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Keeping the Past Alive

A Brief History of the Mount Vernon District

Residents of the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County have witnessed an extraordinary sweep of American history. Colonial era settlers and planters gloried in the birth of a nation, yet their grandchildren shuddered as it was rent asunder by the Civil War. Later, others found themselves pulled away from their Southern and distinctly Virginian culture toward the ever-growing gravity of the District of Columbia. While many of today’s Washington suburbs have lost their identity in the overpowering suburbanization of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Mount Vernon residents cling to the neighborhood’s unique and historic past. The continuing and healthy operation of George Washington’s estate is the main link to our past, but other historic properties, and even the Potomac River, are constant reminders of our roots.

The flow of history in Mount Vernon is punctuated by wars, with conflicts both opening and closing chapters in that story. The Revolutionary War marked the end of colonial Virginia’s two most important institutions — the tobacco trade and the Church of England. The Civil War made the area a battleground, a no-man’s land between North and South, and post-war reconstruction stunted economic growth for 40 years. World War I brought Camp Humphreys, now Fort Belvoir, to the area, a presence that ultimately usurped thousands of acres of land, but became the area’s dominant employer. Successful farmers and a few merchants led both the society and economy of the area during the interwar years, but the explosive growth of bedroom communities after World War II eliminated that way of life. The paving of Fairfax County during the 1950s and '60s not only reflected the overall prosperity of the area, but also created the bland personality of many of Northern Virginia’s communities. Luckily, the tangible links to the past that dot the landscape help distinguish Mount Vernon from the vast array of suburbs radiating from the capital.

Colonial Times

Founded in 1607, the Jamestown colony prospered to the point that land speculators and planters gradually moved north along the Potomac River in search of new land for tobacco fields. By the second half of the 18th century, the plantation class led the settlement of the land between the Occoquan River and Great Hunting Creek, the stream just south of the newly-chartered town of Alexandria. The country manors of the elite overlooked the Potomac, as well as the lesser souls — Belvoir, home of William Fairfax, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, George Mason’s Gunston Hall, and Thomsom Mason’s Hollin Hall.

Settlement near the Potomac followed the main north-south overland road, then called the "river" road or the Potomac Path. The current Route One generally follows the Path’s track, and some of the original segments of the old road remain today but are named Fordson, Buckman, and Old Mill Roads.

The Church of England followed the population growth to the north, creating its Truro Parish in 1732, which encompassed all of the land above the Occoquan. The first parish church, one built in 1730, was named Pohick after the nearby creek (the current building was finished in 1774). The Virginia Assembly established Fairfax County in 1742, a secular jurisdiction that coincided with the boundaries of Truro Parish. The county was named for Thomas, Lord Fairfax, the sixth Baron of Cameron. Lord Fairfax, cousin of William of Belvoir, owned over five million acres of Virginia, a proprietary that was for 150 years in the hands of two titled English families — Culpeper and Fairfax.

The plantation class that dominated commerce and society also influenced the direction of primary and secondary education. Most were Englishmen, and their attitudes toward education reflected their homeland standard — parents were responsible for educating their children. Planters usually either hired local tutors or sent the children back to England for an education.

Class distinctions and demographics were also drivers in the educational process. During the mid-1700s, slaves and indentured servants constituted about half of the colony’s population. Education was generally not available for them. Plus, residents were widely dispersed and there were few towns, depriving most areas of the population density required to support a school.

Independence

Unwise to the ways of fertilization, crop rotation and deep plowing, tobacco planters had generally exhausted available fields by the Revolution. The great landholdings of the Colonial era began to break up, unable, even with slaves, to sustain past successes. Upon his death, Washington left his estate to his nephew Bushrod, whose heirs later sold off parcels. In 1858, the last Washington living at Mount Vernon, John Augustine III, sold the house and the remaining 200 acres to Pamela Cunningham and the Ladies Association for $200,000. Belvoir burned in 1783, and while the Mason family continued to own thousands of acres, their tenant farmers shifted to wheat and other crops.

