Tag Archives: Northern Virginia

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.

My Favorite Drive

Percheron draft horses

Jesse and Michael, Frying Pan Farm Park’ s Percheron draft horses

Have you ever dreaded a day because you fear change? You have something great, but it has to leave, and you are not sure if you will like the replacement. A year in school, a new teacher, a boyfriend or girlfriend. How often was your fear replaced with gratification, and you even had trouble remembering why you were worried?

That happened at Frying Pan Farm Park with the arrival of the Jackson boys.

Years ago, when I began working at Frying Pan, there were eight Belgian Draft horses walking those fields. Kidwell Farm housed two aged mares named Kit and Kay. All the other horses were their offspring. There was a huge, light blonde gelding named Dusty, his younger brother Sam, and a cousin named Pete. Their color favored toward sorrel with white manes and tails. They had two younger sisters, Sara and Leigh. Kay was nursing a young gelding named Major when I arrived.

Over the next couple of years, for a number of reasons, the demonstration farm sold all the males and kept the team of mares and the team of fillies. Kit and Kay performed traditional work and powered interpretive wagon rides. They were huge draws, especially during special events. There were several attempts to train Sara and Leigh to eventually replace their mothers; however they just couldn’t be trusted in a public atmosphere under harness. Some said they were spoiled, and others said they were just too ornery. They were eventually sold to another farm, and Kidwell Farm faced a dilemma.

The farm needed a new team.

Kit and Kay were Kidwell cornerstones and beloved by thousands. They were valuable for routine farm tasks and special events; however they couldn’t perform in a routine and continual manner. They were forced into retirement and landed out west on another farm. Sarah and Leigh were still on hand, but more for show than work.

The task of finding another team that could perform so many duties with a staff of people who didn’t grow up working draft horses on a regular basis seemed impossible. Staff traveled through three states and looked at a dozen teams of multiple breeds — Belgians, Clydesdales, Suffolks, and crosses.

Some could pull hayrides well but couldn’t do field work. Some were great except in public. Some teams had one horse that was calm, well trained and could do everything, but its partner wasn’t as good. I remember traveling through the hills of West Virginia and viewing the most beautiful team you ever saw, but they scared me to death, and that was on their own farm. We saw one team with a lame horse. The farmer told us that would get better. We didn’t think so.

My biggest concern was finding a team that would not get spooked. I wanted them bombproof, a term used in the equestrian world to represent an extremely calm horse that can handle any surprise.

I got a call from someone in the Virginia Draft Horse Association who told me there was a team in Manassas we should see. Honestly, I thought Manassas? How would a decent team of horses be in the urbanization of Manassas? They were geldings, about 15 years old, and Percherons. I’d never worked with Percherons, and we wanted to stick with Belgians because the park had had success with them. However, I didn’t want to seem unappreciative, so I said we’d go take a look.

A few of us travelled to Catharpin, near the battlefield in Manassas, and arrived at a small farmette with some paddocks, a barn, sheds and a nice house. We saw some ponies and a few riding horses. As we met with the farmer, he showed us two large, solid black draft horses with little stars of white hair in the middle of their faces. Jesse and Michael. The farmer told us that you could only tell them apart by the gray hair around Jesse’s nose. They looked very healthy and in great shape. They were comfortable with us walking around for close inspections and petting them. I picked up hooves, and the horses cooperated. The farmer told me they were named after Jesse Jackson and Michael Jackson. Jesse was more muscular and a little heavier than Michael. Michael was taller, better balanced and better looking.

The farmer hitched them up and began answering our questions. Jesse and Michael came out of the hills of Tennessee, had done some logging and farm work, could plow, rake, hay, disk fields, and had occasionally pulled hayride wagons. If they had a problem, it was that they were almost always trained better than their drivers. My ears perked when the farmer said he took them to the annual Christmas parade in downtown Manassas – a public experience.

The horses didn’t move as he harnessed them up and connected them together. As he drove them out behind the barn, the farmer said he loved them but needed to sell them because he was losing some acreage that he used for grazing. He hitched them up to a wagon that he used for the parades and drove us out to a field, telling us stories about Jesse and Michael. We came to an open gate and a few feet of dirt road, then nothing. You couldn’t see anything. The road disappeared. As we neared the entrance, I saw the road dropped sharply about 100 feet. It was an old dirt path crossed with windy ditches of obvious erosion. My fellow Frying Pan staffers looked at each other. Nobody spoke. We were thinking, “What is this nut going to do with us?”

The farmer talked on. Jesse and Michael started down the hill. We held on. Then, something amazing.

A team of horses is the “stop and go” of a wagon ride. They’re the engine. The team works side by side and even with each other. But this was beyond just working side by side.
As they began to go down the hill, Jesse and Michael swung their butts out and away from each other, stretching the harnesses out as far as they could. They turned their backsides out so far they were looking at each other. Then they sidestepped all the way down the hill, controlling the wagon speed. Our eyes were bigger than the ones on the horses. The farmer said he didn’t train them to do it, it was just their instinct.

