When the Fairfax County Park Authority wanted to create a new cultural resources event for the public, Pirates was an alluring theme for citizens and their families.
“We couldn’t get them to come to a festival that had the word ‘history’ in it,” said Tammy Schwab, manager of education and outreach for Fairfax County Park Authority resource management.
So “Pirate Fest” was born in 2014, combining live entertainment, interactive pirate lifestyle experiences, educational crafts and historical lessons, all hosted around Lake Fairfax Park in Reston.
Just over 1,000 people came out to the inaugural fest, Schwab said, and she’s anticipating more for this year’s encore event. As first mate, she helped organize the event and will be joined by a crew of 40 people including volunteers and county staff from both the recreation and history and nature sides of the Park Authority.
ONE OF THE CHANGES, according to Schwab, will be a more compact footprint: Rather than have additional festivities in the adjacent field, everything pirate-related will take place on or close to the water. The event is also scheduled earlier in the year to avoid the opening of the nearby Water Mines Water Park.
Judy Pedersen, a spokesperson for the Fairfax County Park Authority and long-time renaissance fair enthusiast, said they’re hoping to continue developing a similar atmosphere at Pirate Fest.
“The idea that people show up in costume, speaking like a pirate, gives it a nice flavor,” she said.
Schwab’s favorite attraction is real life pirate ship, the park’s regular tour boat dressed up to resemble a marauding vessel. “You really can’t beat the pirate boat ride,” she said. “It’s the maritime piece, to go to a pirate fest and be on the water.”
Swashbucklers on the boat ride will be led through a harrowing high seas scenario by “Captain Blood.”
In addition to enjoying sword-fighting demonstrations, dulcet tones from roving troubadour John DuRant and seafaring songs from the group Ship’s Company Chanteymen, budding pirates and privateers will be able to learn some ship science with rope-making and knot tying workshops, as well as craft their own flag based on traditional symbols flown by historic pirates.
Artifacts from excavations in the region will also be on display, “that may have come from European markets to the new world,” said Pedersen, “typical of things that would’ve had to get through pirate ships to get to our coasts.”
For Robert Prather, the Garrett, Kentucky-based author of the book “The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver,” it’s fitting that a pirate festival is taking place around Lake Fairfax Park.
According to Prather, who did much of his research for the historical work at the Fairfax Circuit Court clerk’s office, City of Fairfax Regional Library and archives of historical deeds in various other clerks’ offices, there are indications the land where the park sits today was once owned by the wealthy 18th-century merchant Jonathan Swift.
“In legend, he is basically regarded as a pirate,” Prather said of Smith, who lived in Alexandria for 40 years after moving there around 1784.
Lore spread across seven states that the merchant and his band of pirates moved and hoarded a vast treasure in Kentucky. In his book, Prather asserts Robert Louis Stevenson may have based stories from “Treasure Island” and the character Long John Silver on Smith’s legend.
Prather will return to Pirate Fest for a second year to talk about his book and new breakthroughs that will be included in the 2015 edition.
“It’s OK for us to romanticize on the pirate phenomenon going on today, especially if you think about the pirates in Swift’s time were more than likely patriots,” said Prather.
“His father-in-law Brig. Gen. Daniel Roberdeau owned three different privateer ships and did quite a bit of sacking during the Revolutionary War,” Prather added. “And through Swift legend, it’s stated he and his men ran the Spanish Main and captured some ships down there. If you were England or you were Spain, they definitely would’ve been pirates.”
As one of the wealthiest men in Alexandria, Prather said, Swift was a Mason, knew George Washington and was at one time president of the city’s Trustees of the Poor and Common Council. “He was a good guy, no questions about it,” said Prather. “When he passed away, the Alexandria Gazette advertised the the poor will have much to lament.”
PIRATE FEST is sponsored by the Fairfax County Park Foundation and scheduled to take place rain or shine at Lake Fairfax Park, 1400 Lake Fairfax Drive in Reston, May 2, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/lakefairfax/pirate-fest.htm or at the park. Boat rides are an additional $2 for tickets, which can be purchased in advance online.