The Commonwealth of Virginia banned the Church of England in 1785. The priests either retired or returned to Britain, and the newly constituted Protestant Episcopal Church was unable to put parishioners in the pews at Pohick Church. The building soon fell into disrepair and became home only to nesting birds and varmints. By 1840, there were only seven or eight active churches in all of Fairfax County, one Episcopal, one Baptist, and the rest Methodist. In the following 20 years, however, the number of congregations grew rapidly.

There were 26 schools operating in Fairfax County in 1828. All were private, but there is no information about their location. Historians suggest that all were one-room schools supported by local families who built log or crudely framed structures and paid the teachers. The first known school in the Mount Vernon area was open in the 1840s. Susan Annie Plaskett, described the school in her 1936 book "Memories of a Plain Family." It was near Giles Run and the current Old Colchester Road (the original Potomac Path) and her grandmother, Mary Jane Cranford, enrolled there as a young girl. Residents called these facilities "old field" schools because landowners donated an acre or two of a spent, infertile portion of their farms for school construction

In 1846, two Quakers from New Jersey, Jacob Troth and Chalkley Gillingham, bought Woodlawn Plantation from Lorenzo Lewis. He was the son of Lawrence and Nelly Lewis, nephew and step-granddaughter of General Washington, who built Woodlawn in 1805 on land given to them by Washington. Gillingham and Troth bought the land for the timber, which they sent to the Philadelphia shipyards, but their arrival marked a turning point in the history of the Mount Vernon area.

The two men started the migration of dozens of other Quaker families to the area, all bent on establishing a successful agrarian economy not dependent on slavery. The industrious Friends transformed the played-out tobacco fields into productive farms that again brought economic prosperity to the Potomac shoreline. Their farms stretched from their business center in the village of Accotink (now Route One and Backlick Road) north to Alexandria. They built their meeting house in 1851, and it still stands at the intersection of Woodlawn Road and Route One.

Private commercial turnpikes gained popularity in the 1840s and '50s, with Leesburg Pike and Little River Turnpike being lasting examples. In 1856, the Alexandria, Mount Vernon, and Accotink Turnpike opened. It ran from the Hunting Creek bridge south along a route that is now Fort Hunt Road. It turned southwest on the current Sherwood Hall Lane to Gum Springs, then south along a direct route to Accotink that would later become Route One.

Civil War

Union troops crossed the Potomac into Alexandria in May, 1861, one month into the Civil War. Life in the Mount Vernon area was not badly disrupted until the following July when the real war started — the Confederates routed the over-confident Northern Army in the First Battle of Manassas. After that initial defeat, Union picket lines slowly pushed south along the river toward Occoquan, and for the rest of the war, there were sporadic skirmishes between the two sides near Woodlawn and to the south. Chalkley Gillingham kept a diary during the war years and his entries describe horse-stealing raids by Johnny Rebs, and the oppressive presence of Union troops foraging on Quaker crops.

During the Civil War, Pohick Church also suffered. Occupying Union troops defaced the church with graffiti that is still visible, and they stripped bare the interior. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the Federal Army’s "Chief Aeronaut," brought his hydrogen-filled balloon to Pohick Church during the war. Tethered at an altitude over 1,000 feet, Lowe was able to observe nearby Confederate forces. "I made two ascensions last evening," he wrote of his activities on March 6, 1862. "Saw fires at Fairfax Station; some on the road near the Occoquan. This morning cavalry scouts are visible on this side of the Occoquan below Sandy Run."

Washington referred to the Potomac Path’s ford at Little Hunting Creek as Gum Springs, a spot that later became the center of African-American life in the Mount Vernon area. Hannah Bushrod Washington, wife of George’s brother John Augustine, freed West Ford, a mixed-race slave, in 1805. Ford inherited 119 acres of land upon the 1829 death of Hannah and John’s son, Bushrod. He sold that parcel, using the proceeds to buy 211 acres at Gum Springs in 1833. Ford’s four children later divided the property, selling off bits and pieces to other freedmen. The enduring legacy of West Ford is the historically black community of Gum Springs that arose from the swampy ground that George Washington once owned and called Muddy Hole Farm. (Gum Springs historians claim that Ford was the son of one of the Washington men, perhaps Bushrod, but the Mount Vernon Ladies Association firmly discounts that possibility.)

