Young Men’s Service League Refreshes Fort Willard Park

Despite its role in protecting the capital from Confederate attack during the Civil War, lately Fort Willard has been unable to protect itself from a different sort of invasion: invasive overgrowth.

1After the unexpected Confederate victory at the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, concern for the safety of the District of Columbia and Alexandria prompted plans for a complete fortification system for Washington. Construction began immediately, and there were 60 forts and 93 batteries protecting the city by the end of 1863. Greater emphasis was placed on the southern forts because they were believed to be in more danger of attack.

Fort Willard, the southernmost fortification in the Defenses of Washington, is located on a high point of a ridge overlooking low ground along the Potomac River. It commands a clear view to present day Fort Hunt Road and beyond. Constructed at the end of 1862 as Redoubt “D” to Fort Lyon by detachments of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry, it was later named in honor of Colonel George L. Willard, who was killed at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

After the Civil War, the site most likely lay fallow for many years. In the 1930s, development of the Belle Haven subdivision began, and the fort site was preserved in an area that eventually became Fort Willard Circle. Today you can still see the earthen fortifications, cannon embrasures or platforms, and the remains of a bombproof (bomb shelter) and magazine (arms and gunpowder storage) area. The relative isolation of this site within a quiet residential neighborhood has allowed for the archaeological and cultural features at Fort Willard Historic Site to remain relatively undisturbed and subject only to the natural processes of erosion and tree growth.

2This overgrowth did not intimidate the members of the Young Men’s Service League (YMSL) of Vienna-Oakton, a volunteer organization comprised of mothers and their high school-aged sons with a mission to serve the community and develop leadership skills. One hundred and fourteen members, divided into morning and afternoon shifts, volunteered a Saturday to refresh Fort Willard Park.

The group completed three assigned projects — regrading and extending the park’s perimeter path, removing overgrowth from the perimeter fence, and cleaning the community’s brick gathering areas.

The perimeter path, only present on the southeast half of the circle, lost much of its gravel and stone dust over the years and was in need of a fresh layer. The goal also was to extend the path through an area typically plagued with mud and standing water. Following a full day of work regrading and extending the perimeter path, neighbors and visitors now can navigate the entire border of the Civil War fort without encountering mud and flooded areas.

Perimeter path before and after.

The perimeter fence was overrun by wisteria, English ivy, Virginia creeper, pokeweed and thorny brambles. Moss dominated the brick gathering spaces. Clearing the overgrowth along the fence line allowed for a better view of the earthworks, and the clean brick plaza areas will make wonderful backdrops for community gatherings.

Brick area and perimeter path before and after.

Project leaders included nine Park Authority staff and three members of the Belle Haven Citizen’s Association. During the lunch break, David Buchta and Elizabeth Crowell of the Park Authority spoke to the volunteers about the historical and archaeological significance of Fort Willard.

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The Vienna-Oakton Chapter of the Young Men’s Service League.

The Young Men’s Service League provides young men with important skills and experiences to guide their futures and creates an environment for mothers and their sons to bond. The Park Authority was fortunate to encounter this organization, and Fort Willard’s efforts offer an example of enhancing stewardship of the county’s cultural resources on parkland.

Author Margaret Publisi Canilang is a Heritage Resource Technician for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Scouts Tackle Invasive Plants

Scouts are invaluable to parks.

Scouts often volunteer in parks to upgrade trails, plant native trees, remove invasive plants, and take on an endless stream of other important tasks. Some even see a need and develop their own ideas to fulfill Gold Award and Eagle Scout requirements in cooperative ventures.

This story begins in May 2008, when an Eagle Scout undertook a project to create a natural screen between a ballfield at South Run and 50 new houses being built near the park. The goal was to turn a manicured lawn back into a more environmentally appropriate natural state by planting 250 native trees in it.

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As time passed, the native tree area was overrun by invasive plants, in particular, Japanese honeysuckle that killed big trees bordering the ballfield and was about to kill the newly planted trees. Porcelain berry, multiflora rose and autumn and Russian Olive were also targeted.

