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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author Christopher Sperling is the Senior Archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority.
Thank you so much for increasing our understanding of the 18th century construction!