Monthly Archives: February 2017

Barn to Church to Park: The History of Frying Pan’s Visitor Center

smith-barn-1940Enter a park, and your senses respond. You feel something – calm, excited, relaxed, or invigorated. Vision and hearing intensify. You look to see what’s there – green trees, fluttering leaves, blushing/unfolding flowers, a gravel path, the playground swing, the flow of the river, the calm of the lake. Sometimes when you visit a nature or themed park, you miss the history of the place. You see the amenities. You see what is there. You miss what was there.

Step into the Frying Pan Farm Park Visitor Center and you’ll see an 1,800-square foot auditorium adorned with exposed beams crossing below a 26-foot high ceiling. It’s a modern facility with up-to-date amenities designed to host office gatherings, birthday parties, weddings or other social functions.

Gaze beyond the new floor and the modern upgrades into the building’s history. You’ll be impressed. At its heart and soul are the spirits of a preserved 19th century dairy barn and church.

ellmore-barn1The Ellmore family owned and operated farmland here from 1892 to 1945. Mary Cockerell Ellmore purchased a 50-acre farm in 1892, and both the barn and the house on the site were built that same year. The original barn had space for 14 cows and four horses. An addition built by the family sometime around 1928 expanded the building to 28 stalls.

The Ellmores operated the site as a dairy farm until 1945, when they sold it to Mason F. Smith, Jr. and Mary Peck Smith. The Smiths renamed the land Masonary Farm and continued the dairy operations for nine years.


The barn changed ownership three other times before the Chantilly Bible Church purchased the building and a little land around it in September 1984, and in 1988 the barn was converted into a church sanctuary. In the meantime, the Park Authority in 1960 acquired the nearby Old Floris Schoolhouse and surrounding land from the Fairfax County School Board. That was the beginning of the site’s historic preservation. The draft horses, chickens, peacocks, rabbits, sheep, goats, cows and pigs that were common dwellers of early 20th century farms became the new occupants of Kidwell Farm, the working farm section of Frying Pan Farm Park. The park’s mission became the re-creation of the working farm atmosphere of the 1920s to 1950s. In 2001, the Park Authority acquired the five-acre parcel that the Chantilly Bible Church owned, including the Ellmore farmhouse and barn.

In the fall of 2005, the barn was transformed into the Frying Pan Farm Park Visitor Center with office, library, classroom, meeting and rental space. An exhibit about the Floris Community and the area’s dairy history, titled “Dig Into the Past,” was added to the building in 2009.

ellmore-barn4The barn is part of Kidwell Farm’s glimpse into the patterns of family farming, an operation run by Mom, Dad, the children, and maybe a farmhand. The barn provided a loft for hay storage, a milking parlor, and stalls for draft horses, pigs, and any number of cattle, sheep and goats, and was used as needed for birthing or shelter during inclement weather. Other outbuildings at the site include the dairy, smokehouse, corn cribs, equipment sheds, a chicken house, an outhouse and various run-in sheds for livestock. The antique equipment shed houses horse-drawn and mechanized equipment, including several early 1900 Fordson, John Deere and Farmall tractors which are kept in working order.

The Moffett Blacksmith Shop, circa 1917, originally was located in the nearby town of Herndon. It stands at the farm entrance across from the kitchen garden. It’s fully operational, and volunteer staff occasionally help man the forge. Volunteers also tend the garden, assist with educational programs and with hayrides and special events throughout the year.

The next time you’re at Frying Pan Farm Park, step into the Visitor Center and its 1,800-square foot auditorium adorned with exposed beams crossing below a 26-foot high ceiling. Explore the exhibit room. Then look beyond the modern facility with its modern amenities, and gaze back into its history. Perhaps you’ll feel a sense of the park’s heart and soul.

Frying Pan Farm Park is located at 2739 West Ox Road in Herndon, Va.


Article researcher Nancy Saunders is the Historian Assistant at Frying Pan Farm Park. Author David Ochs is the Park Authority’s Manager of Stewardship Communications.






Getting your Garden Ready for Spring

redbudforsythiaOur garage is not attached to our house. I need to walk through the garden to get inside. My husband claims that this time of year it takes me an extra 20 minutes to walk the 15 yards. He’s probably right. I’m observing the garden and giving it a thorough inspection. I’m looking for the first signs of spring, determining what debris needs to be cleared, what pruning to do. I see I need to clean the bird houses and decide which new plants I can fit into my small space. I love gardening and since becoming a Green Spring Master Gardener I know a lot more about what needs to be accomplished. Whatever its size, a garden needs to be readied for spring.

Spring seems far away but isn’t. Every morning I ask Alexa, “How many days till spring?” I read the plant catalogs that arrive daily and am anxious to get started. Today I saw a few daffodils (Nacissus) pushing through the dirt. I saw some early snow drops (Leucojum aestivum) at Green Springs Gardens the other day and expect their appearance in my garden anytime. I will begin cleaning the beds and amending the soil before too many more bulbs and plants appear. I don’t want to step on them as I work. I’ll add compost or manure now so it has time to mix with the soil to avoid burning the roots of the new tender plants. I’m getting ready to start seeds indoor and making a plan on how to use more native plants.

