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Edith Moore Sprouse — 'The Past is Prologue'

Remembering A Life

There are two types of coal mined in Pennsylvania. Bituminous is soft and gives off a lot of soot. The other is anthracite. It is hard, with an almost reflective gloss. It burns clean and pure. And under enough sustained pressure it becomes a diamond.

Scranton, Penns. is in the heart of the anthracite coal region. There, on Feb. 15, 1923, Edith Moore Kynor was born to Herbert and Madelene Tawes Kynor.

On Jan. 30, 2004, just two weeks short of her 81st birthday, Edith Moore Sprouse died of a heart attack at her home in Alexandria. But her eight decade journey encompassed much more than the 250- plus miles from northeastern Pennsylvania to the shores of the Potomac.

That was evidenced by the overwhelming turnout for her memorial reception held Feb. 5, at The Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria. As described by her son, Peter, of Austin, Texas, "Mother's shadow stretches long into the future."

A 1945 graduate of Wellesley College in Boston, Edith Moore Kynor held a degree in geology. She also took a cartography course offered by the U.S. Army Map Service at several women's colleges during World War II.

It was the latter that brought her to Washington, D.C., in July 1945, to begin photogrammetry training and work for the federal government. It was here that she also met her husband, a former Naval officer, James Sprouse.

Edith and Jim Spouse were married in June, 1948, and moved into their apartment in Parkfairfax. Their children, Susan, Betsey and Peter, were born in 1949, 1950, and 1954, respectively. That necessitated a house and they moved into the home they occupied for almost 30 years in Hollin Hills.

Once Peter entered first grade, "She really began her pursuit of history," he told those assembled at The Lyceum. "I have memories of tramping through the woods hunting for old cemeteries."

AS EXPLAINED IN the memorial program by her three children, "A ditch or stream bed could be a treasure trove of Civil War artifacts or even fossils. There were a few mysterious night excursions to salvage items from old houses she had been unable to save from demolition."

But, this was not just a hobby. They further noted, "As the years went by, Edith developed her historical and archeological interests into a full-time volunteer career. She embraced the history of Northern Virginia with an enthusiasm that she was quick to share with others."

Peter revealed, "Thanks to the wonderful paternalism of my father, Edith had the luxury of doing exactly what she wanted to do. Mother was a scientist who devoted herself to the study and preservation of the past. Her work was in the details."

That was attested to by Lynne Garvey Wark, chair, Fairfax County Historical Commission, as she paid tribute to her predecessor in that position. "My footsteps are very tiny compared to Edith's. She was ever present."

As another speaker noted, "She had the ability to envision colonial Fairfax County as a living community. All the places took on a true meaning through Edith's eyes. She was a role model worth emulation. We could all take a lesson from Edith's life."

Donald Hakenson, an historical author and personal friend of Edith, representing the Franconia Museum, pointed out, "She expected nothing in return and wanted nothing in return for her efforts. Edith was a storehouse of knowledge. She was small in stature but huge in knowledge."

Hakenson and Sprouse served on the Franconia Museum, Inc., Board of Directors. She interfaced with Hakenson at museum presentations known as "Story Swaps." These are vignettes about various historical events that have occurred over the years within the Springfield/Franconia area.

SHE ALSO HAD a sardonic sense of humor. Hakenson related an experience where he was driving her to various historical sites throughout Fairfax County as they were working on a project. At the end of the day he revealed, "She looked at me and said, "I'm glad you have a good job because you can't drive worth a damn."

Mike Johnson, an archeologist with Fairfax County, said, "Thousands of artifacts are able to be viewed today because of her. Every time Edith said something, it wasn't spin, it was true." Each speaker testified to her tenacity for detail and accuracy.

This was nowhere more evident than in her project to index and catalogue county government records from the 1700's to 1870. It was a 20-year project that she undertook with two colleagues. Her work provided a wellspring of county history able to be used by history scholars, students, and buffs alike in an organized manner, according to Jack Hiller, another local historian.

He also testified, "There was a danger in exploring Fairfax County history. One time a woman greeted us at the her door with a shotgun. When Edith tried to explain why we were there, the woman was not impressed and cocked the gun. We left."

It was Hiller who made the last historical excursion with Sprouse just nine days before her death. "My last adventure with Edith was a trip to the Baltimore Historical Museum on January 21. We discussed history all the way there and back," he said.

IN ALEXANDRIA, a benefactor of her involvement in chronicling history was the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. "Every Monday morning Edith came to the Apothecary to help with the preservation work," said Paula Stetler, director.

To honor Sprouse's involvement with life through her last day, Stetler read a poem by Mary Fry entitled, "Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep." The operative line she noted was, "I am not there. I do not die."

Sarah Becker, former director of the Apothecary, recalled, she "first met Edith eight years ago when she introduced herself as one who likes to go through history." Becker noted, "History was not territorial to her. It was to be shared with everyone."

And share it she did. Sprouse authored a variety of books on historical subjects which commenced with her 1961 treatise, "Potomac Sampler." Others included, "Fairfax County in 1860: A Collective Biography;" "Along the Potomac River;" and "Colchester: Colonial Port on the Potomac." The rare Book Room at Alexandria Library's Barrett Branch is named in her honor

One of her most ambitious projects was matching the names of Fairfax County residents with tax and genealogical records as well as other documents, such as marriage certificates, to the 1860 census statistics. That data is now being correlated with maps that match property owners with land areas as enumerated in the 1860 census.

Complimenting her active participation in the nitty gritty of historical preservation, which also included work at the Fairfax County Archeological Laboratory and Gunston Hall Plantation, Sprouse served on an array of boards, commissions, and organizations dealing with historical preservation and knowledge.

In addition to the Fairfax County History Commission were: Franconia Museum, Inc., Fairfax County Historical Society, Northern Virginia Association for History, and the Alexandria Historical Society, as well as many others.

She also found time to serve as an advisor to groups such as the Friends of Historic Huntley as well as knit hats and gloves for the Community Partners for Children. As Mike Johnson emphasized to The Lyceum audience, "What she did, she did because she wanted to."

James M. Sprouse, her husband of 47 years, died in 1995. Besides her son Peter, she is survived by her two daughters, Betsy Sprouse of Alexandria, and Susan McConnell of Atlanta, as well as two grandchildren.