Many ex-slaves in the area joined together to found churches, the most prominent of which were Bethlehem Baptist Church in Gum Springs and Woodlawn Methodist, located on the present day Fort Belvoir near the post commissary on Woodlawn Road. Both congregations started schools, with the local Quaker families providing teachers and financial help.

Virginia created its public school system in 1870, and during the following 30 years, acquired the many one- and two-room schools that communities and groups of families had previously built and supported. Most were located along the Potomac Path — Groveton, Woodlawn, Accotink, Lorton, Lorton Valley, and Colchester; others were nearby — Snowden on what is now Fort Hunt Road, Cameron on Telegraph Road, and Lebanon on Mason Neck. The "colored" schools, as they were called then, were Spring Bank (Route One and Quander Road), Gum Springs, Woodlawn, and Gunston (across from Shiloh Baptist Church).

An electric trolley line from Washington and Alexandria to Mount Vernon opened in 1892, supplanting steam ships as the most common means of visiting the Washington shrine. Eleven daily trips carried over 26,000 passengers in 1894, with the first northbound train stopping at 15 stations between Mount Vernon and Washington to pick up fresh milk from the area’s dairy farmers; locals called it the "milk run." The current traffic turnaround at Mount Vernon is the same loop used by the trolley cars.

World War I

In 1912, the U.S. Army acquired 1,500 acres that were once part of William Fairfax’s Belvoir estate for use as a training facility. After the U. S. entry into World War I, the War Department opened Camp Humphreys at the site, naming it after a Civil War general. By 1918, the Army added 3,300 more acres north of the Accotink Turnpike, gobbling up dozens of small farms. Residents likened the envelopment as the second invasion of the Union Army, citing the experiences of the Civil War.

The truck traffic between the burgeoning Camp Humphreys and Alexandria nearly destroyed the gravel road, so the Army laid down a narrow, 18-foot concrete ribbon, the first portion of the old Potomac Path to be paved. Two sections remain of that road, one at Woodlawn Stables and the second near the entrance to Fort Belvoir, the name given to Camp Humphreys in 1935.

By the 1930s, Fairfax County began closing the one-room school houses, opening in consolidated campuses with buses that brought the children to school each day. The first fully accredited high school serving the Mount Vernon area, however, only opened in 1926. The availability of high schools in the District and Alexandria slowed the growth of secondary education in the area. To partially offset this trend, the county gave money to Lee and Mount Vernon district families to pay for enrollment of their children in Alexandria schools.

Despite the new schools, the inequities between the segregated white and black schools were deplorable. In 1935, all of the white schools had running water and indoor toilets; black schools had only outdoor privies. The whites had heated buses; blacks did not. White schools got 97 per cent of the money.

There was no high school for African-Americans living in Fairfax County until 1938 when Fairfax joined Prince William and Fauquier counties to purchase the Manassas Industrial Institute. Opened in 1894, the private school had trained African-American students in carpentry, blacksmithing, masonry, laundry, sewing, and other trades. The three counties transformed the facility into a regional, segregated high school. Gum Springs resident Ben Holland drove area students in a bus to Manassas until Fairfax County opened its sole black high school — Luther Jackson — in 1954 on Gallows Road.

Lee-Jackson was the first public high school available to students in the Mount Vernon. Opened in 1926, it was located on the south side of Duke Street at the intersection of Quaker Lane. (Alexandria annexed the strip of Fairfax County between Duke Street and Cameron Run in 1951.) The county opened a new high school on Route One in 1939, transferring both the students and faculty from Lee-Jackson over the Christmas holidays. The school system later changed the name to Mount Vernon High School. It is the current site of the Islamic Saudi Academy. Today’s Mount Vernon High School opened in 1974.

Despite the growth of the Federal government and increased hiring of the local workforce by the District’s bureaucracies, most Mount Vernon residents who were not associated with Fort Belvoir were farmers. Many of the African-Americans living at Gum Springs or along Quander Road, worked on those farms, or had their own small plots. Thompson’s Dairy, which operated from 1869 to 1971 in the Hollin Hall community, bought most everyone’s milk production, selling it in Alexandria and Washington, D.C.

