falling trees, the long-term story is that hundreds of millions of trees did not fall.

Wood is strong and flexible; that is why humans have built with it for millennia. Not only have trees evolved to withstand strong winds, those winds make trees stronger. Just as lifting weights can trigger human muscle growth, swaying in the wind causes wood to grow. The alternating compression and tension on cells when a tree sways causes those cells to grow more wood. The result is the taper at the base of a tree.

Kidwell Farmhouse fallen tree 2018Most of the trees that fell during the early March 2018 windstorm did so because they were already dead or dying. Most people can recognize a dead tree, at least during the growing season. However, most people cannot recognize a dying tree. These before and after pictures show a tree at Frying Pan Farm Park that failed during the windstorm.  Last year it had leaves on it, but when it blew over, it revealed that its root system was rotten. Can you see the root rot in the standing tree? Look closely at the crown and notice the thinning of the leaves on the edges. To a trained eye, this is a sign of root problems. This is why trees, like pets and people, need to see their health care professionals regularly. Certified arborists are tree health care professionals.

The long-term story of the March windstorm is not that trees fell and caused mayhem. It is that strong healthy trees withstood the wind. And trees grow strong and healthy when they are properly cared for by professionals.

Author Jim McGlone is an Urban Forest Conservationist with the Virginia Department of Forestry. A version of this article ran on the VDOF blog at https://myvaforest.org/.  Learn more about trees in Fairfax County in the blog, “Trees, Trees Everywhere…” at https://ourstoriesandperspectives.com/2018/03/14/trees-trees-everywhere-but-none-to-share/

Green Spring’s Mysterious Ruin

RuinFrom the Great Sphinx in Egypt to prehistoric Stonehenge in England, many mysterious structures have stumped historians attempting to determine their origin and purpose. Green Spring has its own architectural mystery, which lies in ruin across the lane from the Spring House. It’s not an ancient monument, but the remains of a small cobblestone farm structure. Yet even modest vernacular structures can provide important records of everyday life. This one intrigues visitors and staff alike. Why and when was it built?

Nestled into the hillside, the thirteen foot square four-chambered structure is mortared cobblestone and brick with a thin coat of concrete. We’ve long referred to it as the “fermentation tank” because descendants of Fountain Beattie, who lived and farmed at Green Spring from 1878 to the early 1900s, described its use as a tank to ferment the juices of fruits grown on the farm.

Beattie’s 300-acre farm was a thriving concern with dairy cattle and orchards…. and a burgeoning liquor business! He operated a licensed still in the c.1830 Spring House, where he distilled fermented fruits into applejack and brandies. He also operated a cider mill. On September 12, 1895, the Alexandria Gazette reported: “Mr. Fountain Beattie at his farm in Fairfax county, west of this city, has a steam cider mill which is kept running constantly and farmers for miles around are taking their apples there to be ground into cider.”

At the time, most cider fermentation was done in wooden barrels. In his 1890 guide, “The Cider Makers’ Handbook,” J. M. Trowbridge suggests that American cider makers adopt the French fermentation method for champagne using “large vats or tanks…where such conveniences are at hand or attainable.” Beattie was enlightened and progressive and may well have decided to try this out in a four-chambered tank, with a different product fermenting in each chamber.

In a c.1900 photograph, the tank is in mint condition, its corners square and its walls smooth and pristine. In 1999, Fountain’s grandson Butler Beattie recalled: “My grandfather was much more interested in the future than in the past. He used concrete in the spring house at Green Spring Farm. I heard that was the first use of concrete in that way in Fairfax County and possibly in all of Virginia.” No evidence has been found of Beattie’s innovative use of concrete in the Spring House, but perhaps his experimental fermentation tank benefitted from it.

Yet it’s questionable whether Beattie built the structure from scratch for this express purpose. Its outdoor location and configuration weren’t entirely practical. So we wondered if he might have repurposed a structure that was already there. In 2010, we consulted archaeologist Dennis Pogue, then director of preservation at Mount Vernon and an expert in historical farm structures. Dr. Pogue examined our ruin and agreed that it could have been adapted for Beattie’s purposes but was more likely to have originated some time earlier…as a water cistern.

Cisterns were common in homes and on farms throughout the 19th century, providing collection and long-term storage of rainwater for domestic use, irrigation and animals. Early cisterns were simple, plaster-lined dugouts underneath houses. By the mid-1800s, many cisterns looked like our structure: large, semi-buried or above-ground tanks made from stone, brick and cement, with partitions within to filter out debris. Shapes varied, but some were square and flat-topped. Some examples have surviving fill pipes that delivered rainwater diverted from nearby roofs. (The source of water to ours is unknown.) Others still have iron bolts to attach a wooden cover, a necessary precaution to prevent drownings and to keep out pollutants. A vengeful neighbor might even throw an animal carcass into his enemy’s cistern or well.

