Ellanor C. Lawrence Park History
The Fairfax County Park Authority has owned the land that comprises Ellanor C. Lawrence Park since 1971. Development of facilities began in 1980. Most of the land that is now the park was once part of a farm called Walney. For the two hundred and thirty years from the time that farming began here until the Park Authority was given the land, it remained in the ownership of only three families: Brown/Lewis, Machen and Lawrence. Today, exhibits and programs educate patrons about the natural history of the park and tell the story of those families and the American Indians that were here before them.
The land that became Walney has been occupied by humans for over 13,000
years. Clovis spear points found near Dulles Airport were used by ancient
paleo-Indians to hunt medium to large game toward the end of the last ice
age. Prey species included woodland caribou and possibly mastodon. A
smaller spear point found here at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park dates from
9,000 years ago. By that time larger groups of archaic Indians moved
around smaller geographic areas taking advantage of more plant foods and
hunting deer, elk and bison. Many prehistoric people probably used this
land over the next 8,000 years.
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By the time settlers arrived at Jamestown this land may have been occupied seasonally by Dogue (or Tauxenent) Indians whose main villages were located in eastern Fairfax along the tidal Potomac River. Although the Dogues grew crops, fished and hunted around the Potomac for much of the year, hunting deer and gathering nuts here would have been an important source of food during winter months. The Indians would also have come to trade with tribes from the mountains for good rock for making tools.
To travel between eastern and western Fairfax, the Dogues followed an ancient trail which leads from Occoquan to Aldie. This trail was improved by colonists and called Mountain Road; it was later renamed Braddock Road. An Indian site located near Braddock Road just west of the park was used over thousands of years and may have been a seasonal camp for the Dogues.
The first land patents in what is now western Fairfax County were issued
in 1727. In that year, Francis Aubrey acquired the land now within the
park south of Big Rocky Run. Aubrey sold this land to Colonel John
Tayloe, who sold it to Willoughby Newton of Westmoreland County in 1739.
Newton never actually settled on his Fairfax County land. He leased the
land to tenant farmers. One of these was a man of singular determination
named Thomas Brown. Brown, illiterate but energetic, obtained a
three-lives-lease from Newton. The lease was to run for the lives of
Thomas, his wife Elizabeth and their oldest son Joseph. Brown was
required to pay annual rent of 530 pounds of “neat” tobacco (that is,
cured and of marketable quality). He was also required to build necessary
structures and plant 200 apple trees. The lease, dated 1742, tells us
that Brown was already living in a house on the land. This house sat near
the old Indian trail (now Braddock Road), and was probably built on top
of an Indian camp site.
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Over the years Brown purchased acreage outside of his leasehold. Thomas and his youngest son, Coleman, purchased over 600 combined acres north of Big Rocky Run. This land now forms the core of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. In 1776 Thomas Brown sold his three-lives-lease on the land south of Big Rocky Run. By this time the soil was probably played out from 35 years of tobacco production. Coleman eventually purchased most of that land in 1811.
Both Thomas and Coleman Brown planted tobacco as their primary crop. Their fortunes were based on tobacco, but unfortunately, tobacco quickly depletes the soil of nutrients and the methods used promoted a great loss of topsoil. Thomas switched to mixed crops after the Revolutionary War, planting wheat, corn and oats. Eventually Coleman followed suit.
At his death Thomas Brown left all of his land north of Big Rocky Run to his son Coleman. Coleman became a well respected citizen of Fairfax County. He served as a vestryman for Truro Parish, even though he was a Baptist and the parish was Episcopalian. Coleman was a major contributor to Frying Pan Baptist Church where he was a life-long member. Although Brown never attained the stature of the great landowners like George Washington or the Fairfaxes, he nevertheless enjoyed a comfortable life from the products of his land.
In his old age, Coleman turned the management of the farm over to his son-in-law, Coleman Lewis. Lewis, who married Mary Brown, was an ineffectual manager, and the farm’s productivity and profit slide downhill under his management. To prevent Lewis from completely ruining the farm, Brown made the Lewis children his heirs and stipulated that they could sell the farm and divide the proceeds. None of Brown’s grandchildren were particularly anxious to settle on the farm, so in the early 1840s, they began a hard sell campaign to encourage their cousin Lewis Henry Machen to buy the property. Machen succumbed in 1843 and became the owner of the 725-acre estate which his son Arthur named “Walney.”
