Tag Archives: History

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

Mysterious Timbers Unearthed At Sully

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You never know what might turn up. Miss Utility is always warning us not to dig without checking where utility lines lay. And as we well know, in this historic Chesapeake area, something valuable may be there.

There’s a new sewer line being laid near the new Sully Historic Site Visitor Center. On December 19, 2013, the Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch (CRMPB) received a curious and inviting message from the installation site. Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling went to check it out.

After an initial reconnaissance, he set aside a day to record his findings. In the words of the cultural resource professionals, the excavation of the sewer trench impacted an archaeological feature.

In short, they found something.

What they found was another trench, generally oriented along a southwest – northeast axis.  The crew excavating the sewer trench ceased working after noticing metal roofing and wooden logs in the ground and contacted the CRMPB.  Chris found that construction debris at the base of the discovered trench contained logs and modern (within the last 75 years) roofing materials.  However, there also were large, hand-hewn timbers, including one with a mortise and tenon joint.  There were “voids” below the logs and timbers, which suggests that the trench goes deeper into the ground than what could be seen.

The critical part of this discovery is that the construction technique of these hand-hewn timbers has not been much used in the past 100 years and hasn’t been common for 200 years.  The timbers are inconsistent with the rest of the deposit, which also contained a 1960 penny.

Chris’ first guess about the area is that sometime in the mid-20th century a ditch or gully was filled to grade. There were areas where the logs, timbers and roofing materials were covered with plastic, and the plastic had approximately three feet of “clean” fill dirt placed on top of it.  The logs and roofing are contemporary, but the timbers must have come from a historic structure.  Where that structure was, and what it was, cannot be determined.

If we assume that the timbers came from a structure that was located on that spot, whatever was there likely was there in the early years of Sully Historic Site.

Sully Historic Site Manager Carol McDonnell noted that the find is around the site’s 18th century barnyard, so those timbers may have been ones that were saved, but it would be hard to place what structure they came from.  A total excavation of the barnyard area is among the future plans for Sully, but there’s no funding for it at this time.

The excavation crew did not need to dig deeper, so Chris asked for a layer of stone to be placed above the discovery and that the sewer be laid on top of the stone.  Although that means no more searching at this time, it also means Chris’ records will show where this feature is so that any future workers in the area will know it’s there before they start digging.

Chris’s early notes cite the excavation crew and their managers for taking the time to call the CRMPB office and allowing cultural resource staffers to do what was needed. As a result, something was found, and nothing significant was impacted.

For the time being, we know that some structure was there, and we’ve opened the door for someone in the future to have some fun digging up a piece of the past that isn’t going anywhere.

This blog was compiled from notes written by Fairfax County Park Authority Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling.

Keeping Promises At Colvin Run Mill

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

We made a promise last spring.

About six months ago, Colvin Run Mill entered a contest to win grant money through
the Fairfax County Park Foundation. We sought help, asking you to join the site’s supporters and cast votes through social media outlets on behalf of the mill. You met the challenge, in the manner of the old political joke, by voting early and often. The result was a fourth-place finish among 24 historic sites in the contest and a $75,000 grant for Colvin Run Mill, the largest grant in the site’s history.

Colvin Run Mill has actually been spinning slightly out of sync over the years – a bit like playing guitar with one string inappreciably out of tune. Inside the mill are two giant, horizontal power shafts called counter shafts. They are key parts in the system that turns the runner stone, a French buhr stone used for fine grinding. The runner stone is the top stone that turns above a stationary bedstone when the mill grinds grain. At Colvin Run, the first of those counter shafts connects to the second one through a metal attachment, sort of like railroad cars locking together. That second shaft powers the ‘country’ stone, a style of stone often used to grind corn.

At Colvin Run, that first shaft is slightly warped and thus unable to turn the second shaft. There wasn’t enough money designated to fix that problem when the mill restoration began in 1968, so Colvin Run has been turning only one millstone over the years.

We promised that if we earned some money from the Partners in Preservation contest that we’d use it to fix that and some other issues at the historic site. That would free up bond money that had been designated for mill repairs for other needs.

