Author Archives: Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority

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, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 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: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. 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 • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • 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 • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 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. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

Daylong Hikes in the Fairfax County Area

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Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail (CCT)

When a Boy Scout mom wrote to the Park Authority for some ideas on where her son could take the long hikes needed to earn a Merit Badge, the agency’s Trails and Infrastructure Coordinator, Beth Iannetta, came up with plenty of suggestions.

If you’re looking for a hike of 15 to 20 miles or more, consider taking some of her advice.

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CCT Trail Marker

• The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail, also known as the Fairfax CCT, is an amazing achievement for a well-populated area like Fairfax County. Over 40 miles long, it crosses the entire county, from the Potomac River in the north to the Occoquan River in the south, passing through many of Fairfax County’s best parks along the way. We particularly like the northernmost segment from Leigh Mill Road to the Potomac River.

• The Bull Run – Occoquan Trail follows the Bull Run Stream Valley and Occoquan Reservoir along the western edge of Fairfax County. The trail is 18 miles long, beginning at Bull Run Regional Park in the north and ending at Fountainhead Regional Park in the south. The trail, which is a gem in the NOVA Parks collection, offers a chance to enjoy nature and history as it meanders through woodlands, fields, and along the water’s edge. For an easy hike next to Bull Run, join the trail in charming Clifton. The hike from Fountainhead Regional Park to Bull Run Marina is a nice hilly, wooded segment of the trail.

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHT) is a network of trails extending over 800 miles through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. Fairfax County contributes much of its Potomac riverfront to the PHT including Seneca Tract to Great Falls in the north, and Alexandria to Mount Vernon in the east. Favorite hikes on the PHT include:

o Seneca Tract from the eastern edge of Loudoun County to Riverbend Park is a nice stretch accessed from woodland trails in the park.

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Bluebell time at Riverbend Park.

o The mostly flat trail north from the Riverbend Park Visitor Center is especially gorgeous when bluebells and other spring wildflowers are in bloom. Head south from the center for a rockier, but easy hike to Great Falls Park.
o The PHT follows the River Trail through Great Falls Park on a sometimes steep segment with incredible views of the falls and Mather Gorge.
o Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is popular for a short hike to a nice waterfall, but it also offers a pretty, moderately challenging section of the PHT.
o Turkey Run and Potomac Overlook Parks both include trails that connect to the PHT and beautiful river views close to DC.

• On the Virginia side of the Potomac, the popular Mount Vernon Trail offer 18 miles of paved trail from Theodore Roosevelt Island south to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Most of the trail is independent, but there is a street segment through downtown Alexandria. The trail is narrow and extremely popular with bikers, so pedestrians and runners need to be careful. Most of the trail is level, with great views of the river and DC, but the southernmost mile is a steady climb. There’s a beautiful boardwalk section heading south along Dyke Marsh, so Belle Haven is a good starting point for walkers.

What is an Invasive Plant?

Ivy 3aI once was quite proud of the English Ivy tree I’d nurtured in my townhouse garden. I was ignorant of its impact on the environment.

My mother and I had planted a pair of four-inch plants some 20 years before I started shaping them into a tree. I didn’t know that English Ivy was invasive. I knew very little about invasive plants.

That changed when I became a Green Spring Extension Master Gardener in 2014. I learned that invasive plants are a species accidentally or intentionally introduced by humans into a region where those plants did not originate. They can cause great damage to the new area’s natural resources. An invasive species can be any kind of living organism – plant, insect, fish, fungus, bacteria and even seeds or eggs. Species that grow and reproduce quickly and that spread aggressively can be labeled ‘invasive’.

Ivy 1aThe Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has created an Invasiveness ranking that categorizes the level of threats to forests and other natural communities and native species from invasive plants. The categories are high, medium and low. Kevin Hefferman, a stewardship biologist at DCR, says the ranking increases for species that:

• Alter natural processes, such as water flow or soil chemistry
• Invade undisturbed natural areas
• Cause substantial impacts on rare or vulnerable native species or natural areas
• Are widely distributed and generally abundant where present
• Disperse readily to new places
• Require significant resources to manage and control

Naturalists encourage gardeners to curb the spread of invasive species by planting native plants and removing invasive ones. There are many web sites that offer native alternatives, including those of the Virginia Native Plant Society, The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, and Green Spring Gardens. More information also is available from Master Gardeners at Green Spring.

