Stempson House Starting to Feel Like Home for Resident Curator

There’s nothing like a housewarming gift to make a house start to feel like a home.

StempsonSo, the Park Authority delivered a gift to Resident Curator Steven McCullough in May to help give his new house a custom touch. David Buchta and Stephanie Langton (pictured) visited Stempson House to present McCullough with a shadow box that held: a photo of the lease signing; a symbolic key with the Stempson house address, 9501 Furnace Road, engraved on it; and a plaque that reads…

Stempson House

Established: c. 1937

Re-established: 2017

McCullough is the first of what the Park Authority hopes will be many Resident Curators of its historic properties. The underused properties selected for the Resident Curator Program (RCP) have historic value, but the Park Authority has not had the means to preserve or manage them for public access.

The RCP finds people or organizations with the skills to refurbish the properties and allows them to use the properties rent-free while sprucing them up. In return, the resident curators agree to allow limited public access to the historic properties so residents of the community can learn about the history of these buildings.

Since McCullough signed his lease on December 3, 2017, he has been keeping a blog, “Stempson House: A Resident Curator’s Journey,” that charts his work on the house. The Stempson House was originally built as part of the Lorton Reformatory and Occoquan Workhouse. Likely constructed by inmates, it was a home to one of the prison guards and later converted to office space and used as the security office.

In January, five weeks into the restoration, McCullough was still trying to make the house habitable for himself and his family. He wrote in his blog:

“Projects included about 40 hours worth of scraping the walls of ceilings of cracked and peeling paint, plaster and old joint compound and about 32 hours of skim coating and priming followed by a fresh coat of paint on all the walls and ceilings. The upstairs has fresh carpet and all the hardwood floors on the first floor and staircase have been sanded and are ready for stain and refinishing. The kitchen is looking like a kitchen with brand new tile floors, base cabinets are in place and secured and granite countertops were just installed yesterday. I’m just waiting on my appliances and to hang the wall cabinets and the kitchen will be almost complete. The bathtub and surround were reglazed and looks practically brand new.

The plumbing was all repaired and updated in the basement and a new chimney liner was installed in preparation for a new boiler that will be installed as soon as the well is completed and hooked up. The list of needed upgrades and projects is still long, but the last 5 weeks has made a big dent and I am looking forward to moving in and making the Stempson House my home.”

McCullough received his certificate of occupancy at the end of February and moved in soon after. He lives there now with his daughter, dog and cat.

Since his January blog post, McCullough has finished work on the kitchen and is turning his sights on some exterior work this summer. His project list includes repairing and repainting the screened porch and wood deck. He has planted a new flower bed and will work on removing all overgrowth and vegetation from the house and surrounding landscape.

With added curb appeal, this property is definitely moving from Stempson House to McCullough’s Stempson home.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Elklick: Preserving a Preserve for the Long Term

Western Field at ElklickThe goal is simple. Restore a forest stand.

The task is not so simple, and it will take a long time.

The Natural Resources Branch of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division started a project in 2017 to restore a forest stand that was being taken over by invasive plants. The long-term goal is to replace those invasive plants with native species, replanting the area with native oaks and hickories to rebuild a rare forest type that exists in the forest stand next door.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a basic oak-hickory forest in our region generally would have a mix of a variety of oak and hickory trees along with white ash (Fraxinus americana) and tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The understory may have Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Eastern hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).

This is taking place in western Fairfax County at the Elklick Woodlands Natural Area PreserveNature preserves in Virginia are places that the state designates to protect significant natural areas. DCR says there are 63 of these dedicated natural areas in Virginia.

Elklick burnSo far, light conditions in the forest have been improved by the removal of invasive plants and some cedar trees through controlled burns and other means. The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) partnered with Designs for Greener Gardens in a no-cost exchange of their labor in return for some of the trees. This company previously has worked on arbors and custom fences at Green Spring Gardens.

FCPA ecologist Owen Williams says the project’s next steps are to continue managing invasive plants and then prepare a planting design. It’s a long-term project with long-term natural resource benefits for Fairfax County.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority. More information about Elklick can be found on the FCPA web site.

Confessions of a Master Gardener

For years, I followed a Saturday morning ritual. Walk the dog and head to the Farmer’s Market. I usually walked past the Master Gardener help table. On a few occasions, I stopped and asked a question or brought a sickly leaf for diagnosis. I always got answers and smiles. These were happy people doing what they loved.  Being an avid gardener, I thought I’d love to join the Master Gardener ranks, but becoming a MASTER GARDENER seemed intimidating and out of reach.

Master Gardener programs are volunteer programs that train individuals in the science and art of gardening. These individuals pass on the information they acquire during their training by becoming volunteers who advise and educate the public on gardening and horticulture. The first Master Gardener program was founded in 1972 by the Washington State Cooperative Extension in Seattle.

