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Mystery Surrounds Stone

Fairfax man hunts for clues to mysterious stone’s origins and significance.

One person’s kicking stone is another’s flower garden centerpiece, is another’s historical mystery.

The origins of a square piece of sandstone have created a flurry of questions for one Fairfax man as he tries to determine whether the stone could be the original southwest corner marker of the first Fairfax Court House.

“Well, we know when it was removed and can probably figure out where it came from,” said historian and retired engineer Ed Trexler.

“I got an e-mail from Brian Conley from the Virginia Room [of the Fairfax City Regional Library] about a month ago. He told me about the stone,” Trexler said. “It’s an intriguing stone, reddish brown in color, with a fine X carved on the top of it. I’m pretty sure it’s a land survey stone."

The stone measures 9 1/2 inches high by 7 inches wide and 7 inches across the top and has a finely carved X with a loop on one line across the top.

“My suspicion is that it came from the southwest corner of the town where the Old Court House stood,” Trexler said.

However, despite the clear markings on the top of the stone, no one is sure what the stone is, where it came from and what historic purpose, if any, it served.

The X with the loop on the end “might be the mark of Robert Ratcliff, son of Richard Ratcliff, who planned Fairfax,” Trexler said. “If the loop on the stone turns out to be the mark of Robert Ratcliff, it would be a very strong indication that it was the cornerstone of the court.” Ratcliff owned 3,000 acres of land in what is now Fairfax, including a plantation, Mount Vineyard, which was left to his son Charles Ratcliff upon his death, Trexler said.

TREXLER SPENT time in the county court archives trying to match the mark or find out any information about the stone, but nothing has come up.

“My focus now is to find someone who remembers this stone, when it was dug up, where, what it was next to,” Trexler said. “It could possibly be the southeast corner marker, but that’s so close to where the road is now that I think it’d be long gone by now.

“There’s a possibility we may never identify this stone,” he said. “It’s pretty much my project to figure out right now, but I’d really like to have more help with it.”

Trexler would like to see the stone end up in a museum. He hopes that he could have it identified in time for the city’s bicentennial celebration in January. He also has a message for the person who turned in the stone to the county.

“I’d really like to speak with her and let her keep her anonymity,” he said.

Last week, he was informed that a surveyor’s reported dated May, 1798 detailing the plot of land the original courthouse was built on makes references to stones being put at all four corners of the property. A land deed dated 1799 also references those markers.

“I went out to see if the stones were still there and they weren’t,” Trexler said.

Brian Conley is a historian with the library's Virginia Room, a repository for local historical information.

“I don’t know what to think of this stone,” Conley said. Based on appearances, “a boundary marker seems the most likely. It’s unlikely it’s a decorative stone, but I don’t know of anything else it’ll match,” he said.

“Colonial surveyors used whatever was on hand to mark an area,” Conley said. “Sometimes they’d use trees, the bend of a river, sometimes they’d mark their initials on a tree or burn part of it, sometimes they’d build piles of stones and use that to mark a property.

“I’m curious as to what it might be. We’re not sure where it came from, which is why I contacted [Trexler]. He’s done a lot of research at the Old Court House,” Conley said. “It’s an intriguing curiosity and an interesting artifact."

BY NOT knowing when or where exactly the stone came from, “if it had any relation to any other artifacts, all that information has been lost,” Conley said. “We’ve lost the historical context. The person who brought it back wanted to see it preserved, so they obviously had a desire to see it survive,” he said of the anonymous donor.

Sandra Rathbun, an archivist with the Fairfax County Circuit Court, explained that a deputy had brought the stone to her. “It had been given to him anonymously from a woman who’d seen it kicked and rolled around by a bunch of teenagers, and she was afraid it would be lost, so she took it home and put it in her garden,” she said.

“The woman had it 20-some years. She got it from the Colonial Court House grounds,” Rathbun said. “I think the loop was purposely cut this way. That’s why I put the word out, for some knowledgeable person who might know. I know enough to know that I don’t know what it is.”

Rathbun hasn’t had a chance to contact a county archeologist to take a closer look at the stone but plans to do that soon. “It has historical significance, we just don’t know what that is just yet,” she said.

“I’d like to see it returned to its proper place and have it anchored where it wouldn’t wander any more,” Rathbun said of the stone. “But even if we can’t determine its importance, I’ll keep it here in the archives.”