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The Fairfax County Park Authority’s Museum Collections are home to:

  • More than 5,000 museum objects (chairs, quilts, baskets, machines, clothing)
  • Thousands of archival items (photographs, maps, letters and other documents)
  • Upwards of three million artifacts (archaeological discoveries such as spear points, pottery)

They are the stories of Fairfax County.

Hand-Wrought Nails in Early America

Hand-Wrought Nails in Early America

Nails used today for building are clean-cut, uniform, and round in cross-section. This was not the case in Early America. From their earliest use through the 18th century, all nails were hand-wrought.  Blacksmiths created wrought nails individually from a square iron stock rod. To make a nail, the blacksmith would heat the rod until it was red hot and malleable, then the process of shaping the nail could begin. The blacksmith hammered the heated rod on all four sides to make a point, and then cut it to the desired length.  The head of the nail could be formed into any of a variety of different shapes depending on the nail’s intended use and the time period in which it was produced.  The resulting product tapered on all four sides, one of the defining characteristics of a wrought nail.  In the late 1790s, machines were invented that cut nails from sheets of plate iron in a cookie cutter manner.  Unlike wrought nails, machine-cut nails taper on only two sides while the other opposing sides remain a constant thickness, that of the iron sheet from which the nails were cut.  The processes to extrude the wire nails common today were not developed until the end of the 19th century.

Knowing the different styles of wrought nails helps archaeologists identify the time period when certain nails were made, even if there is very little of the nail left.  Likewise, the size of the nail, its head shape, and the shape of the tip can indicate the nail’s intended use.  For example, a farrier’s nails would be different from nails used to join boards, which differ in form from flooring nails intended to be set flush with a countersink.

For more information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County, see the archaeology blog at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Photo: Examples of hand-wrought nails recovered from an archaeological site in Fairfax County.

Shard of hand-painted, North American Stoneware recovered from an archaeological site near Centreville, Va.

Family Newspaper Provides Insight into Past Residents of Green Spring

Michael Straight (1916-2004), a former owner of the land that is Green Spring Gardens, wore many hats throughout his lifetime - painter, author, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, State Department economist, editor and publisher of The New Republic, and more.

Two of his passions, writing and publishing, inspired his children and the children of family friends to create their own publication called the “Green-Spring Menemsha Gazette.” It was considered a family newspaper. The children wrote and published it during summer vacations to Menemsha, a small fishing village on Martha’s Vineyard. The third volume of the Gazette was found on Fairfax County Park Authority property in 1975 and remains in park collections today. This volume contains a “Meet the Staff” section written by 14-year-old Cheli. It describes the personalities, hobbies, and roles of the staff, including 12-year-old David, the editor, and permanent contributors Susie, Lucy, Dina, Mikey and Jane. Contents include typed interviews, opinion pieces, special announcements, and stories such as “The Case of the Poisoning Plumber.” Sketches drawn by the staff bring more life to the articles. The volume was dedicated to their inspiration, Michael Straight.

Full of trees, vines, perennials, bulbs, vegetables and more, Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Va., is an inspiration to any gardener. The brick house on the property was built during the ownership of John Moss in 1784. However, it was not until the 1940s, during the ownership of Michael and Belinda Straight, that the site’s gardens that were originally designed by Beatrix Farrand were developed. It was the Straights who deeded the property to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1970. Since then, the county has purchased an additional 11 acres to further expand the gardens.

Shard of hand-painted, North American Stoneware recovered from an archaeological site near Centreville, Va.

Stoneware Offers Insights to Time Periods and Activities

North American Stoneware is a type of ceramic that is often characterized by a brown or gray salt glaze that creates a textured, orange-peel surface. Stoneware is non-porous, which means that water is not absorbed into the ceramic. That makes it ideal for dining and food storage. Stoneware was used to make bowls, plates, pitchers, tankards and chamber pots. American stoneware was a common replacement for more expensive dining options, such as porcelain, and was used for food preparation and storage.

The versatility of this ceramic made it a popular export of both Germany and England to the North American colonies. By the mid-18th century, stoneware using the traditional decoration styles of both Germany and England was being produced in North America. American-made stoneware is found in archaeological sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, including Fairfax County. These artifacts help identify when a site was occupied, and the ceramic form often indicates specific activities that took place within the site.

For more information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County, see the archaeology blog at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Photo: Shard of hand-painted, North American Stoneware recovered from an archaeological site near Centreville, Va.