Ten years later, Boy Scout John Reistrup led a May 2018 assault on those invasive plants at South Run. Reistrup’s team filled three tightly packed dumpsters with the honeysuckle they removed. His project made a big dent in the invasives but didn’t come close to eliminating the problem.

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Alan Brown of Springfield, Va., and Troop 1849 in the Old Dominion District recently became another of those industrious scouts partnering with parks. He proposed a Hornaday Eagle project at the same South Run area. Hornaday Eagle is similar to a regular Eagle project, but it requires the scout to have five or six ecological merit badges and to conduct a project related to stewardship of the land that includes six months of follow-up.

Brown started by creating a GPS-based grid in order to conduct a plant survey of the area. That required the difficult task of cutting paths into dense tangles of thorns and vines. Seventeen people joined him to conduct the botanical survey. He recorded GPS coordinates for each corner in the grid and marked the spots on the ground.

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Lauer used the grid to assign other scouts to the cleanup area. Brown had the scouts use different protocols for clearing the invasives and tracked which system worked best. He led a crew of more than two dozen people who cleared four areas in mid-October. Brown’s colleague Jake Hecker oversaw removals in two other areas, and Mason Melear, another of Brown’s crew, led clearing of two more. In late October, Brad Harris led a corporate group from Appian targeting another area and concentrating on the critical removal of invasive root structures.

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It is plain to see this fight to save trees is a tough one, and scouts are making progress saving the forests for future generations.

 Author Kurt Lauer is the volunteer manager at South Run RECenter.

A Cow Tale

Hokie get awaySo, when was the last time you saw a cow running down Route 28 near Herndon?

There are plenty of places in the United States where cows near roads are common, and in some you may even have to wait for a herd to cross the road.

Fairfax County is not one of those places. However, on Monday, October 29, 2018, a few folks driving on Route 28 saw, literally, a four-on-the-floor bovine running down the four-lane divided highway. The incident is an unusual, if not unique, example of the trials of managing a 1920’s-era farm park in a county with more than a million people.

The cow tale started a few days earlier when staff from Frying Pan Farm Park, including longtime volunteer and summer farmhand Kayla Blatman, attended a livestock auction at Virginia Tech on October 26. The Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park had raised funds for Blatman, who is a student at Tech, to attend the auction and make a purchase.

The park crew bought a heifer, named Hokie after the school’s mascot, and a sheep, named Lane after the school’s football stadium. The crew and animals completed their milk run back to Frying Pan on Saturday and, as is routine when new animals are brought to a farm, Hokie and Lane were placed in quarantine. The plan was to keep them quarantined for a couple of weeks to assure there were no health issues.

Hokie had other ideas.

This was the heifer’s first time isolated from other cows, and she had been agitated after all the changes she’d undergone. Open range must have sounded like a good idea. During her stall cleaning that fateful day, the black Angus was placed in a barn hallway that was blocked at the end by a tractor wagon that stood about three and a-half feet tall.

Guess how high an agitated cow can jump.

Site Manager Yvonne Johnson said that Farm Manager Paul Nicholson told her, “The moment that cow’s hooves hit West Ox Road I was on the phone to the police.” Nicholson knows there aren’t many ways to stop a thousand pounds of running muscle that doesn’t want to stop.

Police and firefighters were on the scene quickly and escorted the heifer which, for a while, was free to go wherever it wanted to lead the trailing officials. Hokie ran out the main entrance of Frying Pan Farm Park and turned right onto the rather appropriately-named West Ox Road. She took another right at Centreville Road and crossed Frying Pan Branch creek before taking a left on Frying Pan Road. Police and fire personnel tried to corner her there, but the road wasn’t conducive to rustling a running cow. Road crews hadn’t built the road and its shoulders with that sort of thing in mind.

Hokie rambled along Frying Pan Road to Sully Road/Route 28, where she took another right and headed north to continue her Farmville run up the Dulles tech corridor. Along that stretch, officials tried to funnel her into a trap, but Hokie kept slipping past roadblocks. Eventually she took a wrong turn and headed the wrong way up an entrance ramp, where a couple of nearby good Samaritans who had joined the pursing ‘cownga’ line managed to get their vehicles ahead of and behind her to trap her against a safety wall. Frying Pan staff placed their animal transport vehicle at the only opening in the makeshift enclosure, and Hokie had nowhere to go but into the truck. Her one-hour, two and a-half mile escape run was over.Hokie Captured!

