Joe Gillingham, 88, stood in a drawing room of a stately home that once belonged his great-grandfather. Gillingham, a lifelong resident of the Mount Vernon area, held in his hands a handwritten deed that recorded the purchase of the property in 1848 by Chalkley Gillingham from George Washington’s heirs. The home is Woodlawn.
Gillingham, surrounded by family and friends, on June 21 gave the deed to Ross Randall, director of Woodlawn, which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"Buildings are important," said Randall, "but buildings really tell stories about people. This deed will help us tell stories about the people who lived at Woodlawn."
In 1799, Eleanore (Nellie) Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, married George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. Washington, who died later that year, left in his will 2,000 acres to Nellie and Lawrence, as well as the funds to build a home. Designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, Woodlawn was completed in 1805. The Lewis family moved into the house in 1804.
BY 1839, Lawrence was dead, Nellie had moved to Clarke County, Va., and their son Lorenzo advertised Woodlawn’s sale in the Alexandria Gazette in April 1846.
"Woodlawn, situated about one mile, in a direct line, from the Potomac River, on Dogue Creek, which bounds the land on one side, and is navigable to near its head for large barges and long boats. ... The dwelling house is not surpassed by any in Virginia in construction, style of finish, and situation, being on a high hill in a grove of fine oaks, commanding a beautiful view of the river in front."
Chalkley Gillingham and Jacob Troth, two Quakers from New Jersey, bought Woodlawn for $25,000, largely for the valuable timber on the accompanying 2,000 acres. They later built a sawmill on Accotink Creek (near the intersection of Richmond Highway and Backlick Road), logged the forests, and sent the lumber to the Philadelphia shipyards.
They also sold off parcels of the land to other Quaker families who moved to Virginia intent on farming profitably without slave labor. One family, the Ballingers, built a home that is now called Union Farm. Another, the Gibbses, purchased Little Hollin Hall. The Waltons built their home, Walnut Hill, on a knoll that now hosts the clubhouse at Mount Vernon Country Club. These and other families turned land that had been ruined by tobacco farming by Colonial plantation owners into a thriving produce and dairy farming industry that lasted until World War II.
IN 1853, Troth and Gillingham sold Woodlawn Mansion and the remaining 450 acres to John and Rachel Mason, who were not related to the Masons of Gunston Hall. The house passed through private hands until the Trust acquired the property in 1951.
Joe Gillingham was born in the family home near Woodlawn, Vernondale, in 1915. His father died at an early age, leaving his mother, Bertha, and the children to run the farm by themselves. Camp Humphries, now Fort Belvoir, acquired the Gillingham farm during its World War II expansion. Joe and his wife, Esther, now live on Old Mount Vernon Road.
"Bertha kept the Woodlawn deed in her purse for years," explained Carol Pflug, Joe’s niece. "Someone convinced her to frame it about 40 years ago, and Joe and Esther have had it since then."