Sully Car

Photo Prompts Cruise Down Memory Lane

A photograph in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) Collections brings us back to a time when cars that would now be considered antique were parked daily on front lawns. The photo captures an everyday moment. On the left is Gilbert McLearen, and on the right is Colonel A. B. Bratton. The car is thought to be a 1957 Ford.

The McLearen family was one of the many families to live at Sully since the house was completed in 1799. Gilbert McLearen and his wife, Sarah, moved to Sully in the winter of 1910-1911. They’d been hired by landowner William E. Miller to help manage Sully as a dairy farm. They occupied the two-room east wing of Sully during winters and shuttered the rest of the house until spring. In the fall of 1911, they welcomed their first child, Chester, who is thought to be the last baby born at Sully.
 
The photo is believed to have been taken around 1960, after the FCPA acquired the site. Even though this picture is from a time after they lived at Sully, the McLearen family stayed in the Herndon area, making this visit possible. The photo was donated to the FCPA by Gilbert and Sarah’s daughter, Mabel, in 1989.

Gun Flint
Gun flints and flint fragments recovered from excavations in Fairfax County.

Gun Flint

The evolution of gun technology can be seen in archaeological sites and from artifacts found throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Gun flint can help to date the site in which it was found to the Colonial Period (1607 – 1789) or the Early National Period (1790 – 1828). First introduced in the 16th century, the firing mechanism called the “flintlock” created a more reliable weapon by using gun flint that was less susceptible to misfiring and moisture. Flint was shaped using the process of flint knapping, the same process Native Americans used to create stone tools. It was held in place by a clamp within the cocking mechanism of a musket. Once the trigger was pulled, the spring loaded cock swung forward, striking and opening the frizzen. This in turn revealed the black powder beneath, and the impact of flint with steel created a spark that ignited the charge.

Prior to the invention of the flintlock, it was difficult to keep the ignition source dry and to protect the gunpowder from the elements. The use of gun flint allowed for other leaps in lock technology in the following centuries.

There’s more information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Buttons Buttons Attach us to History

The button, like most other objects and tools, has evolved through the centuries. Historical documents and the archaeological record show us that its uses range from utilitarian to decorative. Sites that yield a high number of buttons can help archaeologists date the area and determine the types of people who occupied the land. Domestic archaeological sites often will yield buttons from men’s clothing rather than women’s. Many garments worn by men in the 18th century required fixtures or buttons while women’s clothing had lacing or hook-and-eye closures. The size and shape of buttons correspond to their use. Buttons found on waistcoats differed from those found on a shirt or breeches, and they can offer clues to archaeologists about the site being excavated and the people who lived there.

The button industry flourished across Europe in the 18th century, and many of those found in the Mid-Atlantic region were imported. Buttons can be made out of many different materials such as wood, seashells, glass, or metal. Metal buttons are stamped from metal disks using a carved mold usually made out of pewter. They then can be treated with decorative elements or simply left with the maker’s mark.

There’s more information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Church Pew Church Pew Offers Lesson on County’s Cultural and Racial History

The historic Meeting House at Frying Pan Farm Park is swaddled in history, and its individual parts tell stories. In 1783, members of the Bull Run and Little River Baptist Churches were granted two acres of land on which to erect a meeting house. In 1791, a church covenant was recorded into the church minute book.

The site witnessed encampments and skirmishes during the Civil War, and there are references to wounded soldiers being treated there after the Battle of Dranesville. In 1984, Arthur L. Carter, the last remaining trustee, deeded the building to the Fairfax County Park Authority, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

From the church’s beginning, both free and enslaved African Americans were welcome to join the congregation, but galleries provided racial separation. African-American congregants reached balconies by a steep flight of stairs.

Five types of pews were documented when a Historic Structures Report was conducted in 2004. The pew pictured here comes from the two earliest styles, which are box type with cut nails that were likely constructed prior to the building’s 1796 expansion. Repair and remodeling followed the Civil War, probably due to wartime damage, and box pews that hadn’t been broken or used for shelter or fuel were rehabilitated. Construction shows a wide range of ability and confirms the pews were made specifically for the building. Some were cut to accommodate elements like columns.

In 2010, three types of pews stored in the upstairs gallery were removed and placed into collections storage as the gallery was considered unstable. Two later types of pews remain on the main floor and demonstrate the change over time in pew construction and design.