Ivy 4In full disclosure, I adore English Ivy (Hedera helix). However, I won’t plant it. It’s an evergreen, perennial vine. It grows as a dense ground cover (juvenile stage) and a climbing vine (adult stage). Regretfully, its dense foliage blocks sunlight and restricts growth of other plants. As pretty as it looks growing up mature trees, its heavy vines loosen bark and hold moisture against the trunk, often causing fungal disease and death. Heavy vines also can fell trees in bad weather. English Ivy also nurtures bacterial leaf spot, a disease seen in elms, oaks and maples. It spreads by seeds and runners. Mature vines produce flowers and seeds that birds enjoy and spread. It is also known to cause wildfires to spread as flames climb vine-covered trees. It tends to climb anything it can use for support such as fences, homes or trees.

Invasive species overtake native species and destroy ecosystems that rely upon diversity of species to survive. They often provide little or no food value for wildlife. Kudzu is another devastating invasive plant that grows at a rate of one foot per day with mature vines as long as 100 feet. It engulfs everything in its path from trees to shrubs to homes and cars.

When visiting a plant nursery or accepting plants from friends and neighbors, avoid invasive species. Plant natives for their beauty and for the well-being of the environment.

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Extension Master Gardener and a board member of the Friends of Green Spring.

The Life and Times of the Manassas Gap Railroad

Manassas Gap Railroad

These stone walls are remnants of the earthworks built to carry the rails of the Manassas Gap Railroad’s Independent Line, begun during the railroad boom before the Civil War and never completed.

Weaving through Alexandria, Fairfax City and on to Manassas is the abandoned railway bed of the Manassas Gap Railroad chartered in the mid-19th century. Today these bulwarks of dirt curling west to the Blue Ridge Mountains are silent witnesses to ambitious dreams, changing economic and political climates, and the devastating ruin caused by the Civil War. Two of the best spots to explore these beds are on parkland at the Manassas Gap Railroad Historic Site in Annandale and Hidden Oaks Nature Center. They’re just a couple blocks apart on Royce Street in Annandale.

The railroad was built in part as a product of the speculative frenzy of railroad building in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The advent of steam-powered engines ignited the construction of railroads to connect the fertile farms of the expanding West to the traditional markets and business hubs along the East Coast. A feverish program of railroad construction created some 3,668 miles of track in less than 20 years.

Economic competition for access to the productive farms of the Shenandoah Valley increased when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) opened a line to Winchester through Harper’s Ferry in 1836. The merchants of Alexandria, fearful that they were losing their crucial wagon trade with the Shenandoah Valley, received a charter in 1848 from the state legislature for the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (O&A). The line ran from the rural fields south in Orange to the port city.

Its success bred greater ambition. By 1850, another group of merchants and farmers received incorporation for the Manassas Gap Railroad (MGRR) that would recapture the wheat trade of the upper Shenandoah Valley that the B&O had successfully acquired through its Winchester branch. Wealthy planters and prominent business owners in the area determined its route and invested heavily in its future.

To reach the valley, the line would run west from the Manassas Junction on the Orange and Alexandria line, through Gainesville, past Front Royal, through the Manassas Gap and on to Strasburg. It was completed in three years and celebrated with rhetorical gusto.

Buoyed by new revenues and awash in plans for expansion, the MGRR company decided to build its own Independent Line directly from Manassas Junction to Alexandria rather than pay the O&A its high rail rental charges for goods that had to be transferred from the MGRR and shipped to Alexandria on those lines. The legislature approved the plan in March 1853.