The evasive cow was returned to quarantine and has been closely monitored to make sure she’s okay after her breakout. This time, there is another cow nearby to supply familiar smells and sounds. And security has been beefed up.

Although we wrote this blog with a light-hearted touch, be assured the Park Authority and local officials took the situation quite seriously as it played out. Police and fire officials were notified immediately, and steps were taken to protect both the public and the cow while the heifer was on the run.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Fall’s Spectacle of Color

Burke Lake FallIf there’s anything more breathtaking than the colors of fall, it’s the mirror-image reflection of forest over a tranquil lake. Brilliant specks of orange, greens bursting into gold, and majestic reds, all outlined by a crystal-clear fall sky, ripple gently in a scene so soothing it’s almost rejuvenating. At this time of year, Burke Lake Park is a haven from the fast pace and constant connectedness of today’s world. It’s time to dress for the weather, unplug for 30 minutes and immerse your senses in nature’s beauty.

strawberry-bush.jpgSoak in small things that you may not notice at other times of the year, like the bursting crimson capsules of the strawberry bush, also known as hearts-a-burstin’, as its warty red fruits split open in fall to reveal smooth, bright red seeds. Usually a spindly shrub with an inconspicuous flower, it comes into its own at this time of year with its splashy display.

Stop and listen. You may hear the territorial drumming of woodpeckers, a tap-tapping as they probe bark for insects and larva. PileatedIf you stay still for a minute, you might be rewarded with a view of the strikingly attractive pileated woodpecker. This large bird can be almost 20 inches in size and has distinctive zebra-like markings and a peaked red crest. It’s a memorable sight. Maybe you’ll see the tiny downy woodpecker, with its unique checkered black and white markings and acrobatic movements, as it hitches around tree trunks foraging for insects. Woodpeckers nest in cavities in the dead trees in the park or in dead tree limbs, a testament to leaving dead trees, known as snags, where they stand on both parkland or private property if they don’t pose a threat.

There’s lots to take in along the lakeside trail. It’s a 4.7-mile loop around the lake if you decide to complete the entire trail; it’s not hilly, and it’s pleasantly shaded with canopy. The park also hosts lots of other ways to enjoy nature. There are children’s playgrounds, boat rentals and fishing, pavilions, a disc golf course, mini-golf, a carousel, a mini-train ride and camping facilities, all in a peaceful woodland setting. Check Burke Lake’s website for hours and dates as times vary seasonally.

Burke Lake Fall 2So take a relaxing stroll and enjoy the fresh fall air. Pick up a paddle, or just pull up on a park bench and soak in the beauty of Northern Virginia. Unplug for a while in a calm setting, and reconnect with nature through its showy fall splendor.

Burke Lake Park is at 7315 Ox Road in Fairfax Station, Va. The Fairfax County Park Authority also offers similar waterfront experiences at Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, Lake Accotink Park in Springfield, Riverbend Park in Great Falls, and several small lake parks.

 Author Beverley Rivera is a Fairfax Master Naturalist.

History Found Just Below the Surface

LAP corduroy road 6.9.2016bIf you look at all the roadways crisscrossing and checker boarding Fairfax County, any random 90 feet of asphalt and concrete would not stand out. But there is a section of roadway we know about that stands well above all other county roads because of its makeup and historical significance.

IMGP8206In June of 2016, the Archaeological and Collections Branch (ACB) of the Fairfax County Park Authority was notified of an archaeological discovery during a routine road maintenance project near an entrance to Lake Accotink Park. The earth had opened to reveal a 90-foot long section of corduroy road, a type of road made by placing sand-covered logs perpendicular to the direction of the road. They were constructed to support travelers over low or swampy areas, improving impassable mud or dirt roads. They helped, but they were rough even in the best of conditions. Loose logs were a hazard to horses.