This is a good time to prune some plants but all plants are not pruned alike! Late winter is a perfect time to prune summer-blooming shrubs like certain species of hydrangea, spirea or clethra. Spring-flowering trees and shrubs like dogwood, forsythia and azaleas should not be pruned until after their flowers fade in the spring. Clear away and compost the dead stalks of perennials. They provided winter seeds and nesting for the birds, insects and wildlife but now it’s time to clear them away. Dead or dying limbs can be removed at any time.

ojcwinklerThere is a vast collection of gardening books at the Green Spring Gardens Library. It’s a perfect place to conduct research if you have gardening questions and like to find your own answers. If you want expert help look into the March 17 lecture, given by Green Spring Master Gardeners, “Spring Garden Kickoff”. Go to for more information.

What else can you do to prepare your garden? Prep your garden tools. Clean with soap and water and apply mineral spirits on wood handles. As you make your gardening plans, be certain you know your planting zone. If you have a lawn rake it to remove fall and winter debris. This also helps get air to the root zone. Get out your pitch fork and turn over your compost pile. The bottom has the best organic matter. Don’t do this if it’s covered with snow. Wait until snow clears.

The time you spend now will ensure healthy plants and shrubs. You’ll be ready for spring and everything blooming.

Happy Gardening!

Gioia Caiola Forman

Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener


Got Awe?

huntleymeadowcrittersWhat connects you to this place, to Fairfax County?

I recently returned from a decade away from the county, my home since 1976. That home was on land George Washington used as a pig farm. Long before the first president had his turn with it, the land sustained nomadic Native Americans.

I’ve reconnected with the natural history of this place through the Virginia Master Naturalist Program. Our class met weekly for three months in the fall of 2016 and explored an array of natural history topics via four field trips led by experts.

We got local. We learned it takes 500 years to create one inch of soil, and we learned how to read soil layers in the Potomac flood plain at Riverbend Park. We learned about a dragonfly citizen science project, and I read that Riverbend provides habitat for 10 percent of North America’s dragonfly species. Here, we collected and released aquatic insects, crayfish, and other macroinvetebrates to determine the health of a stream. We found stoneflies, scuds, netspinners, and other creatures. Late summer was dry, water flow was low, and our sample was too small to determine if the balance of life in the stream indicated the water was healthy for animals intolerant of pollution.

You wouldn’t have known any of this if you had been watching us. I imagine I wasn’t the only one who felt like a kid, romping in the stream, making discoveries. I saw bizarre-looking creatures I’d never known and others I hadn’t seen since I was seven or eight poking around the woods behind my neighbors’ houses.

eastern-red-backed-salamanderThe class also visited Huntley Meadows Park and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. At Huntley Meadows, we identified birds and searched for frogs, toads, and any of the five salamander species you can find in the county. We found two. Although I grew up near Huntley Meadows, I visited the county’s largest remaining non-tidal wetland this time with renewed interest. It warmed my heart to return for one of the park’s regular Monday morning bird walks and meet a young birder, a girl who visited regularly and knew where and when to see different birds. In my youth, I’d never heard of EC Lawrence Park. What a treat there to find second and third growth forests with striking transitions in the landscape as you walk from stream valley to an upland mature oak-hickory stand.

I knew going into the training that I would value our experience in the field, assimilating more deeply what I’d learned in class. Learning by doing is always a good thing. What surprised me was how much I missed being out in nature for hours at a time.

You use all your senses. You clear your head. You relax. Watch a heron hunt for food, and you slow down. Listen for bird calls, and you tune in on a different level. See a box turtle on the side of the trail, and the botanist stops to talk about turtles.

Follow your nose, and you’ll know when you’re near a wetland. We smell the gases released by microbes that feed on decaying plants and animals, especially at low tide. What I didn’t realize, until we visited the Great Marsh at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, was what happens when you tap your toes at the water’s edge. Here, when you tap at soil that is submerged much of the time, the bubbles you see are from microbes releasing gaseous compounds, such as nitrogen, nitrous oxide, and methane, as they break down decaying plants and animals. Next door, at Mason Neck State Park, we got to know trees by their buds or furrowed bark.

pollinatorsFor our final class, we offered five-minute interpretive presentations—as uniquely different as the students. Creative. I especially liked a demonstration of woodpecker adaptations. I was awestruck to learn woodpeckers withstand a g-force up to 1200 while drumming a tree up to 22 times each second, without getting a concussion, while fighter pilot trainees can barely withstand 10.

As I reconnected with local plants and animals, I questioned why Master Naturalist students care about the natural world. Why do we care enough to dedicate time for the class and volunteer 40 hours a year to maintain Master Naturalist certification? As we wrapped up the class, I asked each student to think back to when they were a kid, about a time when they had a meaningful connection with nature. Then, students wrote one word that speaks to their connection with nature.

My word was “awe.” I like University of California Professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of awe: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” We’re all connected to the natural world, though that’s easy to forget as we live in our constructed environment. It’s not difficult to experience awe. Perhaps you’ll see it in a dramatic sunrise, or unique cloud patterns, or when you come upon an especially grand tree. Maybe you’ll marvel in the fleeting moment when a White Egret’s wings are backlit as it lifts off with its catch. Or, you just might stop and listen, really listen, next time you hear a woodpecker drumming.

I may see you at a nature center or on a trail, and I may ask you: What’s your word for your connection to this place?


Learn more about the Fairfax Master Naturalist Program at Spring 2017 applications must be postmarked by January 23, 2017.

Author Maria Parisi is a brand new Fairfax Master Naturalist.