The Independent Line was to run 34 miles, crossing the Bull Run west of Chantilly and then Cub Run, into a sweeping curve crossing first the Warrenton Turnpike and then the Little River Turnpike to what is now the city of Fairfax. It then ran east near the village of Annandale, turning south to re-cross Little River Turnpike, run through Indian Run Valley and on to just outside Alexandria.

The process of obtaining the necessary land, however, and the costs of the major filling and leveling required for construction reduced profits and assurances of state aid. By 1858, the company’s debts were enormous, and growing hostilities and talk of secession weighed heavily on the plan. One year short of completion, the Independent Line fell victim to the Civil War, and no steel rails were ever laid. Instead, its earthworks served as battle sites and as little-known transportation routes for both Confederate and Union soldiers.

The Manassas Gap Railroad never recovered from the war, during which its rails were torn up and its rolling stock destroyed by both sides. The right-of-way was relinquished, and much land was returned to farming. In some places, however, where there were deep cuts, high fills or substantial masonry work such as at Hidden Oaks and the Manassas Gap Railroad Historic Site in Annandale, the roadbed remains. Its high fill areas, shallow cuts and two historic culverts, all constructed during the 1850s, remain in remarkably complete condition. The Historic Site is a perfect place to look back on the complex tapestry of how people, places and events — especially surrounding the Civil War — converged to create a place of historic significance.

Author Jane Scully is a former ResOURces newsletter editor for the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Hidden Oaks celebrates its 50th anniversary in October. Interpretation of the railroad bed will be part of projects being developed for the celebration.

Mill Advocate Remembered

“I just got a call from Marge Lundegard. Bob passed away yesterday.”

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Bob Lundegard spent much of his retirement giving back to Colvin Run Mill.

Those were the opening lines of an email that quickly circulated and spread heartbreak through the Fairfax County Park Authority following the death of Robert Lundegard on Monday, May 20, 2019. Lundegard was a park icon one park official called an “amazing guy.” He will be remembered for his love of parks and, in particular, for Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

“It is impossible to think about Colvin Run Mill without thinking of Bob,” said Dranesville Supervisor John Foust. “He was a man of fierce determination and tireless energy who got things done. His efforts to renovate the mill and expand its educational programs have left a profound and enduring legacy.”

Lundegard and his wife, Marjorie, spent much of their retirement time volunteering and spearheading preservation fundraising efforts at Colvin Run Mill. The retired federal government science and technology expert believed that future generations can learn from yesterday’s innovation. He noted that in a world of ubiquitous smart phones, the water-powered mill of Colvin Run “was the technology up until after the Civil War when electricity and wind power were developed.”

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Colvin Run Mill.

“The Park Authority and Colvin Run Mill lost a true friend,” said Fairfax County Park Authority Board Member Tim Hackman. He added that Lundegard “was a dedicated and visionary leader. He saw the importance and value of educating the public, and especially school children, about Fairfax County’s colonial and 19th Century heritage, and pushed for the restoration of the mill and miller’s house and facilities into the fully operational facility we see today. His spirit and commitment will be greatly missed.”

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Bob and Marjorie Lundegard at Colvin Run Mill in November 2015.

Education was important to Lundegard. He taught at Syracuse University, and Marjorie is a retired Oakton High School chemistry teacher who started volunteering at Colvin Run in 1988. The Lundegards were among the first members of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill when it formed in 1997, and Robert Lundegard served for a time as the president of the support organization. Under his leadership, the Friends raised money for lights on the mill and a portable mill called a meadows mill for demonstrations. The Lundegards also raised funds for the mill through a partnership with a consignment shop in McLean and through Marjorie Lundegard’s writing, publishing and selling of more than a dozen books about mills in the region. Together they raised more than $50,000 to support Colvin Run Mill’s capital improvements plan, which includes renovation of the miller’s house at the site and the building of a planned educational visitor center.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Celebrating the Fifth Anniversary of Huntley Meadows’ Wetland Restoration

It’s deeper, it’s bigger, and it’s healthier. There’s more plant and animal diversity in the restored wetland at Huntley Meadows.

