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.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

HISTORY: • On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. • To date, 11 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2008. Another Park Bond Referendum will be held in November 2012. Today, the Park Authority has 420 parks on approximately 23,168 acres of land. We offer 371 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park System is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: o Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist. o Eight golf courses including Laurel Hill, our newest, upscale course and clubhouse located in Southern Fairfax County o Five nature and visitor centers. Also seven Off-Leash Dog Activity areas o Several lakes including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax o The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter o Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel o An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter o Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel o Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent o A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly o A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale o Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community o Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center o Provides 274 athletic fields, including 30 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 500 school athletic fields PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: • A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. %

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