The Frying Pan Meeting House is usually closed, but it opens for public tours once a year each spring. Scout badge programs also take place at the Meeting House throughout the year.

White Clay Tobacco Pipe White Clay Tobacco Pipe

Archaeologists working at colonial sites in the Mid-Atlantic frequently encounter white clay tobacco pipe fragments and learn a lot from them. Made of white ball clay, this particular pipe bowl carries a design with the letters “TD” imprinted on the side facing the smoker.

Pipes with this mark were manufactured in England and imported to North America. Scholars attribute the design as part of a makers mark, but do not always agree to whom the TD initials refer. Many make a case that the “TD” stands for Thomas Dormer, which would provide a narrow date of manufacture from the mid-1750s until about 1780. The Fairfax County site where this one was unearthed corresponds with those dates.

The bore of the tobacco pipe also can indicate when it was made, with larger bores found on older pipes. While most experts agree with the mid-1750s as the earliest date of manufacture, some have found possible evidence that indicate variations of the TD stamp were used until the early 20th century.

Agate from the Grange An Agate & The Grange

This agate, snug in a velvet lined box, was an important emblem to the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. This fraternal organization worked to protect farming interests politically, and it influenced the passing of what became known as the Granger Laws. The society encouraged its members to build local gathering places, called Grange Halls, which often became a central place for local community meetings and events. Grange Halls also hosted the society’s ritual ceremonies. Curious items, some of which are in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s collection, were often used during these ceremonies.
For example, during the ceremony for the fourth degree level of membership, where the focus was “Home,” an agate was placed on the Master’s (President’s) desk. As part of the ceremony, the Master would say, “Let the agate be to you an emblem of fidelity. May your principles of manhood and womanhood be as firmly impressed as the lasting colors in the stone, and may our friendship be as firm as the stone itself.” The agate’s symbolism, purpose and use in Grange meetings is detailed in books that the National Grange published.

Construction of The Great Falls Grange Hall #738 began in 1928, and the building was dedicated in 1929. The Fairfax County Park Authority has owned it since 1980, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Artifacts associated with the Great Falls Grange, such as this agate, were donated to Fairfax County in 2013 by Ellen Sanders.

Window Glass Glass Fragments Provide a Window into the Past

Sometimes the most mundane artifacts can be among the most informative.  Plain, flat window glass is one of those artifacts.  Before modern glassmaking techniques, flat glass was made by the crown glass method. A molten glass blob was gathered on a blowpipe and blown into a balloon shape. The glassmaker then cut the glass balloon from the blowpipe with shears, leaving a bowl-shaped glass form. The maker then attached a solid "punty" rod to the base of the bowl shape and spun the still molten glass rapidly until a disc formed. The outer portion beyond the central knob was then cut into panes. The process is depicted in Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, a famous 18th century French dictionary of sciences, arts and trades.   

By the late 17th century, the process was refined to a point where crown glass was the preferred method in window glass manufacture until the mid-19th century. The labor involved and the perils of shipping meant that window glass was relatively expensive. As a result, glass serves as an indicator of at least modest wealth when it is found on colonial-period archaeological sites. 

Archeologists map the locations of window glass concentrations to determine where windows were on structures that have long since disappeared.  With such data, archaeologists can begin to “reconstruct” how a site looked when it was populated.  See an example in the blog Through the Looking Glass.  Check out other information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Hand-wrought Colonial Hinge A Child’s Tea Set

This child-size tea set may have belonged to children of the Shear or Nolting families, who lived at Sully during the 19th and 20th centuries. The couple who donated it to the Park Authority said they were perusing goods at a yard sale when they happened upon the set. They were told that an electrician conducting restoration work at Sully in the 1970s discovered the tea set behind a wall in the attic and inside a box labeled “1901.” He took the box, and after his death his family sold it at the yard sale. Upon hearing its story, the couple purchased the set to return it to Sully.

Shear family members, including several young girls, lived at Sully from 1869-1910. Diplomat Frederick E. Nolting, his wife, and daughters Mary, Grace, Frances, and Jane lived at Sully from 1946-1958. Two of the daughters slept on the third floor in a room that had direct access to the attic.

Like many miniature ceramic objects, this set does not have a maker’s mark, and therefore it is difficult to determine the maker and date of manufacture. The blue flowers, leaves, and vines that give this tea set its pop of color are hand painted.