To commemorate George Washington’s 200th birthday, the Federal government opened the Mount Vernon Parkway in 1932. The trolley had ceased operation four years earlier and the new road followed much of the railroad right-of-way. East Boulevard near Collingwood and Whittington Boulevard in the Stratford Landing neighborhood are the last observable remnants of the trolley line route.

The first suburban development in Mount Vernon was Belle Haven, which began in1924. Most of the houses were built in the 1930s and the developer built the country club to attract buyers. Twenty families from Arlington, all living in the same apartment building, collectively purchased land on Fort Hunt Road and built 20 homes in 1941. They named their new community Tauxemont after the Taux (Dogue) Indians who lived in the area during pre-Colonial times.

World War II

The post-war building boom dramatically transformed the Washington area, including Mount Vernon. Bulldozers turned farms and pastures into fields of split-levels and center-hall colonials. Groveton, Hollin Hall, and Plymouth Haven were part of the first wave, followed by Bucknell Manor, West Grove, Hollin Hills, Collingwood, Waynewood, Stratford, Riverside, Villamay, Wessynton, Mount Zephyr, Woodlawn, Yacht Haven, and others.

Rising standards of living put more and more families on the road in their Chevy’s, a rush that led to the heyday of the Route One motel. Catering to vacationers bound for the monuments of Washington, the highway was home to a seemingly endless stream of lodgings, restaurants, and gas stations. Years before the road gave way to the boring homogeneity of fast food joints, each place had a unique personality, as any patron of the old Penn-Daw Motel, Dixie Pig or Open House Café will tell you.

Virginia politicians resisted desegregation of the school system in the 1950s, but the process commenced after a 1959 Virginia Supreme Court decision. Fairfax County was among the first school systems certified to be in compliance with the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act.

If Fairfax County schools were disrupted by social upheaval of integration, then the system was staggered by explosive growth after World War II. In 1940, there were 39 elementary and four high schools hosting 6,899 students, but by 1970, there 130,157 children attending 158 schools.

The county opened Groveton High School in 1956 on Popkins Lane, but by 1976, the school shifted to a new facility on Quander Road, with the old campus later becoming Bryant Alternative High School.

In 1960-61, Fairfax County opened nine intermediate schools and began operating a scheme of six elementary, two middle, and four high school grades. The eighth grade had been added to high schools in 1946, but credits earned in that grade did not count for high school graduation until 1961.

Opened in 1963, Fort Hunt High School was unique in that a large number of the students walked to school. In a controversial decision in 1985, the county merged Fort Hunt with Groveton to form West Potomac High School using the former Groveton facility. The county converted Fort Hunt to Sandburg Middle School.

Today

The appeal of Route One declined in the 1970s and '80s, but now there is a broad-based collaboration between the private sector, local government, and community activists to rejuvenate the corridor. A flurry of new houses, office space, and retail operations that started in the 1990s, is giving the area new energy.

Federal government employment isn’t quite the economic engine that it once was in southeast Fairfax County, but the homes and communities of the Mount Vernon area are still attractive to parents who work in the District. Expensive, water-front homes may be out of reach for many families, but the area’s neighborhoods still offer something to most everyone. Infill developments on open land are offering new housing stock, and the oldest subdivisions are seeing buyers replace aging houses with bigger and more modern structures. The proposed transfer of department of Defense workers and agencies to Fort Belvoir from other Washington area locations will add pressures to the housing market in Mount Vernon.

There are now three high schools in the Mount Vernon area, West Potomac, Mount Vernon, and the newly opened South County High School, built on the grounds of the old District Reformatory in Lorton. West Potomac offers one of the largest selections of Advanced Placement courses in the county and Mount Vernon hosts the acclaimed International Baccalaureate program.

The Mount Vernon Parkway and its continuous view of the Potomac remains a leafy retreat from the hardscape of the District and Route One. A life-time resident of Mount Vernon once said that driving home from work on the Parkway is reason enough to live here.