HM Wetlands Awareness_050717_0113In a massive project that spanned more than two decades, the Central Wetland at Huntley Meadows Park was restored. On May 10, 2019, the park will mark the fifth anniversary of the The Central Wetland Restoration Project’s completion, and it’s a good time to review the outcome of the effort.

Five years down the line, the wetland is showing noteworthy improvements, including more biodiversity and healthy ecological function. The restoration increased the size and depth of the wetland. Berms were installed, and management now can hold back or release wetland waters. Since the project’s completion, Huntley Meadows staff have been actively managing the wetland.

HM Wetlands Awareness_050717_0071Wetland management decisions are based on scientific data collected from the wetland. That data includes water levels, wetland plant communities and survey results. There’s a weather station in the wetland that provides invaluable data by recording more than 20 parameters every 15 minutes. The information it provides includes water levels, gate levels and rainfall. Staff conduct annual vegetation surveys through aerial photo analysis and ground vegetation surveys in the wetland to determine the diversity of plant life and the trends in the plant communities. The weather station data and the vegetation surveys are critical elements that are required to make science-based decisions and reach goals set for the wetland.

The wetland requires significant maintenance to ensure that the data being collected is quality data. Maintenance also assures the wetland infrastructure that was installed performs properly. The weather station requires regular cleaning, calibration and repair, and the integrity of the berm must be maintained to reduce any chance of major issues due to flooding and erosion. Native vegetation is monitored and enhanced annually to make sure the soil on the berm remains stable. It can be affected by foot traffic.

xjane-gamble-muskrat.jpgThe central wetland is the focus of many scientific research projects that are critical to understanding the effects management has on the wetland.  Bird surveys are conducted weekly to track bird diversity and abundance. Redheaded woodpeckers and prothonotary warblers have become more common since they started breeding in the wetland over the past five years. Jane Gamble 7Marsh birds such as rails and bitterns are of particular interest. Spring breeding bird surveys are conducted, and in 2015 Virginia rails bred in the Central Wetland for the first time in almost 20 years. Frog call surveys are conducted every year to monitor populations. Management also extends to invasive plants and animals, including the northern snakehead fish (Channa argus), which has become naturalized. Most of these surveys could not be conducted without the help and generous support of volunteers.

hm-wetlands-awareness_050717_0080.jpgThe surveys, projects and weather station data collected provide vital information used to guide wetland management plans and decisions.  Those plans have to be flexible because the wetland is completely dependent on stormwater for its life. Staff can lower wetland water levels by opening gates to release water. However, raising water levels requires rainfall and stormwater flow in East Barnyard Run, the wetland’s feeder stream. The typical annual water routine in the wetland follows the natural hydrologic cycle — high water in winter, falling water levels in the spring, low water in the summer, and rising water levels in the fall — but the routine can’t become a pattern. It is important to vary the timing and elevation of seasonal water levels in the wetland each year to prevent a pattern that potentially favors specific species over diversity.  Erratic cycles lead to an amazing diversity of vegetation and wildlife.  Based on the park’s annual vegetation surveys, The Central Wetland vegetation and wildlife are responding very well to the new hydrologic cycles.

People outside the Fairfax County Park Authority have noticed the project’s successes. Over the past five years, the Wetland Restoration Project has received more than 10 awards, including the prestigious Virginia Governors Gold Medal Environmental Excellence Award in 2017 and the American Counsel of Engineering Companies Engineering Excellence Award in 2014.

Staff will continue to manage the wetland water levels and plant communities to create the best habitat for a diverse array of wildlife species. We are seeing positive results in the vegetation and wildlife to date, and we anticipate the best is yet to come.

Author Dave Lawlor is the Natural Resource Manager at Huntley Meadows Park. Park Authority photographer Don Sweeney and park visitor Jane Gamble provided the photos.

Green Spring Prepares for National Conference

Susan Voss_082615_0002Gardeners love puttering in their own backyard, and this summer a rare opportunity is coming to our backyard. Staff at Green Spring Gardens will connect with the global public garden community when the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) holds its annual conference in Washington, D.C., this June.