After years of wanting to become a Master Gardener, I went to a Green Spring Gardens’ information session on Master Gardening. I took up the pitch fork and joined. What have I learned? I learned I did not know as much about gardening as I thought. I learned you can’t be an expert on everything – shrubs, soil, fertilizer, propagation, vegetables, pruning and lots more. I learned that there are people who remember all the Latin names of plants.  I’m not one of them. There are those who can identify most trees.  Not me. There are Master Gardeners who are experts on weeds and native plants. I can’t say I know a great deal on these either.  What I learned most is that I don’t have to have all the answers. I can find the answers, and I know where to look. Each year, I learn more and gain confidence.

When I told family and friends that I was studying to become a Master Gardener, I became very popular.  Everyone has a lawn problem or a sick house plant. I got calls, texts, and emails filled with gardening questions. My most interesting inquiry came from my sister-in-law, who sent a text along with a picture and the comment, “This ugly thing stinks.”

2What was it? I was an informed Master Gardener and quickly texted the answer. It was a stinkhorn fungi (Phallaceae). They pop up unexpectedly, disappear as quickly, get their nutrients from wood mulch, and smell like putrid rotting meal. I felt confident and smug.  She, of course, didn’t know that just a few weeks prior, a neighbor had asked me the same question and I had researched and found the answer. She is still impressed. Dr. Joey Williamson from Clemson Cooperative Extension writes, “Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) often describe stinkhorns with adjectives such as amazing, interesting or unique. However, homeowners lucky enough to have these aromatic mushrooms suddenly appear in the yard just before an outdoor party will describe them as disgusting, shocking, foul-smelling or simply gross.” I’ve grown to like this unique mushroom.  They showed me that it’s okay to learn more as I help others.

So don’t hesitate to explore the Master Gardener program if you have an interest. There’s always someone who has as much to learn as you do.

See more about Master Gardeners at

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener.

Fairfax County’s Spy Park Featured at New Spy Museum

Foxstone sign_edited-1Foxes have a reputation for stealth and cunning, but for many years, a far more dangerous predator was at work in Foxstone Park in Vienna. His actions are so notorious, the park is now in the crosshairs at a new spy museum in New York City.

If you tour the SPYSCAPE museum in Midtown Manhattan, look for the exhibit showcasing one of the Fairfax County Park’s Authority’s iconic brown and yellow wooden signs. It is there to help tell the story of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of spying for Russia after using the entrance sign at Foxstone Park as a signaling device for dead drops.

Foxstone is a 14.4-acre park in the Hunter Mill District. It includes trails, playgrounds and a foot bridge that Hanssen used to conceal packages of government documents and disks. He would let his handlers know it was time for a pickup at the bridge by attaching a piece of adhesive tape to the park sign.

SPYSCAPE’s Deception Gallery is devoted to Hanssen’s story. The museum originally asked to purchase the actual park sign for display. However, the county has a responsibility to appropriately curate its collection pieces to preserve Fairfax County’s history. In the end, park staff and the museum agreed that a replica of the sign would be made to help tell the espionage tale the museum weaves.

Alan Crofford, Facilities Support Manager for the Park Authority’s Park Operations Division, says the request was a first for the agency. “It’s ironic that the request came to me, because I was the area manager for Foxstone Park when the arrest happened.” Crofford says he “never thought” back then that one day he would be handling such request.

SPYSCAPE emailed its original request to the Park Authority in June 2017, and by October, the replica sign was on its way to New York. It was crafted by Lee Sites, the carpenter behind all of the agency’s familiar wooden park signs. SPYSCAPE paid $982 for labor and materials, plus shipping, and had the sign in place for the museum’s February 2018 opening.

Foxstone Park has been included in local spy tours and class outings over the years as fascination with Hanssen’s story continues. In his counterintelligence role at the FBI, Hanssen had access to information about KGB agents who had defected or were secretly working for the Americans. He passed information to the Soviets and Russians that led to the compromise of three of those agents, revealed that the FBI had built a tunnel under the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, and provided details about America’s nuclear operations.

In the book “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked, and Loved,” author Pamela Kessler described Hanssen this way: “His colleagues at the FBI called him Doctor Death and The Mortician. He had a sallow complexion, a humorless stare, and stood as somber as a funeral director in his dark suit and white shirt. Robert Hanssen stuck with the old G-man dress code long after casual Fridays had begun.” While over time he had come under suspicion to some at the FBI, he was known to most as a caring father of six and a devout Catholic. Many colleagues were shocked at his arrest, but at the time, the Justice Department considered him “the most damaging spy in FBI history.”

Hanssen’s downfall came at Foxstone Park. He was arrested there on February 18, 2001, when he was caught hiding a bag of documents under the bridge. To potentially avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy charges for selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period.

Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility near Florence, Colorado. Known as the ADX, it is the highest-security prison in the country. The man who once walked the trails of Foxstone Park, within a mile of his Vienna home, is now in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Trees, Trees Everywhere, But None to Share

Tree 3Within the Fairfax County Park Authority is a group of skillful folks responsible for care of the multitude of park facilities, grounds, sport fields and trees. FCPA’s Forestry Operations has a unique role in Fairfax County in that it has responsibility for tree care in all 427 county parks. Ideally, the job would be a mixture of pruning, tree health management, specialized young tree care and tree removals. Sadly, tree removal accounts for 99 percent of Forestry’s work.

Not by choice.


Fairfax County’s ash trees are under attack from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This pest destroys 99.8 percent of all native ash trees it infects. Their activity causes trees to quickly die and become dangerous. The way EAB attacks, or feeds, destroys the tree’s water and nutrient-conducting ability, and essentially the tree starves. The result? A dead tree that could pose a serious risk to people and property.

Forestry and county contractors work daily to remove these trees. Since the start of 2015, Forestry has taken down nearly 1,000 ash trees, and the work has only just begun. This number will likely increase to upwards of 3,000 over the next three to four years.

Tree 1In the same recent time period, Forestry took down approximately 2,900 trees, in addition to the ash trees. More than 1,000 of those were oaks. Over the past five years, Fairfax County saw severe and environmentally stressful weather conditions, especially high summer temperatures and extreme drought.

In the spring of 2016, the area had a late frost, and it is likely this frost took place at the same time as oak bud break began. Many trees were not able to overcome the effects of that frost damage because of stress from the previous drought and temperature extremes. As a result, the weaker trees had higher mortality rates. Unlike EAB’s impact, the oak decline syndrome should lessen in the years ahead.


Do you remember the windstorm on March 2? It was so windy that day, I got to work a half-hour before I left home. We had quite a blow, and the old yarn about how March comes in like a lion couldn’t hold a candle to what we experienced this year. The storm damage was county-wide, mostly broken and uprooted trees.

Forestry crews worked all day Saturday, March 3, and will continue to work on storm clean-up for several weeks to come. The county tree service contractor will be busy with clean-up, too. The combination of extreme high wind gusts — up to 75 mph at Dulles Airport — and wet soil set up a “perfect storm.” Within three days, the Forestry Operations call center received more than 100 calls for tree damage, and more calls continue to trickle in daily.

The trees most often seen during site inspections were Virginia pine, red maple, tulip poplar and ash. Limbs and branches made up much of the debris and often made access difficult in some locations. Nevertheless, many county parks were open within a day or two after the storm, and park patrons had the opportunity to enjoy parkland due to the efforts of all the Park Operations staff.

If you have a tree concern, visit the Park Operations work request page: Report A Parkland Tree Concern

If you have storm damage, visit this county site: What to Do If You Have Storm Damage From a Tree (Insurance Info)

Author Scott Diffenderfer is an Urban Forester for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Learn more about tree health in the blog post, “The Wind in the Willows…” at

The Wind in the Willows, and Oaks, and Pines, and …

Upright Kidwell Farmhouse tree

March of 2018 came in like a lion, roaring with sustained winds of 25 to 30 miles an hour. Predictably, trees fell on power lines causing fires that Virginia Department of Forestry personnel worked hard to put out. News outlets reported on the mayhem falling trees caused – power outages, traffic snarls, property destruction and, unfortunately, some fatalities.  While the short-term focus in the emergency was on the death and destruction caused by several thousand falling trees, the long-term story is that hundreds of millions of trees did not fall.

Wood is strong and flexible; that is why humans have built with it for millennia. Not only have trees evolved to withstand strong winds, those winds make trees stronger. Just as lifting weights can trigger human muscle growth, swaying in the wind causes wood to grow. The alternating compression and tension on cells when a tree sways causes those cells to grow more wood. The result is the taper at the base of a tree.

Kidwell Farmhouse fallen tree 2018Most of the trees that fell during the early March 2018 windstorm did so because they were already dead or dying. Most people can recognize a dead tree, at least during the growing season. However, most people cannot recognize a dying tree. These before and after pictures show a tree at Frying Pan Farm Park that failed during the windstorm.  Last year it had leaves on it, but when it blew over, it revealed that its root system was rotten. Can you see the root rot in the standing tree? Look closely at the crown and notice the thinning of the leaves on the edges. To a trained eye, this is a sign of root problems. This is why trees, like pets and people, need to see their health care professionals regularly. Certified arborists are tree health care professionals.

The long-term story of the March windstorm is not that trees fell and caused mayhem. It is that strong healthy trees withstood the wind. And trees grow strong and healthy when they are properly cared for by professionals.

Author Jim McGlone is an Urban Forest Conservationist with the Virginia Department of Forestry. A version of this article ran on the VDOF blog at  Learn more about trees in Fairfax County in the blog, “Trees, Trees Everywhere…” at

Green Spring’s Mysterious Ruin

RuinFrom the Great Sphinx in Egypt to prehistoric Stonehenge in England, many mysterious structures have stumped historians attempting to determine their origin and purpose. Green Spring has its own architectural mystery, which lies in ruin across the lane from the Spring House. It’s not an ancient monument, but the remains of a small cobblestone farm structure. Yet even modest vernacular structures can provide important records of everyday life. This one intrigues visitors and staff alike. Why and when was it built?

Nestled into the hillside, the thirteen foot square four-chambered structure is mortared cobblestone and brick with a thin coat of concrete. We’ve long referred to it as the “fermentation tank” because descendants of Fountain Beattie, who lived and farmed at Green Spring from 1878 to the early 1900s, described its use as a tank to ferment the juices of fruits grown on the farm.

Beattie’s 300-acre farm was a thriving concern with dairy cattle and orchards…. and a burgeoning liquor business! He operated a licensed still in the c.1830 Spring House, where he distilled fermented fruits into applejack and brandies. He also operated a cider mill. On September 12, 1895, the Alexandria Gazette reported: “Mr. Fountain Beattie at his farm in Fairfax county, west of this city, has a steam cider mill which is kept running constantly and farmers for miles around are taking their apples there to be ground into cider.”

At the time, most cider fermentation was done in wooden barrels. In his 1890 guide, “The Cider Makers’ Handbook,” J. M. Trowbridge suggests that American cider makers adopt the French fermentation method for champagne using “large vats or tanks…where such conveniences are at hand or attainable.” Beattie was enlightened and progressive and may well have decided to try this out in a four-chambered tank, with a different product fermenting in each chamber.

In a c.1900 photograph, the tank is in mint condition, its corners square and its walls smooth and pristine. In 1999, Fountain’s grandson Butler Beattie recalled: “My grandfather was much more interested in the future than in the past. He used concrete in the spring house at Green Spring Farm. I heard that was the first use of concrete in that way in Fairfax County and possibly in all of Virginia.” No evidence has been found of Beattie’s innovative use of concrete in the Spring House, but perhaps his experimental fermentation tank benefitted from it.

Yet it’s questionable whether Beattie built the structure from scratch for this express purpose. Its outdoor location and configuration weren’t entirely practical. So we wondered if he might have repurposed a structure that was already there. In 2010, we consulted archaeologist Dennis Pogue, then director of preservation at Mount Vernon and an expert in historical farm structures. Dr. Pogue examined our ruin and agreed that it could have been adapted for Beattie’s purposes but was more likely to have originated some time earlier…as a water cistern.

Cisterns were common in homes and on farms throughout the 19th century, providing collection and long-term storage of rainwater for domestic use, irrigation and animals. Early cisterns were simple, plaster-lined dugouts underneath houses. By the mid-1800s, many cisterns looked like our structure: large, semi-buried or above-ground tanks made from stone, brick and cement, with partitions within to filter out debris. Shapes varied, but some were square and flat-topped. Some examples have surviving fill pipes that delivered rainwater diverted from nearby roofs. (The source of water to ours is unknown.) Others still have iron bolts to attach a wooden cover, a necessary precaution to prevent drownings and to keep out pollutants. A vengeful neighbor might even throw an animal carcass into his enemy’s cistern or well.

We don’t know of anyone dumping anything nasty into Fountain Beattie’s fermentation tank, but in 1890 somebody did burn down his barn. Beattie’s second job as a revenue officer took him across the countryside to shut down illicit stills. A disgruntled bootlegger may have been out for revenge. The loss of the barn, along with stock and feed, put an end to dairy activities on the farm, but Beattie’s legal liquor enterprise flourished and our little ruin may be an inspiring example of adaptive reuse by this visionary farmer!

Adapting buildings for purposes other than those for which they were designed is meant to give them a new lease of life, but our ruin is deteriorating quickly. Remedial work is planned to help preserve what’s left of it. This will include protective fencing, a cover to keep out debris and re-pointing and stabilization of loose mortar. Analysis of the mortar may yield more information about the date of construction.

Interpretive signage will tell visitors as much as we know about it and we’ll continue to research its origin and purpose. It’s not a riddle on the scale of the Sphinx or Stonehenge, but our mysterious little ruin is still a carrier of the history of Green Spring and our community, our farming heritage and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who labored here.

Author Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.