Tag Archives: Sully Historic Site

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.

Candlelight Tours Illuminate 200 Years of Holiday Celebrations at Sully

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


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.

Sully Antique Car Show: 40 and Fabulous

The antique car show at Sully Historic Site has been a Father's Day tradition for 40 years.

The Sully’s antique car show has been a Father’s Day tradition for 40 years.

There have been quite a few changes through the years as the Sully Historic Site Antique Car Show gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary on Sunday, June 16. But one thing never changes: a guaranteed good time for the entire family at the Father’s Day event co-sponsored by the Fairfax County Park Authority and the George Washington Chapter of the Model A Ford Club of America.

More than 400 antique and classic vehicles from the Model  A to Corvettes to Jaguars manufactured through 1988 will be on display at the largest car show in Northern Virginia. And if owning a classic car is your dream, you can purchase one in the Car Corral.

“It’s the best opportunity for car enthusiasts to see the broadest range of vehicles in Northern Virginia,” said Barbara Ziman, historian and events and marketing coordinator at Sully Historic Site.

Each year seems to bring a record turnout, with between 5,000 and 6,000 people expected this year. Holding the show on Father’s Day brings out families and, no doubt, has contributed to its success. 

Organizers “probably had hoped for a good run when it started, but it’s hard to imagine it’s still going strong,” Ziman said. Each year the “end date” for entry moves up, and there is always something new to see, Ziman added.  

In recognition of the 40th anniversary, there will be a special section of cars from 1973 and a ruby red symbol on the plaques given the winners. It’s fitting, given that ruby is the symbol for the 40th anniversary and a ruby red Jaguar won the Sully Staff Award for the favorite car show car last year, Ziman said.

Serving again as meet chairman is Bill Worsham, who has been involved since the show’s inception and has seen the many changes through the years.

“It used to be that everyone was over 70,” but younger people are getting involved, Worsham said. The show has attracted more families over the years, and now sons are taking over from their fathers.

It’s also easier to get to the show since the widening of Route 28 beginning in the late 1980s and the construction of new interchanges. Worsham said that was a big improvement.

Another big change was the addition of foreign cars to the show. Worsham said people want to see them, and they like vintage Corvettes, which have gone from two or three on display to upwards of 30.

Highlights from past years have included the landing of the Concorde and a flyover of the space shuttle.  Mother Nature has been kind to the show as well; Worsham remembers only two real rainy days in 40 years.   

While classic cars are the big draw, of course, there are plenty of other activities to keep young and old happy.  Jumpin’ Jupiter will play hits from the 1950s, while the New Old Time String Band offers traditional vocal and instrumental bluegrass. Food will be available for purchase, or you can bring picnic food to enjoy.

Watch a Model T take-apart demonstration, or shop the Craft, Antique and Auto Market for all things related to vintage cars from parts to license plates.  In the children’s tent, kids can play with old-fashioned toys and games, be the first to use the new Antique Car Coloring Book, and create a special classic car picture for dad.

Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for children, which includes a guided tour of the first floor of the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first congressman. Parking is free.

Worsham says the event shows no sign of slowing down, and he has no plans to retire. The Model A club has lots of people coming up to keep things going and “lots of people like old cars,” he said.

Ziman echoes that sentiment. “The Model A club does a tremendous amount of work, and it’s been a wonderful partnership for 40 years.  There’s no reason to think there won’t be a 50th or 75th anniversary.”

Sully Historic Site is at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly, Va.

Author Lori K. Weinraub is a volunteer writer for the Park Authority and, previously, a national journalist.

African-American History Month at Sully

Artist Grace Kettell’s Rendition of Godfrey, a runaway slave from Sully

Artist Grace Kettell’s Rendition of Godfrey, a runaway slave from Sully

When Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, he wanted schools and other organizations to study black history.  Since then, this week of recognition has grown to a month. Woodson selected February because within it are the birthdays of two significant Americans associated with black history, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Woodson believed that blacks should know their past to be able to intelligently participate in the affairs of our country. [1]

During an interview on 60 Minutes in 2005, actor Morgan Freeman said, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” 

At Sully Historic Site, we agree with Mr. Freeman. Sully’s history is not just about the Richard Bland Lee family that lived here from 1794 to 1811. It is very much the history of all the land’s occupants. Why should the history of the white owner be considered more important than that of the black slave? When you look back at the very beginnings of the land that would eventually be called Sully, there were nine slaves cultivating tobacco as far back as 1746.  Richard, born in 1761, would inherit 29 slaves upon the death of his father in 1787. Two of those slaves had been at Sully even before Richard was born, such as Eve, as she is listed on an inventory in 1746, who became Old Eave in 1787.