I started thinking that I bet they’re not as good in public situations as promised. As we came to the end of the field, the farmer said we’d go back to the barn. Again, we looked at each other and wondered about climbing the huge hill we’d just descended. Instead, the farmer pulled up to busy Route 234 where cars were crossing the horses’ faces at about 60 miles per hour. The horses just stood there. Then a slap of lines on their backs, and the team pulled out onto 234 in a gap between cars. Our mouths looked ready to catch bugs. The horses started trotting and remained under great control. Cars flew by, cars turned, cars passed us. Jesse and Michael could not have cared less.

I was sold.

Michael and Jesse arrived at Frying Pan shortly after Sara and Leigh departed. The public instantly loved them, and the horses became famous. We worked together like I had driven them for a long time. Michael loved to start off fast. I would hold him back for about 10 minutes until he calmed. Other times I would let him trot to burn that energy off a little, although that may not have pleased his partner. Jesse was calmer and conserved his energy. About a half hour into their work, Michael would drop back and Jesse would wind up pulling most of the load. I often wondered if they spoke about that back in the stall. I learned a lot about teamwork from watching those guys.

Draft horses Jesse and Michael after a December 2009 blizzard.

Draft horses Jesse and Michael after a December 2009 blizzard.

Years went by, so did wagon rides, demonstrations in the crop fields and thousands of hands rubbing the long faces of these gentle giants. As they aged, the team went into a semi-retirement. They would get hitched up for special occasions and events, and each December they’d pull Santa around with anxious kids and their parents. One year, Jesse decided he was done providing that service, and he made that decision in the middle of a ride. I could not persuade him to finish. I disembarked the wagon and led the team back to the barn. They never pulled Santa again.

The last public time Jesse and Michael were hitched was in 2010 to haul some dignitaries around the site as Fairfax County Park Authority celebrated its 60th anniversary. The boys didn’t pull a wagon again. They went into retirement and were often the first things people saw as they arrived at the park. They remained some of the very few animals referred to by name rather than species. I am sure there are more pictures of Jesse and Michael than of any other feature at Frying Pan Farm Park.

I visited Jesse and Michael in the late summer of 2013. Surpassing 35 years of age, Jesse resembled an old man with muscle tone absent and simply not looking as tall and powerful as before. Michael still looked in great shape with his body confirmation still intact. His eyes weren’t as clear as they once were, his face had some grey, and veterinarians had told us there were internal concerns.

As when anyone or anything gets older and is no longer with us, we feel sad. I was, that day. But I found myself remembering all that these guys had done for thousands of people over the decades. They were an era of Frying Pan Farm Park, a huge part and attraction to the site during a burst of park visitation and growth.

In my 22-year park career, including days at Frying Pan and now at agency headquarters, I have had hundreds of great days. But the best days are by far the ones spent behind the butts of those gentle giants. Taking Jesse and Michael out to the field to work or driving them on the road for a wagon ride for the public, I felt like the type of farmer my dad and his dad were. Those days allowed me, for a while, to make my life journey parallel that of my father, grandfather and my heroes. So I thank Michael and Jesse for that and for so much on behalf of thousands who forged their own experiences because of the team. I am proud to say that I was the first person to drive those horses at Frying Pan Farm Park and the last one to have them in harness there. Drive on guys, you will be missed.

Shortly after author Todd Brown wrote this remembrance, Michael died on September 12, 2013, at age 34. Brown is the Operations Branch Manager in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division and a former site manager of Frying Pan Farm Park.

Frying Pan Says Good-Bye To Popular Horse

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The Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park and the Fairfax County Park Authority are saddened by the passing of Michael, one of the park’s Percheron draft horses. Michael was 34 years old and died on September 12, 2013. Michael was born in Tennessee and moved to Virginia in the 1990s. Michael and his teammate Jesse came to Frying Pan Farm Park in 1999. Since their arrival, they provided wagon rides and farm demonstrations. Michael was an integral part of our educational programs and both were popular additions at special events. Michael and Jesse were often the first and last stop for many of our regular visitors, and some of the few farm animals that were known by name.

Michael was considered by the staff members as a very powerful, athletic, attractive horse with high-quality confirmation. He was extremely well-trained and could perform a variety of farm and park tasks whenever asked. He will be greatly missed.

The staff, the people who take care of the animals on a daily basis, our volunteers, and park management share the public’s concern over Jesse’s well-being during this period of adjustment. The staff will be working with the park’s Friends group, veterinarians and equestrian experts to assist Jesse in this transition as needed.

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.

A Walk On A Winter Day At Riverbend Park

Winter leaves

Recently the high temperature at Riverbend Park was 20 degrees. The frigid air and breeze as I walk along the banks of the Potomac remind me that we are still in the grip of winter, and a look around at the dead leaves and barren trees seems to confirm this. All looks withered and frozen and life appears to be on hold. But a closer inspection reveals that much is still going on in the natural world. A winter wren tosses dead leaves under the roots of an old sycamore tree leaning out over the water. A flock of tiny golden-crowned kinglets flits through the branches over my head, seemingly oblivious to my presence as they search for food to sustain their active metabolisms. A brown creeper scours the bark of the sycamore, his feathers ruffled against the cold.