Machen was not a farmer. He was a clerk of the United States Senate, a position he held for almost 50 years. His was a political appointment, however, and he purchased Walney partly as a hedge against the insecurity of a job dependent on political patronage. Machen moved his wife Caroline, his daughter Emmeline, and his sons Arthur and James to Walney. Although the Centreville farm was only a four hour journey from the capitol, Lewis spent most of his time in Washington. Ill health and his Senate duties combined to prevent him from making the trip often.
Most of the burden of the actual farming fell on Arthur and James, boys in their teens when the family moved to Walney. Arthur was a scholar, happiest with his nose glued in a book. He played an active role in the operation and management of the farm in his teenage years. However, he had a different calling and entered Harvard Law School in 1849. James, who loved farming, was left to operate the farm.
Although Lewis Machen had little to do with the day to day operation of the farm, he nonetheless took a keen interest in its management. The 1840s and 50s heralded the scientific farming movement, and Machen was an avid proponent of all the latest methods and techniques. He wrote voluminous instructions to James (to James’ occasional exasperation) detailing schedules to apply and new techniques to use. Machen was a meticulous record keeper and demanded the same of his sons. The family papers contain thousands of letters and ledger entries documenting the activities of all the slaves and hired hands, prices paid and received for various commodities, the amount of Peruvian guano used as fertilizer, and other details of life at Walney.
Like other Fairfax County farmers of the period, the Machens were faced with the problem of unproductive soil. Although the Browns had started mixed crop farming years before, years of tobacco production were made worse by Coleman Lewis’ poor management and the general economic decline prevalent throughout the county in the early 19th century. The Machens grew grains (oats, wheat, rye) and corn as well as vegetables. They also raised cattle, sheep and hogs. Interestingly, they planted tobacco at least one year. In 1860, the Census lists them as having produced 8000 pounds of tobacco.
Walney suffered extensive damage during the Civil War, as troops from both sides crossed back and forth across the property. In 1861-62, over 40,000 troops camped in and around Centreville, and cut most of the available trees for firewood, shelter and fortifications. The result of this deforestation was extensive erosion, evidence of which is still visible on the property today. After his father’s death during the Civil War, James took over the farm and gradually moved into dairy farming, as did many of his neighbors. James’ move to dairy farming was prompted by the growing access to the Washington/Alexandria market, dropping grain prices due to the tilling of the great plains and railroad shipment, and the fact that dairying required a smaller labor force than other types of farming. It also was probably the most effective use of the property.
By 1880, James was producing 3000 pounds of butter a year. He was still growing corn and wheat as well, and was also producing some fruit to sell. In spite of reverses during the Civil War, Walney continued to provide for the Machens. In December 1874, the main farmhouse burned. James enlarged the stone house, which is now the Visitor Center, and moved his family in there.
James continued to raise dairy cattle until the 1890s and then suddenly abandoned dairying. Why James abandoned dairy farming is not certain. Dairy farming remained profitable in the Centreville/Chantilly area until the 1970s. However, James was in his sixties and none of his four children were interested in farming. In addition, his wife Georgie died in 1895. In their almost 30 years of marriage, they lost nine children aged infant to six years old. One gets the impression that James was tired. He remained an active and respected member of the community until his death in 1913. He also remained a member of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Centreville which his mother helped found in the 1840s. James is buried there next to Georgie and several of their children who died so young.
James began renting out acreage to other local farmers before 1870. In the 1890s he began to rent out rooms in the stone house. After his death, the children rented the farm out to tenants through the 1920s. The farm declined significantly under tenancy. It appears to have been abandoned for several years in the late 1920s and early 1930s before Ellanor C. Lawrence bought the farm from the Machen heirs in 1935. Ellanor continued to rent out the stone house of Walney until the late 1940s, when she began to renovate it.