During February and March, our case and house exhibits and tours focus on what the lives of the slaves were like, and they ask, “Who were they?”  What work did they do in the house, the outbuildings or on the farm? What did they wear and eat? Thanks to archaeology that started in the 1980s along the South Road, the remains of three cabins were discovered and remnants of the lives lived in those cabins were found. Animal bones, china shards, redware and even an 1806 coin turned up to help us tell the story of the people that lived in those cabins.

Slaves would have cleaned up after dinners.

Slaves would have cleaned up after the Lee’s dinners.

We could always talk about the slave owner and then mention that, yes, he had slaves, but that is incomplete history. It is often necessary to talk about slaves as a group instead of as individuals because, unfortunately, the same information is not available about them that is available for slave owners. But at Sully, we know their names. From letters, we can learn something about their personalities.  While not having freedom in the way they lived their lives, the slaves had children. They had families. They felt love for one another. Traditions were passed down from one generation to another through activities and stories.  Early African American foodways were passed down and many of the recipes used so many years ago continue to be used today. Religious ceremonies, parties and marriages were a large part of their community activities and were shared between the young and old. Perhaps “Old Dave” or “Prue,” considered too old to work in the fields, were the slaves who tended to the younger children and shared oral traditions and stories so the tales could then be passed down to a younger generation.  The slave community was made up of proud people who lived their lives being owned by others, but somehow, someway, managed to carve out families and personal experiences to enhance their lives. 

So Sully is not Richard Bland Lee and his slaves. It is Lee and Thornton, the cook. It is Madam Juba, a laundress. And it is Ludwell, who ran away and, according to Mrs. Lee, showed the “true proof of the ingratitude of Slavery” because he was “too much indulged.”  Ludwell was returned to Sully, unable to gain his freedom as did Godfrey, another runaway slave from the site.

We tell the story of all the people, remembering their names, families and sharing whatever we know about the person so others will remember they were not just a group of slaves, but individual human beings.  There were more enslaved people living here at Sully than the numbers that comprised the Lee family, and we work very hard to acknowledge them, to remember them and to honor their legacy. 

See the “African-American Past at Sully” case exhibit and house changes through March.  Take home a “Remembering Card” that has the name of a slave and something about them and their important history.

Author Tammy Higgs is a Historian at Sully Historic Site.

Sully Historic Site is open 11 a.m.–3 p.m., through February. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. beginning March 1.  Tours given on the hour.


[1] Carter Godwin Woodson. (2013). NAACP Organization website.  Retrieved 11:30, February 8, 2013 from http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-Carter-G.-Woodson.

Puzzling the Past

History has a bad reputation. It is perceived as memorizing dates, dead rich guys, and dusty artifacts under glass. It is not dynamic and is seen as having nothing to do with our lives.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Yet that is very far from the truth. History is exciting, full of adventure, romance, tragedy, and comedy. When you visit any one of the Park Authority’s historic sites, you’ll discover all the excitement in history.

One way to look at history is that it is mystery. Historians and archaeologists are detectives trying to piece together what happened from clues. Our evidence is what people left behind. Sometimes our clues are documents, letters, diaries, and other written accounts. Other clues are objects like pieces of pottery, tools, trash, and even entire houses. None of these clues tells the entire story. What we know of the past we know by piecing all these little clues together. Yet we will never have enough clues to get a perfect picture, so sometimes we have to make educated guesses.

You can look at history like a jigsaw puzzle, one of those giant 32,000 piece 3-D affairs. Some of the puzzle pieces are still in the box, other pieces are under the bed or between the couch cushions, a few may be still at the store, and some may be missing altogether. Once we have collected as many of the pieces as we can find, we have to figure out how they all fit together. We may find some more pieces in the future to give us a more complete puzzle, but many of the puzzle pieces will always be missing.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Despite this, historians and archaeologists do what they do because solving that mystery or putting that puzzle together helps us all understand where we came from, where we are, and (in part) where we’re going. History is so important because it is who we are, and it connects us to a larger story. It is the story of us, and you, and me, and them. History roots us to place, and that is particularly important in a region like ours.