We don’t know of anyone dumping anything nasty into Fountain Beattie’s fermentation tank, but in 1890 somebody did burn down his barn. Beattie’s second job as a revenue officer took him across the countryside to shut down illicit stills. A disgruntled bootlegger may have been out for revenge. The loss of the barn, along with stock and feed, put an end to dairy activities on the farm, but Beattie’s legal liquor enterprise flourished and our little ruin may be an inspiring example of adaptive reuse by this visionary farmer!

Adapting buildings for purposes other than those for which they were designed is meant to give them a new lease of life, but our ruin is deteriorating quickly. Remedial work is planned to help preserve what’s left of it. This will include protective fencing, a cover to keep out debris and re-pointing and stabilization of loose mortar. Analysis of the mortar may yield more information about the date of construction.

Interpretive signage will tell visitors as much as we know about it and we’ll continue to research its origin and purpose. It’s not a riddle on the scale of the Sphinx or Stonehenge, but our mysterious little ruin is still a carrier of the history of Green Spring and our community, our farming heritage and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who labored here.

Author Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

Freedom at Green Spring…Sooner or Later

100_0908In 1777, gentleman freeholder John Moss (c. 1723-1809) established Green Spring Farm in Alexandria. Today, the house that he built for his family in 1784 is open to the public as the Historic House at Green Spring Gardens. As a landowner and a justice of the county court who had served George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Moss was no doubt influenced by the enlightened ideals that triggered the revolution and led to growing unease over the legitimacy of slavery. Yet many “enlightened” slave owners continued to uphold the practice, including John Moss.

In 1795, Moss wrote a deed of manumission for 14 slaves on Green Spring Farm:

“Know ye that I John Moss of the County of Fairfax and Commonwealth of Virginia being fully satisfied that it is contrary to our bill of rights as well as to our principles and sentiments as a free people and also contrary to common justice to hold and keep in a state of slavery any part of our fellow men….emancipate and discharge from bondage…..Old Sarah.. Old Nan..Harry..Maria..Hannah..Nero..Abram..Fox..Nat..David..John..Sam..Milla..and Sal….In witness whereof I hereunto set my hand and seal this seventh day of September 1795.”

~ Fairfax County Courthouse Deed Book Y-1, p.69

By the late 18th century, acts of manumission in the upper South had become more common, and were often cast as benevolent gestures driven by conscience. However, only a small fraction of slave owners were prompted by principle alone. Landowners like Moss had transitioned from labor-intensive tobacco cultivation to grains, which required fewer workers. As reliance on slave labor diminished, manumission became a pragmatic move.

The Virginia Slave Law of 1782 simplified the process by permitting slave owners to provide for it in their will or to submit a deed, as John Moss did, to the county courthouse. The law also stipulated that any slaves over the age of 45 “be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them.” Between 1782 and 1800, the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from one to seven percent. However, expediting the manumission process didn’t always accelerate the journey to freedom.

What Moss granted in his deed was delayed manumission, promising freedom at a specified time in the future. So, while “Old Sarah and Old Nan” are to “go immediately…[with] a maintenance as long as they live,” the others must wait. “Harry to go out free at the end of seven years from the day and date of this instrument of writing. Maria and Hannah to go out free at the end of eleven years from the date hereof.” And so on.

The list continues with Nero, Abram and Fox to be freed in 18 years, Nat in 20, and Daniel in 27. John must wait 42 years to be free, while Sam must serve another 44. Milla’s freedom was delayed 29 years and Sal’s 35.

1784There were many reasons for Moss to impose these varying delays to freedom, and all would have benefitted him. For instance, a gradual process of emancipation ensured a legacy of slave labor for immediate heirs. A promise of legal freedom in the relatively near future could encourage good behavior and deter escape. A long delay could provide an incentive for a slave to negotiate ways to buy himself out of servitude early.

In most deeds of delayed manumission, the longest terms were given to the youngest slaves. The average delay was nine years, but most of Moss’ were far longer. The terms for John and Sam (42 and 44 years respectively) indicate a toddler and an infant at the time of the deed, who would be released just before they turned 45 and eligible for lifetime support. We can assume that “Old Sarah” and “Old Nan” are over 45 so Moss was already legally obligated to support them.

Was Green Spring’s John Moss a man of conscience or an exploiter then? Perhaps both. When Moss wrote his deed of manumission, 70 years before abolition, many slave owners in Virginia were embracing the progressive thought of a new nation that declared liberty for all. Yet they were still constrained by the long-entrenched system of slavery, by cultural conditions, and by concerns for their families’ future needs. It’s very likely that Moss found himself in a moral quandary that forced him to pit his self-interest against his higher ideals.

