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Centreville's Storied History

Ordinary people lay groundwork for the future.

<bt>An artist for Harper's Weekly visited a small town at the crossroads of Braddock Road and the Warrenton Turnpike in 1861 and hated his visit. He said he was forced to sleep with his head on a saddle in a hotel "when not fifty people in the U.S. outside of Virginia had heard of the place." He even had a problem with the name when he said "The right name of the place is Centerville, not Centreville as the maps have it."

More than 140 years later this town, known as Centreville to everyone, sits along Routes 28, 29, and 66 — but it all began on a small part of Braddock Road sandwiched between highways and shopping malls in a place called the Historic District.

In 1755, a small road in the western part of Fairfax County called the Rolling Road or the Mountain Road took a new name from the hopes of locals that British General Edward Braddock would use the road to march to Winchester. He never did, but the name stuck.

By 1768 a local tavern named Newgate served travelers from all walks of life, and the food must have been good, because George Washington stopped to eat there at least four times. This tavern also brought in others who set up tanyards — or leather shops — and stores along that stretch of Braddock Road.

Sue Davis, a member of the Centreville Community Foundation, said this was the beginning of a town defined by its location next to two different roads.

“When they talked about Centreville being the crossroads, it really was, and still is in some ways — especially with all the recent development,” said Davis.

In 1792, Newgate became the town of Centreville, and its locations as a crossroads made it an important location during the Civil War.

Mike O'Donnell, a relic-hunter and writer, can point out the old and overgrown forts that remain tucked behind housing developments and townhouse complexes along Wharton and Pickwick roads and the remaining trench lines that used to stretch for miles in either direction.

These trenches were dug by the Confederate Army after driving Union forces away during the Battle of Manassas. The Confederate Army set up a winter camp here and built miles of earthworks and forts.

"They never intended to defend this line, that's why they put the wooden guns in from the beginning. This line was always a fake," said O'Donnell. "There were just massive camps everywhere you can imagine, they built them with foundations, fireplaces, even chimneys."

O'Donnell said preserving the remaining trenches and forts should be a higher priority for the county, especially with the amount of development.

"If we take all of the forts and the lines and make it into one thing then we will really have something for tourists and schoolchildren. But we are in danger of losing all that," said O'Donnell.

But the Civil War almost destroyed Centreville; many of its buildings were destroyed and the landscape made barren when all the trees were torn down, but the residents returned to rebuild.

Cheryl Repeti is a member of the Centreville Community Foundation and the Friends of Historic Centreville praised the determination of those early residents.

"Centreville never really died out like some other places. Families like the Masons and the Jamesons had to leave for the Civil War and then come back and rebuild. They really had to rebuild," said Repeti.

Centreville lived on, and in 1929 Braddock Road was paved over after then President Warren Harding's motorcade became stuck in the infamous thick Virginia clay. The introduction of a paved road caused a sharp rise in property values.

In 1985 much of the properties became part of what is called a historic overlay district — or Centreville Historic District — in an effort to keep the area's historic nature. The properties included St. John's Episcopal Church, the Havener house, the Old Stone church, the Old Stone House, the Harrison House and Mount Gilead.

Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey said the historic district was met with mixed emotions

"There was a lot of fear. Some people viewed it as an additional set of restrictions for when they wanted to redevelop their property. I think being in a historic district would be a good distinction," said Frey.

Not to cut Centreville short however, the area has bragging rights to many historic sites such as Walney Visitor's Center in E.C. Lawrence Park, but historic Centreville is unique in its creation as a historic district. A requirement for such a distinction is that the sites must be common in either design or in their contribution to history.

The community celebrated Centreville Day last September for the first time in Centreville's Historic District and Frey credits the celebration for the renewed interest in the history.

"It worked really well, we had people interpreting the history and telling the stories of Centreville. All of a sudden people realized there is a history there. This was once a western frontier in Fairfax County," said Frey.

Visitors can look forward to another Centreville Day on Saturday, Sept. 17 to be held in Centreville's Historic District. Repeti knows why it's important to remember the historic district, especially when Centreville is close to the shadows of physically impressive historic buildings.

"This isn't where George Washington lived, it's not where George Mason lived, in comparison Centreville sort of pales, but it's important because it’s a small town of people who strove to better themselves. It's much like it is today, they were not rich but they were not poor. They were at all times striving to make something of their town," said Repeti. "That's worth celebrating as much as George Washington or those other leaders. These were the people that made things happen on a day-to-day level."

Even though Centreville has changed in the last 200 or so years, it still has much in common with the Centreville of 1940 or 1860. It is a crossroads for people traveling on any of three major highways, its always a great place to stop and eat, and it is filled with people that make things happen.