County archaeologists immediately documented the road. Detailed notes were taken, and scale drawings created. The hand drawings were digitized and added to the Geographic Information System mapping layers maintained by the ACB. Archaeologists mapped the site using a surveyor’s total station so that its location would be recorded with a very high degree of accuracy. The ACB also updated records maintained by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Corduroy RoadJust as in real estate, location is critical in archaeology. Based on the road’s proximity to other Civil War era sites and features, including the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, it is likely that this road was built in the middle 19th century around the time of the Civil War. Because the site was in a road project area, the best way to preserve it was to document it and then leave it in place. To better protect it, the road was capped by a layer of gravel prior to repaving of the existing road. Because of the documentation, future archaeologists and future maintenance personnel will know of its existence and can take appropriate steps to protect it. This particular road was found to be intact and is highly significant. It likely is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

LAP corduroy road 6.9.2016cDiscovery of such a well-preserved road is a rare find, and this wasn’t the first such discovery in Fairfax County. Less than a year earlier, construction crews made a similar find on Ox Road near George Mason University.

“I didn’t think I would ever see one (corduroy road),” said Fairfax County Park Authority Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling, who oversees the Park Authority’s archaeological efforts and worked on both corduroy road sites. “Discovery of two in less than a year is unheard of.”

Get an in-depth look at corduroy roads and their importance to Fairfax County in this video interview with Sperling.

The ACB serves numerous roles in the preservation of Fairfax County’s heritage resources.  The office reviews development plans in the county, coordinates protection of cultural resources for federal projects, and conducts field excavations that comply with local, state, and federal policies and laws. Recovered artifacts are processed in a laboratory facility in Falls Church. Approximately three million artifacts and documents are in the county’s archaeological repository.  

Dranesville Tavern – History and Hospitality

Dranesville TavernIt was a business entrepreneur’s dream, even in 1818. Buy land where major roads meet, and build a place for people to break their journeys. Feed them, give them a place to sleep, assure the safety of their belongings. Send them off the next morning happy after a big breakfast.

Washington Drane was the businessman who opened a “new tavern on Leesburgh Road.” Drane’s “house of entertainment” sat near the junction of the Georgetown Turnpike and the Leesburg Pike, today also known as Route 7. His purpose in selecting that particular rural site, he noted, was to create a “new building on the road leading from Georgetown to Leesburgh: 15 miles from the former and 15 miles from the latter place,” breaking up the two-day trip.

Soon the area around Drane’s place expanded with a church, a post office, a store, doctors’ offices, residences — and five taverns. Dranesville was perfectly located to serve those bringing goods and animals from the rich farms of the Shenandoah Valley to the competing coastal markets of Alexandria and Georgetown. There are stories of how Kentucky farmers drove their turkeys first through tar and then through sand to coat their feet for the long trip to market.

One of the five taverns, Dranesville Tavern, was built in 1823 and remains along Leesburg Pike. The log building with massive Seneca sandstone chimneys grew with two additions over the years. It served as a place of food and lodging on the Leesburg Pike for at least 130 years. In 1865, after a renovation of the inn by owners Mr. and Mrs. George Jackson, the Alexandria Gazette newspaper described it as “one of the best roadside inns in the state of Virginia.”

When the Park Authority became the site’s owner, the agency reopened Dranesville Tavern in 1978 as a historic site. Soon, people returned to the inn to offer their own stories of earlier visits. They told of having meals and staying overnight at Dranesville Tavern in the years before Leesburg Pike became a hard-surfaced road and electricity reached as far into the country as the Dranesville area of Fairfax County.

One delightful elderly woman, Margaret Ailes Wilmer, remembered a visit she made to the tavern when she was 10 years old. She was being treated to a trip with her father from Harper’s Ferry to Washington. They were travelling by horse and buggy. It was winter — December 10, either 1909 or 1910, and very cold. They had started in Harper’s Ferry with hot bricks to warm them. At Leesburg, Mrs. Wilmer’s father went into a drug store and bought a newspaper, half of which to stuff in back of her coat and half in front to keep her warm.

