Four Centuries of History

Four Centuries of History

A former farming community, Burke was shaped by the failed proposal to situate Dulles Airport within its boundaries.

It is no town. But thanks to the pluck of a dozen residents 50 years ago, Burke is not the home to Dulles International Airport.

Nonetheless, the government proposal in the 1950s that would have relocated the airport to Burke has left its mark on the once-farming community.

"It just destroyed Burke, as we knew it," said Suzi Fowler Neal, a resident of Burke since her birth. Neal is a fourth-generation Burke-ite, and her family has lived in the area since her great-great grandfather James Harvey Rice and his wife Harriett moved to Virginia in 1857 after purchasing 420 acres they named Spring Grove Farm. The farm was one casualty of the Dulles project, and it doesn't exist anymore. Instead, the man-made natural landmark that defines Burke is in its place — Burke Lake Park. The 889-acre park, with its 218-acre, man-made lake, was created after the Federal government backed off its plans to put Dulles in Burke and gave the land to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Neal's father Herman, who was considered the "Paul Revere" warning Burke residents about the government's intentions,

claimed at the time, "The United States may be the only country where a dozen people can oppose Presidents, Congress, and the press, win their fight, and not lose their heads over it," according to the book "Memories of Beautiful Burke," which chronicles the history of the area.

In the process of the government buying land and condemning homes, however, the damage was done, according to Neal.

"In that time, Burke became a ghost town."

THE FARMING community in which Neal grew up was centered around the crossroads of Burke Road and Route 645, now Burke Lake Road. Although now, three shopping centers occupy that intersection, it once contained everything Burke needed to sustain a vibrant community.

"It was where the roads crossed, that was the town. It wasn't officially the town, we just called it that," said Neal. The train station was located there, and inside was the post office. Nearby was the main store. Today, that train station is Burke Methodist Church.

Farming was the lifeblood of that community, and according to Paul Brown, who has lived in Burke since he was 10 years old, Fairfax County once produced more milk than any other county in Virginia.

"That gives you the measure of the change," said Brown, who remembered his parents voting in the first Presidential election after they moved to the area in 1940.

"There might have been 50 votes in all of Burke," he said, remarking that the hot news of the time was that three votes cast in that election were for the Communist party.

Burke has its origins in the same land deal that created much of Fairfax County — the Ravensworth plantation, granted to William Fitzhugh in the late 1600s. One hundred years later, Lord Fairfax began to distribute parcels of land, some of which were given to prominent families such as the Wards. One of Henry Ward's achievements was building a home, now the Woods Community Center in Burke Centre. Another item of note: one of Ward's daughters, Hannah Ward, married wealthy plantation manager Silas Burke. Burke became the highest ranking public official in the county, and was instrumental in bringing the Orange and Alexandria railroad to the area. Its stop, called Burke's Station, was the name of the town for a long time, before it was shortened to simply Burke.

Brown's family lived for many years in one of the area's oldest houses, located at the corner of Ox and Burke Lake roads. The house, once known as "Brimstone Hill," belonged in the Civil War period to the Arundel family. One of the Arundel sons was a member of a Confederate army patrol that captured a group of Union engineers not far from the house. Camp was made, and the leader, Lieutenant Stringfellow left for a week. When he returned, Arundel and his men were dead, having been ambushed in their sleep.

"You have the rare case of a Confederate soldier being buried at home," said Brown.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Dulles Airport proposal, major developments like Kings Park West and the Burke Centre Conservancy took shape, capitalizing on the recent completion of the Capital Beltway in 1964. Today's Burke bears little resemblance to the farming community of a couple generations past, but still retains the natural beauty by which it was characterized.

"I know there's a lot of nice folks here, but there are an awful lot of them," said Neal, who still lives near the Silas Burke House, located on Burke Lake Road, where she grew up. She said she has been left a family house in upstate New York and has considered moving there, but the memories of Burke for her are too strong.

"My roots are here, I've got too many roots. I love Burke," she said. "It's a different kind of Burke, but I still associate it with the past."