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Years Gone By

Remembering Fairfax City in its bicentennial.

After 200 years, how should the City of Fairfax be remembered? It’s a big question, and everyone seems to have a different answer.

Susan Gray, curator of the Fairfax Museum and Visitor’s Center, sees reflected in Fairfax’s history a miniature version of the American story. Fairfax City was situated right in the middle of the Civil War, occupied by both the North and the South. It transformed from the rural land around Washington, D.C. to a giant suburb right along with the rest of the country. In fact, for a while after the Second World War, said Gray, the Fairfax area was the fastest-growing suburb in the country.

For Ed Trexler, historian and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, remembering Fairfax’s history means honoring the ground on which things happened.

“The buildings are gone, but the places are still there,” said Trexler. “As historians, our job is to keep alive the historic character of the city.”

Trexler, all four of whose grandfathers fought in the Confederate Army, is leading the charge to put up historical markers in at least 20 different places throughout Fairfax City. Most of the markers would commemorate Civil War events and locations, such as the rifle pit and breastworks that existed on the south side of Main Street, near Orchard Drive, or the Union fort built in 1863, between Roberts Road and Locust Street. But markers would commemorate events from other centuries, too: Tussico Creek by Rust Curve, used by black churches for baptisms, or the site of the first bedroom community in Fairfax, built in the 1910s near Cedar Avenue and Route 123, as people began to commute to Washington from Virginia.

“Kids ought to learn more history,” said Trexler.

One marker has been successfully dedicated so far, on the corner of Oak and Main streets. It identifies the site where the home if Fairfax’s founder, Richard Ratcliffe, stood. On January 14, 2005, the city hosted over two dozen descendants of Richard Ratcliffe to dedicate the marker.

For Chris Martin, director of historic resources for Fairfax City, the bicentennial celebration is the Fairfax community’s way of commemorating itself.

“Take the Fourth of July parade, for example,” said Martin. “On the float, they chose to put up an image of the Fairfax Court House. It’s symbolic of the earliest phase of the town, so it’s a great question, to see how our community is remembering itself to help identify what it thinks is important.”

THE FAIRFAX COURT HOUSE, in many ways, is the beginning of the City itself. In 1800, Fairfax County decided to make Fairfax City the site of its new courthouse. The county bought four acres of land from Ratcliffe, who five years later petitioned the county to lay aside the land as a new town. The rest, said Gray, is history.

“That really set into motion all the future development of this area,” said Gray. “The town grew around the Court House.”

But for Dave Goetz, historian and owner of Mosby’s Confederacy Tours, it is important not to forget anything.

In July, the section of Lee Highway between Kamp Washington and Pickett Road was renamed Fairfax Boulevard, a move that some citizens took as an affront to the area’s ties to Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy.

“They were Americans, north and south,” said Goetz. “It’s not just good guys and bad guys, us and them. They were Americans.”

“Things have changed now,” said Hildie Carney, president of Historic Fairfax City, Inc. “It’s more about being united, not just the Confederacy.”

“I don’t like the idea of the city walking away from the Lee family, but the part that was renamed wasn’t the original Lee Highway, so I feel better about it,” said Trexler. “It’s a good compromise.”

It is also important to respect the sites where historical events occurred, said Goetz, who expressed concern over land development.

“They say that if we don’t remember our history, we’re condemned to repeat it,” he said. “We talk a lot about honoring veterans’ sacrifice, but we’re not honoring them at all when we destroy the very ground they fought on.”

For Carney, honoring history means making it accessible to the present. She described some plans for HFCI to celebrate the bicentennial, such as dedicating the cemetery where Ratcliffe is buried, and burying a time capsule for Fairfax children to open in 50 years.

HFCI and the City of Fairfax are also building an interpretive center next to the Blenheim Mansion, which has graffiti written by Union soldiers in its attic, so that large groups can see what the graffiti looks like.

“There are 200 years of what happened and what transpired here in the city,” said Carney. “It’s a wonderful heritage we have in the city that is being preserved.”

“Whether a family has been here for 10 years or 100 years, they’re part of Fairfax history,” said Gray.