Author Debbie Waugh is Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

A Sunset Escape to Freedom Along the Potomac

Ellick flight to FreedomIt’s been two centuries plus one year since Ellick’s flight to freedom.

Ellick (sometimes spelled Elleck) was one of 11 slaves owned by Hugh Conn, who ran a ferry and owned land at what is now Riverbend Park. Research by local historic preservationist Debbie Robison revealed that in 1809, when Conn’s estate was inventoried three years after his death, Ellick was about 27 years old. He was listed as the most valued of the Conn family slaves.

Following Conn’s death, ownership of Ellick passed to Conn’s children. In 1817, Ellick was convicted of breaking into a store. As punishment, he was whipped and one of his hands was burned. When the jailer released him, apparently there was no one from the Conn household to meet him at the jail, and Ellick fled. About two months later, he was captured by two men who brought him to the Leesburg jail before returning him to the Conn family. Ellick was handcuffed and left on the porch a few hours before sunset as Mrs. Conn refused to take charge of him in her son Jesse’s absence. She sent a servant to Great Falls to get Jesse, and the two men sat down to dinner while they waited. As the sun began to set, another servant interrupted the dinner to inform them that Ellick had escaped again … this time by running over the hill. Advertisements in the August 30, 1817, National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser newspaper offered $30 for his return. The ad read:

$30 reward for runaway, negro Elleck, age about 35 yrs. – Jesse Conn, lvg in Fairfax County, Va

The Conns never saw Ellick again.

Thanks to Ms. Robison’s research, in 2011 the National Park Service (NPS) recognized the Conn’s Ferry site as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. NPS established the Network to Freedom database to tell the story of resistance against slavery through escape and flight. Evidence suggests that the Conn’s ferry landing sat at the site currently used as a boat ramp at the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va.

Riverbend was the second FCPA site to be placed on the Network to Freedom list. Sully Historic Site in Chantilly, Va., is also listed. Sully has a representative slave quarters on its land, which was owned by Richard Bland Lee, an uncle to General Robert E. Lee. Sully was home to as many as 40 enslaved African Americans. Records show there were four known escape attempts at Sully, and it is known that two of escapees did return to Sully.

As we celebrate Black History Month, the Park Authority acknowledges the significant contributions and the struggle for freedom from enslavement made by many African-Americans at sites that are now part of our park system. We are committed to preserving these sites and stories so that they may be shared and remembered for generations to come.

Farming For the Future: Making sure there’s still land for future farms

Farm 5The initial idea for a Virginia Farms program began as an attempt to work a pun into publication. “VA Farms. Is that like farms that operate in Virginia? Or is it an action? Who farms? Virginia Farms!”

At its heart, VA Farms is a continuing project to tell the story of modern agriculture. It brings those stories and the people from local farms to Frying Pan Farm Park to meet park visitors. As a historic site, part of Frying Pan Farm Park’s mission is to educate visitors about how farmers once operated in this part of Fairfax County. The truth is, farming is still conducted in and around Fairfax; it just has a different face. Several faces, actually. The VA Farms program brings those faces to people who eat food from farms, and it aims to balance past and present and to inspire engagement in local food systems.

Farm 4When food consumers meet food producers, a bond forms. This connection to food is lost while shopping at the grocery store when all that can be observed is the same stock-photo produce and meat. It’s easy for an uninvolved consumer to take the hard work that goes into producing these products for granted. When we hear producers’ stories first hand, a certain appreciation and respect develops toward the food purchased from these small farms. When respect is exhibited for food, there follows a reduction in waste and a greater appreciation for our farmers.

Farm 1Respect is not held solely by the consumer. In recent years, soil has been classified as a non-renewable resource. In kind, this new brand of small-scale production does not strictly consider profit margins to be the exclusive ambition of the business. These Virginia farmers use sustainable practices in their farming techniques to be better land stewards. It appears that they are not farming for today, but for future generations in their efforts to rehabilitate the land.

Their stories have had a provocative impact on me as a farm employee. For the past four or five seasons, I have worked with Floris Elementary, a school just a stone’s throw from the farm. Each year, the school’s Green Team, an environmentally-focused group of youngsters, came to the farm to learn about gardening. At the end of the school year, they harvested what was grown and shared it with their friends at lunch. This year, the park will explore a new farming venture. Developing a Farm to School Program with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is in the research phase. FCPS’ Office of Food and Nutrition Services has placed a high value on sourcing locally-produced foods by hiring a Farm to Cafeteria Coordinator. This coordinator seeks funding to purchase locally-grown foods and has installed salad bar options in the school system.Farm 6

Frying Pan Farm Park will continue to keep its agricultural spirit alive and hopes to link its farming past to the present need of local food to feed our immediate community.


Author Patrick McNamara is an Interpreter at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Va. The next Virginia Farms program at Frying Pan will be held on Sunday, March 11, 2018.