Miniature dishes were made as early as the 16th century in Europe, however the rise in popularity of miniature tea sets occurred in the 18th century. Tea sets would become particularly popular for young girls during the 19th century. Toys during that era were gender specific, preparing children for a world where gender strictly determined roles within society. In paintings, young girls from middle and upper class families are pictured with toys that were often small, fragile, and made out of porcelain, such as tea sets. While fun for children, tea sets encouraged careful indoor play, unlike the rowdier outdoor play in which boys were encouraged to participate. Certainly girls also sometimes played outside, and there are historic references to boys playing with tea sets. Playing with tea sets prepared girls for their future household roles, which included serving tea.

Miniature tea sets have clearly endured beyond their use as a training tool for young girls, and they continue to provide creative and fun play as popular children’s toys today.

Hand-wrought Colonial Hinge Hand-wrought Colonial Hinge

The Colchester Archaeological Research Team discovered this meter-long door hinge with hand-wrought nails near a stone wall foundation at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve. This artifact and others associated with the wall's foundation indicate the structure was occupied in the 18th century. Colchester operated as a tobacco inspection station and port town from 1753 until about 1820 when its port silted in and commerce shifted to Alexandria. This building is likely the one depicted on French General Rochambeau's map, Camp a Colchester, created en route to the Battle of Yorktown during the American Revolution. The hand-wrought nails are typical for 18th century (and earlier) architectural and structural elements.

Hand-wrought Colonial Hinge      This large hinge could be for a door for a bulkhead entrance into the cellar of the stone foundation or for a large door on a first floor area that fell into the cellar next to the stone foundation when the building was abandoned in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Check out other information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Floris Vocational High School Commencement Invitation Floris Vocational High School Commencement Invitation

The motto of Floris Vocational High School's graduating class of 1925 was "On Life's Highway." Their class colors were white and green and, suitably, their class flower was the white rose.

All of this information is documented on a commencement invitation that is part of the Fairfax County Park Authority's Museum Collection. This invitation and other school-related objects from the collection are currently on loan to the Fairfax City Museum and Visitor Center as part of the exhibit, "Chalkboards to Smartboards: Public Education in Fairfax County." The exhibit, in honor of Fairfax County's upcoming 275th Anniversary, will be on display through July 2017.

Though brief, the invitation holds a wealth of information. Besides the class motto, the invitation gives details on the upcoming ceremony. The commencement was planned for Friday, June 5, in the school auditorium. The graduating class, mostly women, consisted of 12 students: Audrey Sarton, Camilla Pauline Carson, Anna Louise Melcher, Rebecca Alice Middleton, Sarah Patton, Virginia Kate Patton, Estelle Marie Poland, Irene Rodgers, Stella Virginia Sibley, Kelsie Hornbaker, Warren Lee Rosenberger, and Jesse Alvin Torreyson.

Old Floris Schoolhouse was built in 1876. In 1911, a new schoolhouse with four rooms was built where the original stood. The Floris Vocational Technical High School, the school mentioned in the invitation, was constructed near the new schoolhouse in 1920 and opened its doors in 1921. The three-story school had eight classrooms, an auditorium, a small gymnasium, a kitchen, and restrooms. While the high school itself was demolished in the 1950s, The Frying Pan Farm Park Country Store is currently housed in the old Vocational Technical High School Shop Building, which was also built in 1920. Here the students studied the mechanics of tractor repair, practiced wood-working skills, and learned about the latest technical and agricultural equipment.

A 1911, four-room schoolhouse also still stands today within Frying Pan Farm Park. Both buildings are part of the Floris Historic District, which is listed on The National Register of Historic Places. The register, a part of the National Park Service, was established in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act. It marked its 50th anniversary in 2016.

Colonial Padlock Colonial Padlock

This padlock faceplate was discovered in a layer of cellar fill adjacent to the brick foundation of what was likely a domestic structure at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve. Cellar fill is material that accumulates after a structure is no longer used for its intended purpose. Though the faceplate is fragmented and heavily oxidized, it is still possible to make out remnants of the inner locking mechanism, and the distinctive keyhole shape is still visible. Padlocks such as these were commonly used in the 18th century. They would likely have been heart-shaped and opened with a key. This particular one may have been used on a door or to secure belongings in a trunk.

See information about other artifacts and current excavations in Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Silk Top Hat Silk Top Hat

Occasionally on display at Sully Historic Site, this silk top hat is said to have belonged to Mr. Jacob Haight, a 19th century owner of Sully. According to family lore, he wore the hat to President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. If this family story is indeed true, Jacob Haight would not have been the only man wearing a silk top hat to Lincoln’s inauguration. Images of the 1861 inauguration attest to the popularity of silk top hats.