Canada geese on the Potomac RiverOn the river the ever present Canada geese, apparently impervious to the cold water, duck their heads under the surface to scoop up underwater plants, their white rumps providing some relief from the monochromatic winter landscape. The honks and cackles of the geese constantly remind me that I am not the only one braving the cold today. The ring-necked ducks, and coots are grouped together on the far side of the river, and the brilliant white and black male buffleheads whizz by on the current before taking wing and flying back to the flock. A lone black duck paddles towards a small island and two mallards are swept along on the fast moving water. The river is alive with waterfowl and three common mergansers skid to a halt on the water to take their places in the flock, the female’s red head contrasting with the brilliant green of the males.

And what of the plants? A casual glance reveals only dead or frozen vegetation, but look closer and there are the chickweed seedlings, the garlic mustard leaves, and the tiny yellow flower buds of the spicebush, primed to burst forth as soon as spring arrives. The tiny furnaces that are the spikes of the skunk cabbage make their own heat and will even break through the snow to be one of our earliest flowering plants. Underground the spring ephemerals are primed to emerge as soon as the weather turns warmer; the corms of the spring beauty and the trout lily are packed with food to feed the growing leaves and flowers.

Potomac RiverOver this wintry scene the white skeletal shapes of the sycamores form a stunning backdrop to the fast flowing river, most beautiful when viewed at sunset. The branches hanging low over the water are adorned with little bundles of ice, like transparent stalactites. Under the seemingly lifeless branches the gray squirrel hops and digs, constantly searching for those nuts it buried in the fall, and the sentry call of the carolina wren breaks the silence as I make my way towards the visitor center in search of warmth. Finally, an eastern bluebird flits by in search of food. Hopefully he will choose one of our nest boxes in the spring.

Written by Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park

The Improbable Mr. Wilson: A Tale Of A Wandering Warbler

There has been a lot of chirping about a little yellow bird at Huntley Meadows Park recently. Ever since a Wilson’s warbler was unexpectedly seen during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on Sunday, December 30, staff, volunteers, and visitors have been curious about the bird’s origin. A tiny patch of orange plumage above the bird’s beak sparked a debate and led to the endearing moniker, The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

According to park manager Kevin Munroe, Wilson’s warblers, like most warblers found in the park, are neo-tropical migrants, which means they breed somewhere in the northeastern U.S. and Canada each spring and summer before traveling south to spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Munroe says it’s not unheard of to see a misplaced migrant at this time of year, but they typically either move on or expire due to a lack of food sources. For a specialist in hunting insects like Mr. Wilson, January in Northern Virginia is a tough place to find a meal.

However, Mr. Wilson has proven to be a resourceful visitor. Since his first sighting, scores of people have reveled in the sight of the wandering warbler feeding at the birdfeeders next to the visitor center. He has managed to avoid the hunting hawks and was photographed chomping on a caterpillar. Mr. Wilson has also been seen feeding on Sweetgum seeds along the paved trails. As people inadvertently step on the spiky pods, Mr. Wilson swoops in to munch on the released seeds.

Wilson's Warbler by Dave Boltz

The Improbable Mr. Wilson snacks on a caterpillar.

One theory about Mr. Wilson’s visit is that he is filling up for a late departure for the Southeast U.S. or the Gulf Coast, where he could survive on seeds, berries, and any available insects. But it is the presence of the bright orange markings visible in the many high-quality photos being shared online that have birders wondering if Mr. Wilson may have traveled from the west, not the north.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson's beak caused quite a stir.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson’s beak caused quite a stir.

After seeing the orange forehead in a photo, longtime birder Bill Young exclaimed, “Mr. Wilson appears to be even more improbable than he seemed at first glance.” Young has had many close looks at Wilson’s warblers in the past, but doesn’t recall ever seeing the orange marking. He and Paula Sullivan consulted the Garrett and Dunn warbler guide and found that there are three varieties of Wilson’s. Of the three, only one displays the orange markings, the chryseola. They learned that the chryseola variety breeds along a narrow band of the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Southern California, and winters in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and south to western Panama.

This revelation led Young to declare, “So Mr. Wilson is most likely not an eastern or central bird who is a little late and a bit off course; he probably came from the other coast of North America, which is a pretty amazing trip for a creature who weighs about a quarter of an ounce.”

Huntley Meadows volunteer and avid bird buff Larry Cartwright, known among birding circles as an expert, concurs with Young’s assessment.  “I think this vagrancy from the west happens frequently. We had a dark yellow warbler that turned out to be one of the dark western subspecies, and there is quite a number of Rufous/Allen’s hummingbirds reported this year and they are all from the west. So Bill is absolutely right.”

Although Munroe is confident the wandering warbler began its journey on the West Coast, he said, “We can’t exactly check his passport, so we’ll never really know.” He remains open to other theories and welcomes discussion.

Mr. Wilson was last seen in the park on Wednesday, January 2. The birders who were fortunate enough to have seen him are grateful for his improbable visit and wish him a safe journey home – wherever that may be.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer