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'I Remember Walney' — Mildred DeBell Recalls E.C. Lawrence Park

When I came to Centreville in 1938, the road system geography was much different from today's. The present Route 28 was the Manassas Road, which turned right at the McDonalds, past the present fire house to a triangle for exits and entrances to route 29, turning sharply left on Braddock Road at Payne's Store, then a sharp right at Mt. Gilead Road on to the intersection at Cabell's Mill, now Walney Road, across flat lick run to Route 50 in Chantilly and on to Herndon.

This was Centreville Road. Historically it was the main road in Centreville before Route 29 was built in the 1920s and harbored homes and businesses such as the Eagle Tavern, George Milan's Blacksmith Shop, The Tanneries, John DeBell's store, The Spindel House next to the Old Stone Church, the old Tollgate with access to the Warrenton Turnpike and many other homes and businesses.

In 1938 I remember Annie Turbeville's house across the from the entrance to Royal Oaks, a store which she had turned into living quarters, the Rutter House, Claiborne Wells and the Spindle House, the Hunsberger, Miss Grace Brennon's, the Harrison and Havener, with only a few remaining today.

WILLIE GROUCH, a fine stonemason, told me he helped to clear the remains of the Eagle Tavern in 1938 and gave me a few stones. Mount Gilead Road was then Centreville Road and wound its way past the Spindle House, St. John's Mt. Gilead and several new homes this side of the present I-66. Robert Dye's home was on the other side before Cabell's Mill. At that time, Dorothy Radford owned the mill and the house named Middlegate, where she and her mother lived and used the mill for many social and community activities. She was a very special person.

Walney had not been occupied for years and was so overgrown it was hardly visible from the road. Shortly after Eleanor Lawrence bought the land, John and Joan Crane appeared, looking for a place in the county to live for their internment jobs in Europe. Discovering Walney, they convinced Mrs. Lawrence to allow them to open up Walney in its primitive state. The front was cleared and they moved in, with John's children Marylyn and Bob. This was in the mid-1940s. Mary Thoron DeBell had acquired a position in Washington, D.C., and became acquainted with the Cranes and commuted with them to the District. The families became good friends.

My friendship with John lasted until his demise in 2001. He was in his upper 90s. Professionally, both he and Joan had remarkable careers. Joan worked for the State Department and was involved in the dismantling and reconstructing of Germany after WWII, while John was a college professor with many honors in the international field.

THEIR ANNUAL Christmas letters described their personal activities throughout each year. In 1964, he described their travels throughout most of the European countries where they received honors and visited old and new friends. This was his 40th crossing of the Atlantic and her 24th. They wrote several books — one on Russian history and one on aviation, namely the Wright Brothers, which was not quite completed before Joan's death. Eventually, they came back to the states and lived in various places before they ended up in this area and renewed a long friendship.

And now back to Walney.

Entering from the downstairs into the kitchen was a trip back in history. The door was equipped with an old wooden latch, and there were no modern conveniences and limited furnishings. The Cranes enjoyed the enchantment of the old house, its six stairways, the ghosts and any other unusual experiences that occurred while living there. Unfortunately these have disappeared with time. I for one remember John telling me about the stairway that went nowhere, just up to a landing where a young girl, probably one of the Machens, would sit and weep, her tears falling down below, for she was in love with some one disapproved of by her parents. Bob remembers always finding a damp spot under that landing, even in the hotter summer months.

SO MANY wonderful stories lost by my memory. I can still see us sitting around the fireplace in the living room upstairs, when Stuart Jr. was a toddler of 2, running around the room and watching the sparkling fire. Joan was a romantic at heart and when visiting us would enjoy sitting around the fireplace with the lights out and engaging in good conversation. While not a raving beauty, I can still see her face, which exuded warmth and beauty from within.

Although the Cranes were the pioneers of the reopening of Walney, their tenure was short due to their careers overseas. After the Cranes, Mrs. Lawrence remodeled the kitchen and installed many modern conveniences, which enabled her to have other tenants, who kept the charm of this old house with their many social events. Eventually Ann and Harry Beresford arrived and were there until Mrs. Lawrence's death. Harry is responsible for clearing the land so much in the rear and sides, as only the rear and front had been previously cleared.

Ann had flowers everywhere, mostly beds of iris and other shrubs around the house. They furnished the interior with all the charm the old house deserved. Ann, a member of Rocky Run Garden Club, was involved in activities of community organization and beautification of Centreville and its surroundings, which are preserved in the history collection for the garden club. She loved blue birds and spent hours helping others to encourage and preserve their existence.

A memorial should be made to the Cranes for opening Walney and to the Beresfords for restoring its place in Centreville history. Unfortunately, most the house's charm was lost with the Park Authority's remodeling, but fortunately it has been preserved for history as a Visitor's Center for future generations to enjoy. Mrs. Lawrence should also be remembered for her gift to preserve Walney perpetually.

SHE LOVED natural beauty and resisted the encroachment of those who would destroy it. A charter member of the Rocky Run Garden Club, she loved her summers here and made many friends within the community. The mill was warmly decorated and was appropriate for hosting dignitaries, family, friends, and the local social events. The lower level and patio were adjacent to Rocky Run and were furnished with a massive long table with chairs, and a kitchen nearby to accommodate a large number of guests. Rocky Run Garden Club enjoyed this room for many years and members were fortunate that she perpetually provided the use of the mill to the club.

At one of those luncheons, I was sitting by Mrs. Lawrence as she told me how the property was acquired. She was accompanying her friend Polly Nevius and a real-estate agent to the country to look for land. The agent told her of the available of a large tract of land near Centreville. She fell in love with it and decided to purchase the property. David, her husband, was furious at the idea of living some place so far away from the city. Determined, Mrs. Lawrence acquired financial assistance from her brother overseas, and the deal was made. David eventually learned to love the property as she did.

Getting up in years, she was also concerned about the property after her death. I suggested that it had to be preserved and she had three choices: federal, state and local, all with specific provisions. With David's help, along with the support of Rev. Peterson and the parishioners of St. Johns, all of the details with the Fairfax County Park Authority were worked out over two years.

I am grateful for having known the Lawrences and can only hope that I had some small part in preserving this important piece of Centreville's Heritage.

For the real history of Walney, I suggest you get the book "Walney" from the Visitor's Center.