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Women Become Historic Theme

History surrounds every corner in Old Town Fairfax.

A historic walking tour through Fairfax incorporated a special Mother's Day twist on the city's rich history.

Civil War Weekend brought old times into the spotlight May 6-7, but the city offers ongoing history and educational events throughout the year. A two-hour historic walking tour of just a three block area of downtown revealed just how much history was created in Fairfax.

Susan Gray, the city’s historic resources curator, greeted four guests at the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center for the Mother’s Day walking tour. The turnout was low as a result of Mother’s Day, said Gray, but she tried to incorporate the theme of women and mothers into the tour at nearly every stop.

The first stop on the cold, rainy day was the Fairfax Court House. This building alone tells a lot about how the city became what it is today, said Gray.

“Women and families came here to socialize and sell products from their farms,” said Gray. “There was a whole community exchange out here on the courthouse lawn.”

Courthouses were so important around the turn of the 19th century that entire communities surrounding them often had the word “courthouse” in their names, said Gray. The Fairfax area was called Providence until the courthouse opened in 1800. Gray said the area was then referred to as “Fairfax Court House,” and on maps it was simply “Fairfax C.H.”

“It’s just a very important site for the whole history and development of our community,” said Gray. “The town really started developing around the courthouse.”

"It's the most recognized historic symbol of the [Fairfax] region," said Chris Martin, Director of Historic Resources for the city.

Four other historic buildings are visible from the courthouse lawn. The Bailiwick Inn, the Ford House, Old Town Hall and the Ratcliffe-Allison House all tell their own stories about Fairfax. The next stop on the tour was the Ford House, where the theme of women again came into play. Gray told the group about Antonia Ford, a suspected Confederate spy with a protective mother, Julia. Gray talked about the letters Julia wrote and about the mother-daughter relationship.

“[Antonia’s] mom worried about her daughter’s reputation,” said Gray. “When Antonia died, her mom was deeply saddened.”

Keeping with the Mother’s Day theme, Gray talked about Antonia Ford’s son, Joseph Willard, who financed the construction of the next stop on the tour. Willard wanted his mother’s home town to have a social center, so he paid for the building of Old Town Hall in 1900.

"We call it the social cornerstone of the city," said Martin. "To have it be used so much is a real endorsement to why it was built and to the city."

NEXT DOOR to Old Town Hall was the final stop on the tour. The second oldest structure in Fairfax, built in 1812, is the Ratcliffe-Allison House. Gray said it was originally built as a rental dwelling by the founder of the Town of Providence, Richard Ratcliffe, who had also previously sold the four-acre courthouse property to the city for $1. The house went through many different owners and eventually belonged to Kitty Barrett Pozer, who left the house to the city upon her death in 1981. The city spent years restoring the property, and eventually opened it to the public in 1998. The garden adjacent to the property was named the “Kitty Pozer Garden” in her honor.

The restoration process of each historic building along the walking tour has been done carefully, said Karen Stevenson, president of Historic Fairfax City Inc. (HFCI), a non-profit organization working as an advisory board to the city staff on historic matters. Restoration, according to Stevenson, is what keeps the character and the history of the city breathing. HFCI works independently from the city, but Martin said the two commonly help each other, providing information and support on historic matters. Stevenson also said restoring private residences is just as important for the city's character and historic preservation as restoring public buildings.

“I cannot believe people can take all these old houses and just tear them down without giving any thought,” said Stevenson. “Don’t tear it down and throw it away. Look at it again.”