This is a premier opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, and an example of how park staff continually look for opportunities to get better at their jobs.

Green Spring Gardens will enjoy national exposure at the conference, which drew nearly 900 attendees last year. The APGA conference is considered the organization’s premier professional development event, and previous attendees speak of the “high quality networking and content programming” available. Representatives from gardens of all size take part.

Green Spring will be part of the conference in multiple ways:

  • Green Spring is a featured destination on the June 17th Virginia is for Garden Lovers Staff and volunteers will host conference guests, who will enjoy Beatrix Farrand’s legacy landscape.
  • Green Spring will be part of a June 19th conference panel on Genius Through Gender Diversity in Design. The panel will celebrate contributions of historic and contemporary female landscape designers.  A documentary recently produced by Cable Channel 16 on Farrand’s landscape at Green Spring will be featured. Green Spring is presenting the panel in cooperation with Dumbarton Oaks and Tregaron Conservancy.
  • Green Spring is a Partner Garden sponsor and will be recognized on conference web pages and print materials at the conference. The Friends of Green Spring (FROGS) contributed the sponsorship fee.
  • Several Green Spring staff members will attend all or part of the conference courtesy of FROGS’ sponsorship of their registration fees.
  • Green Spring staff, registered Green Spring volunteers and Extension Master Gardeners will volunteer at the conference and be able to attend sessions on their volunteer day.

More information about Green Spring Gardens is at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/green-spring.

Interpreting a Rural Landscape to a Mosaic of Urban Visitors

(A version of this article was originally published in the National Association of Interpreters Magazine, Legacy)

farm-6.jpgI’m an old-school interpreter, and Freeman Tilden’s first principle is near and dear to my heart. “Any Interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” I work at Frying Pan Farm Park, a 1930’s-era farm that is a time-travelling revelation in one of the most densely populated, diverse counties in the United States.

One-point-one million people call 406-square mile Fairfax County home. That’s more people, in one county, than in eight states. More than 180 languages are spoken at home by the county’s elementary school students.

Communities vary from Alexandria’s urban, high-rise apartments close to the nation’s capital to Great Falls, where residents fight developmental pressures and try to sustain a semi-rural atmosphere that includes small horse farms. A few decades ago, Tysons was a farm crossroads with only a general store and a gas station. Today, it’s a rapidly developing urban center.

Fairfax County is full of dichotomy. It is the second-wealthiest county in the country with a median household income of more than $110,000, yet 28% of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. New single-family homes can be 4,000 square feet. Some immigrants rent single rooms, or even just a mattress, for their family.

 

This amazing and inspirational diversity of backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages makes relating, interpreting and connecting Fairfax County’s wide-ranging natural and cultural resources to park and museum visitors a bit challenging.

Seed-scattered among the concrete weeds are more than 420 parks of the Fairfax County Park Authority that protect nearly 10% of the county’s land. One of those parks is one of the county’s dichotomies — Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. This 1930s-era working farm preserves a piece of the once-prevalent rural landscape of dairy and mixed-use farms that blanketed Fairfax and neighboring counties for decades. Reaching more than 10,000 school students and a half-million visitors annually, the interpretive team at Frying Pan brings farming, local history and rural life to a broad cross-section of visitors.

The Challenge for Interpreters

Sean Redmiles and Claire Thomas, both Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG), are front-line interpreters at Frying Pan who have observed how different visitors from that cross-section react. Students who live close to Frying Pan or in the county’s rural western suburbs can relate to the familiar farm scene. Many have been to the park with their families, or they live on or near a farm. Finding common experiences to build upon with them comes quickly. They are ready to listen, pet a farm animal, and make new connections. Students without those rural experiences begin their journey in another place.

“There are often unexpected challenges that can make learning on the farm difficult for visitors who are not from rural areas,” said Redmiles. “The one we see all the time is the smell; kids sometimes spend the entire program with their noses covered or don’t want to come into the barn where our classroom is.”