Ellanor Campbell Lawrence grew up in South Carolina. She moved to Washington, D.C. in about 1916, where she met and married David Lawrence. David was a syndicated columnist and author as well as the founder and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. The Lawrences used Walney as a country estate and a retreat from the hectic professional and social life of Washington, D.C. The Lawrences did not live in the stone house when at Walney.
Ellanor increased her landholding here in 1942 with the purchase of Cabell’s Mill, Middlegate house and the surrounding 20 acres. This land had remained under separate ownership since the time of Willoughby Newton. Ellanor and David lived at Middlegate when visiting. They entertained many guests there, and family members often gathered at Middlegate for Christmas.
Under Ellanor’s direction, some of the old farm buildings and tenant structures were torn down. At the same time, the stone structures at Middlegate and Walney were renovated. Ellanor was an avid gardener, and landscape features and extensive flower plantings were added. Pasture and crop fields were left to revert to old field and forest. Ellanor was very interested in the human and natural history of the property. Upon her death in 1969, she left the property to her husband David with the intent that it be given to a public agency, and its cultural and natural features be preserved. David Lawrence deeded 640 acres of Walney and Middlegate to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1971 in memory of Ellanor.
The use of the property by the Machens and others has left telltale
signs on the land. Many of them, such as foundations and road cuts, are
obvious and easily understood; others are much subtler. Gone is the old
oak/hickory forest that covered the rolling hills in prehistoric times.
The predictable change in plant communities from grass to cedar to oaks
is known as succession. You can trace the use of the land by the stage of
succession it is in: steep slopes along streams were often left uncut and
are full of large hardwoods; however, flat areas on uplands were used for
row crops or pasture until as recently as the 1960’s and are covered with
cedars and pines. Some areas were left to revert to forest long ago.
These contain open forest of mature hardwoods. If left alone long enough,
the whole park would grow into forest dominated by oaks and
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The physical shape of the stream valleys also reflects the agricultural history of the land. The smaller creeks trickle through channels that are far too large to have been carved by the existing flow. In the past, they carried large amounts of water that ran quickly off of cropland during storms. Runoff from such areas is far greater than that from natural habitats. Cropland runoff also carries large amounts of silt that scour channels and smother stream bottoms.
Erosion gullies can be found throughout the park. These are remnants of the land clearing during the Civil War. They begin at the top of ridgelines and course straight down hill into the streams. Although now dry and covered by leaf litter and vegetation, they once filled with torrents of water during rainstorms, carrying away valuable topsoil and profoundly changing the shape of the land.
Because they have remained undisturbed for many years, the stream valleys are focal points for much of the flora and fauna of the park. Many beautiful spring wildflowers bloom here, and ferns and moss cover the banks. Massive oaks, many over 100 years old, tower over dogwood, spicebush, pawpaw and witch hazel. Deer and the occasional turkey search the forest floor for food, foxes den on the slopes, and numerous bird species can be observed throughout the year. Walney Creek’s cool, clean water plays host to a wide variety of insect larvae and several species of minnows, salamanders and crayfish. Big Rocky Run, while supporting a good variety of small fish species, lacks the diversity and abundance of Walney Creek. This is due to water flow and temperature problems caused by runoff from all of the heavily developed land in Big Rocky Run’s watershed to the east of the park.
A final example of the human influence on the natural landscape is much more difficult to interpret. Scattered across Ellanor C. Lawrence Park are many shallow, round depressions of decidedly man-made origin. Perfectly circular, ranging from 3 to 10 feet wide and 6 to 24 inches deep, they are located on both ridgetops and floodplains. They are partially filled with leaf litter and woody debris and many contain a variety of plants. Those in the floodplains are seasonally filled with water and serve as breeding sites for frogs and salamanders. Their origins remain a mystery, yet discovery of their purpose could reveal much about how people interacted with their environment.
The story of humans and the land is a never-ending one. As the area around Centreville and Chantilly becomes increasingly developed, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park has become an island of “green space” in the sea of surrounding built landscape. Once again, the land of Walney will respond to and influence people’s relationship with the environment in which they live.