They reached Dranesville Tavern after dark, halfway to their destination. Upstairs, their bedroom was on the east end of the tavern, above the closed parlor and away from the heat of the kitchen and the parlor fire. Sixty years later she still remembered the cold.

When father and daughter awoke in the morning, the water in the washbasin pitcher had an ice coating that her father broke for her to wash her face. Breakfast she recalled with glee. As the only guests, they joined the host family in the dining room at a long table where she ate a “huge” stack of pancakes with syrup before climbing back into the buggy.

Today, the trip from Leesburg to Georgetown is a brief one on a road crowded with residential communities and shopping destinations. The Dranesville Tavern is just a spot along the way, a landmark that has stories to tell of other times. It reminds us of what a difference a few decades can make in the journeys we take.

Based on research conducted by former Sully Historic Site Historian Barbara Naef.

Editor’s Note: Leesburg was sometimes spelled with an “h” in olden days.

More About Dranesville:

Historic Overlay District

Dranesville Tavern on the National Register

Dranesville Tavern Notes

Blacksmithing in Fairfax County

Frying-Pan-Blacksmith-1Tang! Tang! Tang! The sound of the blacksmith working at his forge once rang across the Fairfax County countryside. From the earliest days of the colonial period until well into the 20th century, blacksmiths were important members of Fairfax County communities. Each large plantation, neighborhood, and small town probably had at least one blacksmith, just as localities today have hardware stores and auto repair shops.

In the late 18th century, enslaved blacksmiths Sam and George worked at Sully, now Sully Historic Site, in western Fairfax County. From New York in 1789, Sully owner Richard Bland Lee inquired as to the probable success of establishing a shop, asking, “Am I likely to make anything of the Blacksmith’s shop?” About the same time, blacksmiths Nat and George, also enslaved, were working at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of their brick forge and shop.

Other records about blacksmithing are numerous. In 1814, near Colvin Run Mill, Rezin Offutt willed a tract of land “where my blacksmith’s shop stood” to his children, and he willed “what blacksmith tools is on the plantation” to his wife, Mary. Years later, John W. Tracey, who also lived close to Colvin Run Mill, called himself a “Coach and Wagonmaker” on the 1884 Fairfax County census. By 1906, however, he was listed as a “Blacksmith, wheelwright, and farmer.”

Frying-Pan-Blacksmith-3-ToolsThe skills required of the blacksmith were many. He crafted and repaired farm implements, domestic tools and firearms for himself and for the local community. As a wheelwright, he made and repaired wagon and carriage axles and wheels. As a farrier, he fashioned and fitted horseshoes.

Henry Moffett (1898-1984) was a fifth-generation blacksmith. The first shop his family owned was in Leesburg. In 1904, Henry’s father purchased a lot in Herndon and built a new shop. That blacksmith shop burned in the Herndon fire of 1917. Attesting to the importance of smiths to communities they served, the shop was the first building in town to be rebuilt and the first to be wired for electricity.

Henry Moffett was the shop’s last owner. He served the needs of his rural community during a period of changing technology, from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles and from hand-operated machines and tools to electric devices. Besides repairing wagon tongues, mending plows and shoeing horses, Moffett sold coal, wood and stove equipment.

By 1955, there were not enough horses left to shoe, wagons to repair, or ironwork to be done to keep him in business. He closed the shop at the age of 68.

In 1975, the entire building was moved piece by piece and reassembled at Frying Pan Park. It became a permanent part of the county’s heritage, thus preserving the last known original blacksmith building in Fairfax County.

Frying-Pan-Blacksmith-2Today, citizens and visitors visit this once-common element of the Fairfax County rural and town landscape. The art and skill of the blacksmith have not been lost, however, remaining present in horseshoe making and other iron work at the park and in traditional American folk art and contemporary architectural forms.

The Moffett Blacksmith Shop is open for demonstrations during selected special events. Call Frying Pan Park at 703-437-9101 for further information. Colvin Run Mill Historic Site also hosts blacksmith demonstrations on select Sundays.

This article was originally written by former Fairfax County Park Authority Collections Manager Jeanne Niccolls.