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The Tale of One City

Storyteller brings city's history to life with bicentennial presentation.

When Gary Lloyd describes the scenes and characters of the City of Fairfax — Richard Ratcliffe's impressive mansion, Confederate spy Antonia Ford, the first trolley to come through the city — he wants them to come alive. Last year Lloyd, a storyteller who is retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, developed "The Heart Beats On," a bicentennial presentation from various elements of Fairfax's history.

"It's really no different than commissioning a painting, or having a symphony compose a march to celebrate the bicentennial," said Lloyd. "It would be an oral history, not in flat historical terms, but in a story form."

The story, which Lloyd put together using research, centers around the Fairfax Court House. "I wanted to find some fabric I could weave the story through," said Lloyd. "The Court House became the center because it had been there the whole time."

Lloyd, the story's narrator, describes the Fairfax Court House and relates elements in the rooms and courtyard to moments in the city's history.

"Generations of stories were worn into the shiny seats of the benches, the roof beams and the mortar of each brick," Lloyd's presentation begins. "I began to sense why folks in this area refer to the City of Fairfax as the heart of Northern Virginia."

LLOYD GOES ON to tell the story of Richard Ratcliffe, who sold the land for the courthouse in 1800, and his various positions in the area government, such as judge, sheriff, coroner, jail inspector, overseer of the poor at Truro Parish and principal town planner. It describes the scene in the courthouse on Jan. 21, 1861, when a crowd of local residents voted 836 to 628 not to secede.

"Imagine, if Virginia had voted with early Fairfax … thousands and thousands of lives may have been saved by what many believe would have been a much shorter war," said Lloyd in the story. The tale continues through the end of the farming era in the late 1910s, when Fairfax was the biggest milk producer in the entire state, to 1961, when Mayor John C. Wood incorporated what was then the Town of Fairfax as the City of Fairfax.

Fairfax lends itself to an oral history, said Hildie Carney, director of Historic Fairfax, Inc.

"We realized a lot of people don’t know the story, in that Fairfax City was a city that got started by local people," she said. "Our story has several really main events and a big participation in the Civil War, the whole story of how the country evolved during past 200 years."

"It's easy to fall in love with Civil War history, but it was a really ravaging time," said Lloyd. "It's interesting with the city, because it rebuilt itself."

A story Lloyd particularly likes is one from around the 1920s, when Old Town Hall became the site of the first movie ever shown in Fairfax. The pianist who accompanied the silent picture came over on a bus, said Lloyd, and managed to play along with the movie, even though he was blind.

"[The city] played a significant role in issue of annexation, and it’s a story of a small town that became a fairly metropolitan city," said Carney.

Lloyd took the story on the road, debuting the presentation New Year’s Eve 2005 at the First Fairfax celebration. In honor of the city’s bicentennial, Lloyd told the story to a rapt audience in Old Town Hall.

"The people who listened to him last New Year's Eve loved it," said city marketing director Jo Ormesher. "It was absolutely full in the old Court House."

Lloyd got started in storytelling after post-retirement work with local libraries in Chantilly, where he lives. His first year, he said, he started out performing for three paid shows. Now, he said, he gives 150 paid performances a year.

Community theater had always been an interest of Lloyd's, he said, but he never expected to become as involved with performing as he has.

"If you had told me that I would be telling stories … I would have laughed you out of my office," said Lloyd. "But I've always been a bit theatrical."

The best part of storytelling, for Lloyd, is the ability to interact with an audience.

"You've got these 500 kids on the gym floor, and they're kind of looking at you like, 'We dare you to entertain us,'" he said. "By the end of the hour, they’re mine. It's a great feeling."