Edith Sprouse (2)
I've been interested in the history of this area about 15 years and I started out knowing nothing about it. I went on a tour that the AAUW had some years ago. Before that I always thought, well, Mount Vernon was down there and it's very well known and Alexandria was up here and it's very well known and there wasn't anything in between. I found there wassomething in between and this got me curious about it, so I've been working with local history quite a while and learning as I went along, because it's something you really have to teach yourself.
I think maps show you what used to be here and what the roads looked like and who lived in the area. I tracked down a great many people simply by finding them on a map and seeing if the house was still there or just driving around looking for houses that looked as though they might have been there for quite a while.
I am also the chairman of the county History Commission and we have made an inventory of landmarks in the county, about 215. There are great places like Mount Vernon. Some of them are very modest and some of them are not places at all. The ruins of Belvoir, where the site is under the ground, is an archaeology site. The watering trough as you go up Fort Hunt Road where the horses used to drink water-that's on there too, because it represents something rare in the county.
In 1891 when they were first talking about building a boulevard to Mount Vernon, if you wanted to get to Mount Vernon it wasn't really too easy. You had to go down what was Route 1 and then at Gum Springs take 235 toward Mount Vernon. When they first started talking about it there was a gentleman named George Washington Ball who lived in this area. He proposed that the road to Mount Vernon should follow the route Washington had actually taken. It came down Kings Highway past Mt. Eagle and Spring Bank, then along Quander Road, cutting through the present Bucknell Manor and Popkins Farm, continuing to Gum Springs. Ball wrote an explanation of his map, "The Vicinity of Mount Vernon in Ye Olden Times," showing the exact location of the neighboring seats and the route of the road habitually used by Washington between his house and Alexandria.
When they finally built Mt. Vernon Boulevard it didn't come down Quander Road, but, if he could have advised them that's how it would have come.
I think the first major change was the shift in the crop from tobacco which had been the main crop before the Revolution and which exhausted the soil, to wheat and corn, which, even before the Revolution, was beginning to replace tobacco in this area. After the Revolution the big tracts were broken down as the land was worn out.
The younger members of the family very often would take oft for the west and therefore the value of the land went down in the early 19th century and even towards the Civil War land around here was selling for $20 to $40 per acre. It wasn't very much, and the land wasn't any good. They weren't farming scientifically.
In this general area around Mt. Vernon it wasn't until Quakers from New Jersey area came down and started applying scientific farming to the land did they get it to produce anything. It was only then that the legacy of doing farming and market gardening came into use around here.
During the Civil War it was a no-man's land and there were enough forts in the general vicinity so that all the trees had been cut down, some buildings had been torn down, and others had burned. The people really had to start all over again and there was a very gradual build up as far as agriculture and land until almost the end of the 19th century. By then there was quite a lot of market gardening going on. If you look very closely you can still see a barn here and there. Suburbia, I think, has destroyed more than that. It's taken houses like Spring Bank and turned them into shopping centers.
In this part of the county I think they really built about as much as they can build.
QUESTION: Do you think there are archaeological finds in this area?
There's one that we know of on Popkins farm, called Clifton Lodge. It was built very early in the 19th century. There's an insurance policy on it for 1815, I believe, and it was torn down during the Civil War. Mrs. Popkins' vegetable garden roughly is the location of it. I think it could be found very easily. There is another one down on Sherwood Hall Lane, Hollin Hall, that burned about 1827. The location is approximately known. There's one at Hayfield down at Telegraph Road that we could pinpoint pretty closely, I think there are quite a few around now.
The county has a tremendous amount of resources. We have been working for the last couple of years indexing the county court records started in 1749,
We have that all done through 1807 and we are gradually working our way up although some of the books are missing. We have an almost complete set of deed books that go back to the time the county was founded. We have just made a major discovery — the two registers of free blacks from the early 19th century. In the 1790's a law was passed in Virginia that every black who was not a slave had to come to the courthouse and get two certificates saying this, so that he would be protected from being thrown in jail as somebody's runaway slave. This is very good source material telling when they were born, who owned them, and some other details.
We also have on microfilm at the Alexandria library "The Alexandria Gazette." It started in 1784 and there are some issues missing, but it runs pretty consecutively ever since it began, and is a gold mine of information. Unfortunately that has not been indexed and you just have to sit there and read the microfilm. So, there is a good bit of source material to work with in this county. It just takes time to get to, but it's there.
I think it is a very valuable contribution if you can get down on tape what people remember who have been in this area for awhile and have them describe the changes that have been made, One thing we know very little about, although it was mentioned to some extent in the first book, (Snake Hill to Spring Bank) were these two airports that were here on Route 1. I think that perhaps you will be able to find more material on that. Again there's not much that's known about New Alexandria. In the 1900's there was quite a flourishing community down there. There were factories and the car barn for the electric railroad.