Monthly Archives: October 2018

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.

20 Years of Acoustic Jams

Back in 1998, after a tree fell onto her Kidwell farmhouse office, Frying Pan Farm Park Historian Yvonne Johnson (now the park’s manager) was working in a temporary office in a construction trailer. A knock on that trailer door introduced her to a woman with a Louisiana accent and a little dog named Missy. Debbie Billodeaux had an idea to encourage musicians to gather and play on the front porch of Frying Pan’s new Country Store. Johnson loved the Acoustic Jam idea and thought the sessions might draw a handful of people. In less than a year, 20 to 40 people were showing up to play at each jam. “That kind of gathering was traditional in the time period the park preserves,” Johnson said.

Since then, visitors have enjoyed regular Acoustic Jams as musicians come together in a warm, friendly setting to play harmonies on guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and bass. According to Johnson, a couple hundred park patrons might see the musicians play on a nice day. “It was so gratifying to see the response from the visitors,” Johnson said.

Billodeaux’s dream of having a place for musicians to play and introduce their music to new audiences is still going strong. They still gather, pick and strum at different locations around the park depending on what space is available.

The park will mark the 20th anniversary of the Acoustic Jam on Sunday, October 21, 2018. Looking back, Johnson said, “Debbie came up with a great idea that improves visitors’ experiences and doesn’t cost the park anything. Over the years, the jams have touched the lives of thousands of people.”

Estimating an average of 20 musicians per session over about 50 Jams a year for 20 years, a conservative estimate of attendance at the gatherings is just over 20,000 musician visits. That doesn’t count the visitors who sit a spell and listen.

Here is the history of the Acoustic Jam, in Debbie Billodeaux’s own words.

“The Acoustic Jam started out as a once-a-month jam on the third Sunday of each month. I was inspired to start the jam when I saw the Country Store being opened up at the park in the spring/summer of that year. I thought this would be a perfect place to jam and, I must say, very convenient for me as I live close by.  I liked jams because I could play with others, learn new songs, and the flexibility of a jam worked well with my busy schedule. At the time, I was going to the CABOMA jam (Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association) in Arlington. Yvonne and I talked about how a jam would work and be reflective of how people historically enjoyed music in a rural farming community. We intentionally set the Frying Pan jam up on the third Sunday so it would not interfere with the CABOMA jam in Arlington (second and fourth Sundays).

“The first jam was attended by less than 10 people, but it grew steadily.  It was usually bigger in the summer when people can be outside.  The early jams were at the Country Store, which is near the playground, and it has always been interesting to see how kids react to live music and seeing a variety of instruments close-up. In the early years, my guitar teacher at Chantilly Music, Bill Suter, would often suggest that his students get out and play with other people. He would tell them about the jam, and a dozen or more people came from his referral. I often send out an email reminder to those at the jam reminding them of the jam date and telling them about other events and jams in the area.  Jim Norman is a local resident and dobro and bass player who attends the jam, and he pushed for us to increase it to twice a month. In March 2002, we began holding jams twice a month.

“The park staff typically will ask if there are a couple of people that can play music at the Farm Harvest Day or an event for the Friends group, and so we typically do that once or twice a year. Several years the jam has been the closing act on the performance stage at the 4-H Fair. Sometimes a picture of those performances showed up in a newspaper. The Frying Pan Jam was featured once as the cover story on the Herndon Connection. Through the years, we have had a couple of people that show up to listen on a regular basis.

“There was a lady who came regularly often requesting certain songs.  She grew up in West Virginia and had heard many early country legends sing as a child.  She was a music fan, and she would have her husband drive her over. When he was too old to drive, they would have friends bring them. I do not know her name, but I took a picture of her and a friend and gave her a copy.

“We have had a couple of professional musicians stop by. It is a real treat for us.  We have quite a few people that are in now or have been in regional bands. We have had a number of people that have met others at the jam and then formed small bands. We also have a lot of beginners, so there is usually a big mix of experience at the jam.”

The Acoustic Jam musicians have been the closing act for the annual 4-H Fair at Frying Pan for the last five years, Johnson said. “Debbie Billodeaux’s wonderful idea, hard work and decades of dedication have been an amazing gift to the thousands of musicians and audience members that have enjoyed the Frying Pan Jam.”