Now, we’re keeping our word. The Park Authority hired HITT Contracting, who turned to Ben Hassett and his Lynchburg company, B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, to lend a hand in the repairs at Colvin Run. Hassett-Millwrights specializes in repair, maintenance, restoration and reconstruction of wind-and water-powered agricultural and historic sites. The company has worked on historic mills in California, Maryland and Virginia, and will endeavor to preserve as much of Colvin Run’s original material as possible.

Hassett first removed the shims that locked the gears in place on the shaft, and then suspended those gears so that they hang freely. That allowed him to remove the estimated 800-pound counter shaft from the mill and take it back to his shop. It will be used as a guide for the creation of a new counter shaft that will be fashioned out of white oak, matching the material used in the original mill. The selected tree is at Hassett’s shop and was chosen with consideration for its growth pattern so that it is unlikely to twist and can withstand the torque it will endure in the mill. About 100 pounds of metalwork on each end of the counter shaft will be removed, re-milled if needed, and reused on the new shaft.

The next step is the one that has the staff at Colvin Run Mill excited. The new shaft will be attached to the second counter shaft and, with the warp removed from the system, that second counter shaft will turn the country stone. That stone has never turned at Colvin Run. The grinding station at which it will sit has run at least one time in the past, but no stones were in place at the time. The country stone will grind corn because its pattern does not produce flour as fine as the French buhr stone’s product.

Colvin Run staff and Hassett are documenting the process step-by-step with photos of the work along the way. That will preserve a record of the repairs being made now and provide a guideline for any future work the mill requires.

This current project, which continues the mill restoration that began in 1968, will last until late 2014. The current phase of work on the mill’s first floor is expected to be completed by spring so that public tours during the mill’s prime season won’t be affected. Subsequent work is planned on the building’s second and third floors. That will include designing and installing grain cleaning equipment, completing the mill’s system of flour delivery, completing an internal rope hoist, and changing some fittings to a more period-appropriate design.

So once again, thank you. The mill will soon be tuned and grinding again. With the help of county residents who cast votes in the Partners in Preservation contest, the Fairfax County Park Authority is able again to protect resources.

We work and play well together, and our parks are better off for it.

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Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications in the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Candlelight Tours Illuminate 200 Years of Holiday Celebrations at Sully

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It’s dark. There’s no electricity. It’s cold.

Perfect.

The perfect time and conditions for you to celebrate December’s holiday season.

Sully Historic Site is lighting up December’s dark with holiday spirit and inviting you to party with the shadows cast by a house aglow with candlelight.

The one-time home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress, is the centerpiece of Sully, and during the holidays there’s much to do, highlighted by the site’s annual candlelight tours. This year’s themes include a Civil War Christmas on Dec. 14, a Jane Austen Christmas on Dec. 15, and Victorian era holidays on Dec. 21. There are special tour times set aside for groups and scouts.

Register online in advance for the tour and associated events.

The candlelight tour programs, in the low light of sense-heightening evening, reach beyond the house and present 18th century life at night and Christmas customs of several different time periods.

Visitors will meet costumed characters of a past century in the house, strolling on the lawn, or at any of the outbuildings – a kitchen with open hearth cooking, a laundry, a connecting walkway, a smokehouse, a dairy and a representative slave cabin. You’ll have a chance to chat with folks who’ll convince you that you’ve stepped back in time into a small, Victorian street market lit by cresset torches, metal baskets on poles filled with burning wood that cast substantial light.

The evening is lit mostly by candlelight because that’s the way Lee’s family lived. Candlelight creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood. You’re dropping in on friends, not watching a performance. Your volunteer hosts are experts in history, architecture, the Lee family, period clothing, candle making or period cooking.

It’s a leisurely evening that, depending on the night, could include a puppet show, dancing, music or visits with soldiers encamped in the yard.

It’s a festive scene at a festive time. Sully has stories to share from Christmases dating back to the early 1800s — more than 200 years of holidays that you’re invited to join this holiday season.

Come out this December to Sully Historic Site and be part of the third century of celebrations that turn gloomy winter skies into days filled with holiday spirit. Sully is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly, Va.

