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Collecting a Century of Centreville

This Centreville Day, Saturday Sept. 16, the community will have the opportunity to both see a wonderful collection of Centreville memories and to help enhance the Fairfax County Park Authority's museum collection.

Longtime resident Mildred DeBell will exhibit the DeBell family collection of more than a century's worth of Centreville memorabilia inside St John's Church throughout the day. On the porch of Mount Gilead house, the Park Authority Museum Collections staff will be gathering remembrances of Centreville and Mount Gilead with their scanners, cameras and pens.

Mildred DeBell, who took time from canning apples to talk about her collection, says that it covers a "century of Centreville." She considers a moment and acknowledges that, in fact, it represents closer to two centuries worth of documents and objects related to the town.

The oldest objects in the collection date back to 1826. More recent items include announcements of the opening of Dulles Airport, the Meadows at Newgate, and London Towne and Ellanor Lawrence Park. There are six to eight boxes of material on the Rocky Run Garden Club, along with items related to the Centreville School and St John's Church.

Photographs, newspaper clippings, rationing stamps from World War II, the heirloom christening gown in which DeBell dressed each of her sons. She says her collection is a mish-mash of things that she has spent her retirement years sorting out and organizing.

How did she come about such a large and diverse collection? Much of it had been accumulated and was in her husband's family home, Sunnyside, when she arrived in Centreville in 1938.

John D. DeBell established the Sunnyside farm here in 1870. The house was originally a log structure that stood where the Centreville Regional Library is now located (it was moved in 1968).

Mr. DeBell ran a general merchandise store on the corner of Mt. Gilead and Braddock Road. His son, John Thomas DeBell served on the School Board for 25 years, a tradition of public service that John's grandson, Stuart DeBell, continued when he was elected to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors in 1951 (he served as Chairman in the 1960s).

Mildred notes that her husband Stuart "was something of a pack rat," as was his mother.

Altogether Sunnyside has known six generations of DeBells and each generation has contributed to the family collection. Consequently, Mrs. DeBell says, "I have a house full of stuff." Fortunately for us, she takes considerable time each year to share a small selection of her collection each Centreville Day. She choses items she knows people will enjoy, such as old school photographs or memories of St John's from years gone by. It will be housed at St. John's Church on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. A preview will also be available at 6:30 p.m. on Friday night for people who purchase tickets to "Tales from the Blanket," an old-fashioned pageant celebrating Centreville's history.

ON CENTREVILLE DAY the Park Authority will have an exhibit set up on the porch at Mount Gilead. It will document what they have learned so far about Mount Gilead and Centreville. But, they are anxious to learn more. Collection Manager Jeanne Niccolls explains that they "will be collecting remembrances of Mt. Gilead and Centreville. We're interested in your memories of any special or everyday occurrences, chores, school days, people who lived or worked nearby, local businesses and churches, community events, etc. We are also interested in any objects, photographs, documents, etc., that people would be willing to bring to the program to be photographed and scanned." Though donations of items will be considered, it is not required as scanners and cameras can be used to record information valuable to the museum staff and preserve your family collection for the next generation.

For more information about the Park Authority collections and exhibits, call 703-631-1429. To reserve tickets for "Tales from the Blanket" (with Supervisor Michael Frey as Col. John Mosby), call 703-830-5407. For more information about Centreville Day, go to www.CentrevilleDay.com.