Farm 7It can be a challenge for children to step from book knowledge of a cow, goat or sheep to meeting a 1,200-pound bovine that’s taller than them and moos loud enough to hurt their ears. “There are times where we’ve had kids who have never seen a goat before in their lives, presumably, and when I bring one in they are terrified,” Redmiles explained. “One child started screaming and throwing himself around the room the moment I brought our milking goat in.” It also can be challenging for the youngsters to differentiate between a goat and a sheep. The animals are about the same size and make similar noises.

 

“For people from the suburbs, you have to gently introduce them to the idea that farm animals, even well cared for ones like ours, are not pets. They are potential food sources,” added Thomas. While most farm visitors are omnivores, their only experience with meat is plastic-wrapped cuts at a grocery store or already cooked at a restaurant. Thomas finds a link. Although not ready to see the animals as food, they can relate to how the animals are treated. Youngsters may have pets, so Thomas talks about how farm staff care for farm animals by making sure they have shelter, good food and veterinarian care. When visitors are comfortable and make that connection, they may be ready for the next one — that these animals become food. That takes interpretive sensitivity.

The rural atmosphere can be a bridge to connecting with others. This 1930s-era farming is old-fashioned in the U.S.A., but many of those practices remain common in other countries. Visitors from those areas find the familiarity of the farm setting homey and reach out to staff, excited to share experiences from their home country.

Thomas recounted one of those moments: “Some visitors from rural El Salvador explained to me, mostly through mime and simple Spanish, that where they were from, they used the gourds we were growing to drink water from and that they were not just decorative as I had supposed. I’ve had a lot of moments on the farm where I’ve been able to connect with people from very different backgrounds than my own.

Frying Pan_051717_0064“I was once talking to a woman about how we milk our goats and how important they are to the farm when she told me that as a child she and her family fled from a civil war in Somalia and survived for two months on only the milk of a goat that they brought with them,” Redmiles added. “She said it was one of the saddest moments of her life that when they reached a town that took them in, her father slaughtered the goat for meat. She had tears in her eyes and she told me the goat we were looking at was the same type as the one her family had, and that she wouldn’t be here right now if not for that animal.”

Partnering with Schools

The park has teamed with a nearby elementary school to form a Green Team of students who combine school initiatives with park projects. The Green Team students maintain a vegetable garden on a real working farm. Few of these suburban kids have ever planted a seed or pulled a weed. Starting seeds in their school cafeteria under different kinds of grow lights, with or without heat mats, has become a school-wide science project. As the weather improves in spring, a group of 30 to 40 students come to the park with their parents and teacher twice a month. They transplant the vegetables they started at school and direct-seed more.

“The kids love to come and weed for about five minutes and then feed the weeds to the chickens,” said Frying Pan’s Senior Interpreter Patrick McNamara, CIG, who heads the project at Frying Pan. Worms can steal the show because some of the students have never held an earthworm. That’s an interpretive experience they will never forget and one of many “I didn’t know you could” moments they learn first-hand. Others are: I didn’t know potatoes grew like that, tomatoes could get that big, peas climbed a string, vegetables could taste so good. Some of the adults have that same first experience.

Baby Animals 0413_0139McNamara said that finding staff to share rural experiences is a challenge. In a generally affluent, well-educated county like Fairfax, understanding and support of environmental issues and protection is common. That’s a boon for recruiting staff at nature centers but not so much for a 20th century farm park. Many successful farm recruits come from visitors who live near the park or who brought their kids to enjoy the animals and are now looking to start a second career. Their passion for the park bridges the knowledge gaps of never having held a chicken, led a goat or learned early 20th century agricultural practices. Staff is hired for their communication skills, and the rest — tractor driving, animal handling and husbandry, crop production, and traditional homemaking — is learned on the job.

To “somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor” when those visitors have diverse backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages is an art. Unique visitors are tile chips of different shapes, colors and textures that come together to form a beautiful mosaic.

Author Yvonne Johnson is the Site Manager of Frying Pan Farm Park, Fairfax County Park Authority, Virginia