Before signs of suburbia began to appear, the Springfield area was rolling fields, small towns and farms.
“When growth hit the area in the 50s and 60s, people didn’t realize the history of the area,” said Carl Sells, of the reasoning behind the Franconia Museum.
A volunteer at the museum and lifelong resident of Huntington, Sells remembers driving “all the way out” to Franconia or Springfield when his family wanted to spend some time in the country. Kingstowne, he said, was a gravel pit.
In the 1950s, the county had only five high schools, and all the students from Alexandria, Springfield, Lorton and Mount Vernon went to Mount Vernon High School, at its old location on Route 1.
After school, said Sells, many people headed over to Ward’s Corner in Franconia. Ward’s Corner grew around a small general store on Franconia Road, began by Sylvia Plaugher and her husband, who moved to Franconia in 1935. A movie theater opened in February 1948, named Sylvia’s. Tickets were 40 cents for adults and 20 cents for children.
Ward’s Corner was also home to a live music hall. The shows were almost universally country, with names like Jimmy Dean, Roy Clarke, the Stoneman Family and Grandpa Jones appearing there. Clarke and Dean were from the Fairfax County area, said Sells, who remembers seeing Dean playing on an Alexandria street corner as a child.
Businesses sprung up around Ward’s general store. Besides the movie theater, Ward’s Corner featured a soda fountain, auto repair shop, gas station, hardware store, Talbot’s Hay & Grain and Fitzgerald’s Grocery. But in May 18, 1959, Ward’s Corner was destroyed by fire.
Another popular pastime in the Franconia area was the annual Fireman’s Carnival Day. Held on Labor Day each year, the event featured rides, a parade and a “Popularity Queen.”
The Franconia Volunteer Fire Department was established by a group of D.C. firefighters, said Sells, and they built a fire station on Franconia Road where the Franconia Governmental Center is now. The VFD owned the station and paid for it with money they raised themselves. Another stalwart of the yearly parade was a 1930s truck that still runs, said Sells.
THE NAME FRANCONIA came from an old farm that was there in the 1700s, Frankhonia Farm. In the late 19th century, part of the farm was sold to become a railroad station. The Franconia Railroad Station operated until 1953, according to Sells.
The Springfield area remained farmland until the 1950s, when housing developments began to sprout up with the same rapidity as fields of corn. Land values were high even then, with three-bedroom ramblers in the Fairfax area going for around $13,ooo. One of the most notable of these new Springfield developments was North Springfield, built in 1954-1956 by Edward R. Carr, which won several design awards for its incorporation of trees into the neighborhood. Harry Ormston was the architect, designing all-brick ramblers and split-levels over North Springfield’s 600 acres. Over a period of 20 years, Carr developed nearly 3,000 acres in the Springfield area.
An advertisement for a Springfield-area development in the 1950s says: “You don’t just buy a lovely home, but an entire way of life.” Pictured in the ad is a smiling family enjoying an outdoor dinner in their yard.
Before the population explosion, said Sells, “Everybody knew everybody else. There were not that many people to know.”
Now, he said, “We don’t know our neighbors.”
Sources for this story are the Franconia Museum, Carl Sells, “Fairfax County, Virginia: A History” by Nan Netherton, Daniel Sweig, Janice Artemel, Patricia Hickin and Patrick Reed (1978) and the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center. With special thanks to Nancy Makowski, Suzanne Levy, Anne Toohey and Michele Bernocco of the Virginia Room.