Examine history through your eyes

It is amazing to ask visitors to consider how the lives of their ancestors differed from the lives we live. Our historic interpreters engage visitors by asking them to help solve the mystery or put the puzzle together. We ask visitors to:

  • Consider how their lives would change if they lived in a different time
  • Examine the clues in a historic house to uncover how the family lived and built their home
  • Fire a bow and arrow and think about what the Powhatan ate, what games they played, and how they farmed
  • Make biscuits in a colonial kitchen
  • Solve (or piece together) how our ancestors do the things we do

 There are ways we make history come alive and make it personal. These questions challenge kids and adults. They make history fun.

Come to a park historic site, or look around your home. What mysteries and puzzles can you uncover around you? What mysteries are you leaving behind for future historians?

Written by Geoffrey Cohrs, historic interpreter and site coordinator, Huntley Meadows Park

Find more information about Fairfax County Park Authority historic sites, Historic Huntley, and historic rental sites.

Margaret C. Peck: Thank You For 40 Years Of Dedicated Service

Former Sully Historic Site Manager and Sully Foundation Board member Margaret Peck cuts the cake at her retirement party. Behind her from left to right are Hal Strickland, Sully District representative, Park Authority Board; Park Authority Director John Dargle, Jr.; Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey; and Sully Historic Site Manager Carol McDonnell.

With some sadness and tremendous respect to her long standing achievements, we wished Margaret C. Peck well with a special “Sully House” cake at the May gathering of the Sully Foundation, when she retired from the Sully Foundation Board. She gave 40 years of service to the Park Authority, the Sully Foundation, Ltd. and the community.   She served 18 years with FCPA (including the manager position at Sully from 1976 – 1988) and 22 as a board member of the Sully Foundation, Ltd. and was their Treasurer for 10 years.

She also has been an active local historian, educator, author and contributor to several books including Images of America Series: Washington Dulles International Airport, Virginia and Around Herndon. She was a contributing author and editor for Voices of Chantilly, Recollections and Stories from 22 long-time residents, Stories of Floris, Sully: 1794– Stories and Letters, and Samplings from Sully’s Hearth, the cookbook.

I interviewed Margaret at her lovely home in Herndon, preparing for the Park Authority to give her a special achievement resolution. She is most proud of the preservation of Sully, she worked personally with Eddie Wagstaff, who was Sully’s first curator and was also partially responsible for the fight to save Sully from becoming part of the buffer area for Dulles Airport. As manager at Sully she helped to develop a successful school-aged museum education program – including the four learning centers we offer today.  She especially enjoyed developing the kitchen program.  She liked to “take words and put them into action,” through demonstrations of real cooking representing the late 18th century. 

She researched historic letters and documents for years, documenting stories for the families that lived at Sully; especially the Richard Bland Lee family. Margaret helped to develop the docent manual and trained many people on tours and interpretation – giving them confidence to give in-depth tours and sharing the human aspect of the specific history at Sully.

Through the years, Margaret appreciated working with exceptional staff to produce all types of programs including Christmas tours and many fall and spring festivals.  She remembers working with Mr. Bush, an older gentleman from Herndon who gave horse and wagon rides on the Sully grounds for 25 cents a ride!  She actively worked with the Society of the Lees of Virginia in their support of Sully projects and lending of various collection pieces.  She was an advocate, along with her dedicated husband Ben, for the preservation of Frying Pan Farm Park school house and meeting house, working on the master plan with the Frying Pan Farm Park staff and many other projects there.

There are many memories that she shared- she was thrilled watching the first Concord jet arrive at Dulles, viewing it from Sully along with the public and staff.  Her favorite memory, which is a keeper,- was one year when she worked at Sully on Thanksgiving Day, when Sully was open year round except for Christmas.  It started to snow and across the field came Bland Lee V, (Great, great grandson of Richard Bland Lee) his wife and daughter.  They had come in to see her and take a tour amidst the beautiful snow on that special holiday.

Of course Margaret will still be around, visiting Sully with friends and relatives.  She will also continue to lend us Ben’s WWII uniform for our summer WWII living history weekend! We will see her soon!

Written by Carol McDonnell, manager, Sully Historic Site