Co-author Barbara Ziman is the events coordinator at Sully Historic Site, and
David Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications in the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Let’s Make History

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McLean High School students are making history at Sully Historic Site.

Each year students at McLean take part in Project Enlightenment, a program in which they recreate a day in the life of 18th century America. They adopt and exhaustively research historic associates of the founding fathers and then bring their findings and talents to local historic settings. They become statesmen, philosophers, scientists, artists, and musicians who interact with each other and with an audience in a program that both entertains and instructs. It is an authentic, lively performance complete with period costume, music, dance and demonstrations.

Since the program’s founding 20 years ago, the students have portrayed more than 150 historical figures. Some are famous, like Thomas Jefferson and Dolley Madison. Others are less well known, like chemist Joseph Priestly, who befriended George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Some are ladies or gentlemen farmers, doctors, actors and musicians who might have known Sully residents Richard Bland Lee and his wife Elizabeth. The students weave these seemingly disparate persons together based on common historic threads. They become detectives delving into nuances of history that are often lost in textbooks and glossed over by standardized testing.

At Sully, members of Project Enlightenment have presented an alfresco performance of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and have portrayed local gentry during Colonial Day, an annual celebration of rural life in Virginia. One group used historic astronomy equipment to help visitors enjoy and understand last year’s Transit of Venus. Some have stepped outside their usual interpretive time period to help with Victorian programs. And they’ll be back at Sully for Historic All Hallows Eve on October 26, 2013.

The program is a valuable opportunity for students to see the intricacy of the causes and effects that led us to where we are today. Studying history in this way goes far in making them life-long learners and knowledgeable citizens. Furthermore, they have the chance to “do well by doing good,” to quote Poor Richard, by teaching what they have learned to others in an environment that transcends the classroom in splendor, beauty, and stirring atmosphere. The program incorporates the concept of “virtue through good deeds,” allowing students to become teachers and impart their knowledge to others for the greater good, an undertaking that would have pleased the men like Washington who saw civic duty as an indispensable part of life.

These students adopt history as part of themselves, which in fact it already is. Be it a mock debate between Republicans and Federalists or a re-creation of Dr. Franklin’s experiments in electricity, the portrayal of what might be a dusty footnote in a history textbook becomes a living lesson with a permanence that all teachers desire.

The most surprising element of Project Enlightenment is that these students participate on a purely volunteer basis. They receive no grades or gold stars. They do it for the enjoyment of learning, a fact that I find most uncommon and immensely rewarding as their teacher. They are motivated by an academic spirit without pretense or insincerity. Consequently, the students fondly embrace their experience in a genuine sense – a sense of belonging to their characters, the era, our founding fathers, and the historical site itself. We believe that this is what an appreciation of our heritage is truly about.

In his 27 years as a physics teacher at McLean High School, author Dean Howarth has tried to push the envelope of “conventional” classroom strategies. He has long promoted the value of interdisciplinary education, feeling that his students will not only master but also appreciate what they learn in physics if they can see how it relates to the other fields of study. He is the sponsor of McLean’s Project Enlightenment.

General Store Gets A General Makeover

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So you think things change as time goes by? Maybe not so much.

In 1902, the teddy bear was introduced. Teddy Roosevelt became the first president to ride in a car. Michigan beat Stanford 49-0 in the first Rose Bowl. The first movie theatre in the USA opened. And Mark Cockrill was running a general store near Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia.

Today, 111 years later, teddy bears and movies are ubiquitous. Presidents still ride in cars.  Michigan is still beating Stanford in football (although Stanford did spoil an undefeated Wolverine season in the 1972 Rose Bowl). And Mark Cockrill’s store is still open at Colvin Run Mill.

Maybe the events haven’t changed, but the trappings around them have. Teddy bears come in innumerable styles, presidential cars are armored, football gear has adapted, and movie theatres are plusher. And so also there are changes coming to Mark Cockrill’s store.

The Colvin Run General Store is undergoing a bit of a makeover. There are preparations under way, formally called a furnishings plan, that will help us show you what a typical general store that might have been found in the Colvin Run community looked like. In order to do this, we had to pinpoint a time period so that we can focus on accurately furnishing and interpreting the store.

We picked 1902.

That’s when Mark Cockrill operated a general store in Colvin Run and a family named Millard owned Colvin Run Mill. Cockrill was the area’s postmaster, but five more years would pass before free mail delivery would be available to rural areas like those around the mill. Hard to picture, huh? That area just a stone’s throw from Tysons used to be rural.

There are post office boxes on display now at the store, and they will stay in place so that you can learn about the store’s role in mail delivery.

You also might soon see something that many people born this century haven’t seen – a telephone. We know that the store was a hub of communication, and we have discovered that telephone lines ran right in front of the store along the Alexandria Leesburg Pike in the late 1890s. We hope to find a 1900-era phone to put on display.

Other future display items will come from Mark Cockrill’s records. His letterhead from the 1890s and just past the turn of the century, the receipts for goods that he and his father acquired, possibly for resale. Neighbors would probably have come to the general store to shop for groceries, hardware, shoes, hats, and other things that they couldn’t make or trade on their farms. We hope to have new artifacts that match those on the receipts for you to see, and those items won’t be so far above your head that you can’t get a good look. Current artifacts are on display, but high on shelves and out of reach.

The changes also mean that we will scale back on the modern items sold in the store. If you are a regular visitor, you may notice that we are not restocking the shelves after current stock is sold. Once we furnish and rearrange the store, we are going to be more selective in what we offer for purchase. We will have items similar to what you might have purchased in a 1902 general store, like the “penny candy” Mark was famous for handing out to the youngsters in the community. We will continue to offer high quality Colvin Run Mill merchandise, such as the mugs and coasters that are made in the United States. We’ll also introduce our own label McCutchen’s jams and jellies to compliment the canning memorabilia on display.

So come see the changes and come see what was. We may be changing the trappings, but Mark Cockrill’s general store is still open and is still a place to touch history.

Author Kathryn Blackwell is a historian based at Colvin Run Mill.

Teens, Digs, Toys And Antiquities: A new archaeology program at ECLP

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Fairfax County teens and tweens with an interest in archaeology have a chance in August to spend a week side-by-side with a professional archaeologist excavating an historic site.

It’s an opportunity to get out in the field and do the real thing.

Two week-long archaeology programs for 12-to-18 year-olds are coming up at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly. Eric Malmgren of ECLP and Chris Sperling of the James Lee Center, home of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s archaeology offices, have prepared a small site for excavation, and it’s a site that almost certainly will produce multiple finds.

The chosen site is near a dairy complex that was established when the park was a family farm in the 1700s and 1800s. There probably will be broken pieces of equipment and pottery that were used around the dairy. ECLP Manager John Shafer thinks the potential for numerous discoveries is so likely that he says, “It’s going to be like they’re opening up a toy chest.” Anticipated discoveries would include artifacts that have not been seen in hundreds of years.

There’s a bonus. The site overlooks a clean spring, which means it’s an area that Native Americans may have frequented. That opens the possibility of finding artifacts that could be 8,000 years old.

Teens in the class will work with Megan Veness of the James Lee Center and learn about the entire process of archaeological work. They’ll take home some of the tools they’ll use, such as knee pads, a trowel and notebook. They’ll also gain an appreciation for applied science and cultural history through working as part of a professional team — and maybe even an appreciation for all those dishes washed and rooms cleaned at home. Washing and sorting artifacts is part of the job. The experience also includes learning multi-discipline skills such as GPS point and grid layout, excavating, documenting, cataloguing and proper preservation of the artifacts.

Instructors will explain the context and history of whatever is found and will make connections to the original people who lived at the site. The plan is to present the teens with an experience that could enhance college resumes and give them something to write about in their college essays. And it’s a hands-on chance to dig deep into a career possibility.

The Archaeological Dig Experience runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week of Aug. 5-9 and again from Aug. 12-16.  The program cost for Fairfax County residents is $425 and $440 for non-residents.