Monthly Archives: January 2021

A Tribute to Legendary Park Authority Historian and Steward Michael Rierson

Michael Rierson

It is with great sadness that we share the news that former Resource Stewardship Branch Manager Michael Rierson died on December 29, 2020. Michael retired from his post in September 2008 after 35 years of service with the Park Authority. He was living in Jupiter, Florida at the time of his death.

After graduating from the University of South Carolina, Michael was hired by the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1973 as Field Operations & Building Restoration Manager. His initial project was the restoration of Sully Historic Site, which opened in the fall of 1975. Sully was listed in the National Register of Historic Places that same year.

In early 1978, Michael became the Manager of the Division of Historic Preservation. He left an indelible imprint on the Park Authority, beginning with the restoration and subsequent follow-on projects at sites such as Sully, Colvin Run Mill, the Miller’s House and Dranesville Tavern. During his tenure, the 1780 Walney House was partially deconstructed and restored for adaptive reuse. His work at Wakefield Chapel, Frying Pan Meeting House, and so many other sites guaranteed the preservation of important physical remnants of Fairfax County’s history.

His final Park Authority project was refurbishing the Sears House in Centreville. All work conducted at Park Authority historic buildings from 1973 until his retirement in 2008 was under Michael’s direction — research, restoration, rehabilitation, repair and/or preparation for adaptive reuse.

Michael Rierson at the opening of the restored Sears House in Centreville.

His passion for history and stewardship was legendary, as was demonstrated in his performance and long list of accomplishments. He developed a comprehensive preservation policy and brought the agency’s museum collection to the public via an online presence. He developed comprehensive, cyclical and restorative maintenance programs.

Among Michael’s major accomplishments, in 1979 the American Association of Museums (AAM) awarded accreditation to Sully and Colvin Run. This was the first instance of such national recognition being bestowed on county-managed historic sites. (Michael had been a member of the first AAM Historic Sites Committee established as the organization expanded its exclusive focus from art museums to include history-oriented organizations.)

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Michael created functions to support the historic sites. They included Collections Management, Museum Education, Museum Volunteers, Museum Sales, Museum Events, Historic Properties Rental Services, Historic Structures Maintenance Services & Restoration Support, and Cultural Resource Management.

In 1984, Michael, working with staff and contracted software programmers, led the effort to create a digital record-keeping software – Collections Cataloging & Tracking System (COCATS). This was groundbreaking in the era of punch cards and WANG. COCATS was presented at the annual AAM Conference with sessions held at Colvin Run Mill. 

That same year, always eager to try something new, Michael and Assistant Manager Barbara Naef made a joint personal purchase of one of the first Macintosh computers. They shared the Mac with families on weekends and used it at work during the week. It was the first personal computer to appear in the Park Authority. 

The 1980s were also a time of expanding exhibit development. Michael not only led the concept and design process but worked with staff to build the exhibit components in a shop full of machine tools located in the basement of McDannald House. The most ambitious was probably The Millers and the Mills at Colvin Run Mill in 1985. The Mills portion was created as an Applied Science space for use in school tours.

Michael’s leadership continued until the time of his retirement. He was very hands-on and was recognized as a facilitator of change. Michael had inspired ideas and boundless energy. He served as Project Manager of Ox Hill Battlefield Park, led the establishment of the agency’s first cultural resource park, worked to restore the Cider Press and Ellmore Farm at Frying Pan Farm Park, and lobbied on behalf of the restoration of Historic Huntley. 

Michael was a great supporter of Cultural Resources and archaeology, having hired the first archaeologist to work for the Park Authority. He was instrumental in the construction of the representative slave quarter at Sully, which was based upon archaeological evidence. He developed the Mount Air and Confederate Fortifications Historic Site into Cultural Resource Parks. When County archaeology came to the Park Authority in 1996, he again worked with Naef to incorporate the Countywide function into the Park Authority. Michael oversaw the development of the Natural and Cultural Resource Management Plans. He was also integral in the digitization of the 1937, 1943, and 1954 historic aerial photos which has been so valuable in our interpretation of archaeological resources in the County.

Michael’s contribution and legacy lives on at the Park Authority in the work he accomplished, programs he established, staff that he mentored and people he influenced. Michael leaves behind his widow, Ellen Rierson, his son Galen and Galen’s wife Pam, and his grandson, Trevor.

Michael, your imprint will remain on the Park Authority and you will continue to live in our hearts.

Park Management Specialist Liz Crowell authored this article with assistance from Barbara Naef.