Residents of the Little River Glen Senior Center began their lives as far away as Cuba or Brooklyn to as close by as Falls Church. At the Braddock District Winter Town Meeting Wednesday, Feb. 8, they shared their stories.
The winter town meeting traditionally focuses on senior issues, said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock). However, Wednesday's meeting continued a year-long history focus in the Braddock District and featured residents discussing their own histories.
"There's a wealth of talent here in Little River Glen, and here in the Braddock District," said Bulova.
Much of Cissy Karro's early recollection of the Great Depression was from stories told to her by her parents, she said. It was 1928 and she was 11-years-old, living in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, N.Y. As people lost their jobs, she said, crime in the area began to grow worse. Karro's parents, who had come to the United States from czarist Russia, no longer let her go outside or have friends over.
"The violence on the streets increased as family and friends began to lose their only source of income: the factory," she said.
The year 1929 marked a changing point in Karro's life. She was walking in New York City's financial district with her mother one day in October when her mother stopped and put her hands over Karro's eyes. She did not know it then, but her mother was concealing her from the sight of people jumping out of windows because of the stock market crash.
"My own life had been relatively stable until this point," Karro said. Her uncle was shot at when a strike over unsafe working conditions was broken up by a private security agency employed to break up strikes. He later died after losing his job and being black-balled from the industry, said Karro.
By the time Karro was in her early teens, her mother was determined to move the family away from the ghetto of Brooklyn. In 1931, she said, the family relocated to Minneola, in Long Island, N.Y. where they opened a laundry business.
Even in the Depression, said Karro, the business did well. No one had washing machines yet, she said, people had to wash clothes. However, Karro said, the New Deal years that followed were better for her family. After attending high school at an industrial arts school, Karro moved to Washington, D.C., where she stayed.
Bill Mitchell remembers when Route 50 was called "Lee Boulevard."
"If you stood at the top the hill where Seven Corners come together, you could take a cannon and shoot right down Route 50 and never hit a soul," he said. "It was farmland."
Fairfax County has changed a great deal, said Mitchell. When Mitchell and his wife moved into the Jefferson Village development on Lee Boulevard and Annandale Road, it was the westernmost development in all of Fairfax County. The neighborhood had been built for returning World War II veterans like Mitchell. Much of the area was farmland, and Mitchell would often take his children to visit nurseries and farms near their home. A small store on the corner of Routes 7 and 50 sold fishing tackle, rifles, and hunting gear all in one place, he said, and three acres in Vienna cost $1,500.
"I have reached my peak as far as age goes," said Mitchell, who celebrated his 87th birthday at Little River Glen. "But Fairfax County is growing, growing, growing, and is now one of the most profitable and richest counties in the state."
Some things have not changed, however, said Mitchell. Fairfax County Public Schools are still some of the highest-quality schools in the area, and the proximity to Washington, D.C. offers many local events.
"There are so many things here that have not changed, that are still great for a growing family," he said.
Claire Mortfeld's family history in Washington, D.C. goes back to the Civil War. According to family legend, she said, her grandmother's house in Georgetown was once overtaken by Union soldiers looking for deserters.
Mortfeld was also born and raised in Georgetown. She lived through the Great Depression, but because her father worked in the meat business, was fortunate enough to have a car during most of it, she said.
Washington was a good place to grow up, she said, even though she was not allowed to go as many places as her male cousins.
"There were places they weren't supposed to go to either, but they did," said Mortfeld. "My mother would turn over in her grave if she knew how many times we canoed on the Potomac River."
One of the best things about living in Washington, however, was the frequent celebrity sightings, said Mortfeld. During her years living in the city, she saw movie stars such as Richard Carlson of "I Led Three Lives," and, most notably, Gene Kelly.
The streetcars that used to run along the middle of the city streets were clean and well-operated, said Mortfeld, and it was easy to get around. Now, she said, some transit officials in Washington are talking about bringing streetcars back.
"If you stick around long enough, things come back full circle," said Mortfeld.
It was Hurricane Andrew that brought Marge Sproull to Fairfax County. In 1992, she lived in a mobile home park in Florida and remembers well the first time she heard about the storm.
"They told us the hurricane was moving toward Florida, and a high-pressure system on the coast was going to pick it up and move it off the coast and get rid of it," said Sproull. "It didn't."
Sproull went to a friend's house 15 miles away to wait out the storm, spending nearly eight hours in a small bathroom with three other people.
"That bathroom was really crowded," said Sproull. Everyone was unharmed, but the house was badly damaged. The storm destroyed all the windows, doors and part of the roof, and 15 miles away, Sproull's motor home was totaled.
"This is what we went through," she said. However, said Sproull, community members banded together in the wake of the hurricane. She and her friends set up a Coleman stove outside and started making coffee for the entire neighborhood. People came by with French toast, bread, and coffeepots all day, said Sproull, and when everyone was finished, she gave the stove away to a mother with three young children.
Ten days after the storm, Sproull moved with her son to Northern Virginia, where she has stayed. She has gone to visit Florida occasionally, she said, and while some things are recognizable, much has changed.
"We did a lot of laughing," she said. "Because if we weren't laughing, we would have been crying, constantly."
Lola Petsche's story began in Cuba, but in 1949, she arrived in the United States with her 4-year-old daughter. The family who took her in became like her own family, said Petsche, and made her transition to the U.S. much easier. To this day, she said, she still corresponds with the family.
Upon her arrival, however, she remembers seeing her host preparing eggs in a strange way, by boiling them and dyeing them bright colors. It was Easter, but Petsche had never seen anything like it.
"I said, 'I think I am going to like the United States, even though they eat weird things,'" said Petsche.
Petsche remembers her host family telling her: "You're too young. You need to date somebody." One night, the father invited a fellow Navy colleague over for dinner. He was a nice, polite man, said Petsche, and after three years, he became her husband. They never had any children together, she said, but he treated her daughter as his own.
"My daughter really loved this country, and would get really upset whenever she heard anyone say something bad about the U.S.," said Petsche.