These hats were very popular during the mid to late 19th century and were a favorite of President Lincoln. Besides silk, felted beaver fur, which was waterproof and therefore highly desirable, was also used. However, felted beaver was used so heavily in the construction of these hats that the North American beaver population was severely affected. Due to the lack of supply of beaver fur, silk would become the standard material for tops hats into the 20th century.

This hat was purchased from Ker & Green, Hatters and Furriers, whose business was located in Washington, D.C. Their advertisement in the 1877 Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia proclaims, “All the Latest Styles received as soon as issued. Fine Assortment of Ladies’ Dress Furs. Largest Assortment of Umbrellas and Canes in the city.”

Haight was a Quaker originally from New York, where he worked as a farmer. With an interest in the milder climate of Virginia and hoping to buy prosperous agricultural land, he moved his family to Sully in 1842. Because of their northern origins, the Haights worried during the Civil War that they would be targeted as Union sympathizers. Because of this, both Jacob Haight’s son and son-in-law left Sully, staying in Union occupied territory in order to avoid the Confederate Army.

TRY LORILLARDS TOBACCO Pipe Stem Lorillard’s Tobacco Promotional Pipe

One of the most intriguing artifacts from Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is a decorated pipe stem with lettering that was found during excavations near the park's visitor center.

Unfortunately, the lettering was faded to the point where it seemed impossible to discern, but once photographed under a microscope camera, the words could be determined. One side says, "TRY LORILLARDS TOBACCO," and the other bears the address "16.18.20 CHAMBERS ST."

This is an address in New York City where the Lorillard Tobacco Company operated a retail location selling tobacco products out of stores at 16, 18, and 20 Chambers Street. The company was in business from 1760 until it was purchased by Reynolds American in 2015, making it the longest-running tobacco company in the country.

Check out other information about artifacts and current excavations around Fairfax County at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Long-distance Education before the Internet

This membership card belonged to Margaret Harrison, a resident of Historic Huntley during the late 19th century. The card confirmed her membership with the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). The CLSC, founded in 1878, was a correspondence school allowing people who were not able to travel to a college campus, but were still interested in studying, to pursue a higher level of education. Consequently, pursuing education within the home was popular with many women in the late 19th century. The CLSC would send out a book list, and students would read the books on the list and then complete corresponding assignments. At the end of the year they would take a test and, if they passed, would be able to continue into the next year.

Margaret became a CLSC student in 1879, which is specified on her card. She owned several books on the reading list and even had a CLSC bookmark, all of which are a part of the Park Authority's collections. The card has been carefully preserved over the years, the edges crisp and the bright red coloring barely faded, showing how cherished this item was to Margaret and the later owners of her belongings.

Sully Fire Screen The Purpose of Fire Screens

Fire screens shielded people from the light, glare and heat of a log fire, which could be intense for those seated close to a fireplace. The screens were made of wood (mahogany), glass, and/or brass and could be used to display needlework or paintings. Those with elaborate ornamentation could be covered with glass to protect the satin, silk, velvet or wool artwork. They could be round, oval, rectangular or shaped like a shield, and some had small shelves mounted below the screen. A fire screen such as this one, called a pole screen, could be attached to a pole and possibly lowered or raised to match the needs of the user.

This photo depicts a fire screen at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly. It’s not original to Sully, but was donated to the site in 1985 as an artifact to help interpret how people lived in the early 19th century. Records indicate it is made of walnut and pine framing a silk screen that is protected by glass. It is English, of Hepplewhite style (George Hepplewhite was a London cabinetmaker in the 1700s), and likely was made in the early 19th century.

Glass Wine Bottle Seal   Glass Wine Bottle Seal with 1 inch scale
More Than Broken Glass

It looked like just a broken piece of glass lying in the ground. But there was more to it.

Two and a-half centuries after it was shaped and filled we have a pretty good idea of what was in it and who owned it.

In 2011, the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) recovered this olive green bottle seal. It was resting just above an intact pit feature at the cemetery in Old Colchester Park and Preserve.

The seal bears the initials "P.W." That tells us a lot. The seal means it was a wine bottle, and the initials lead us to suspect it belonged to Peter Wagener, a one-time owner of properties near the archaeological excavation, including the land that was developed into the Town of Colchester. Wagener purchased the Mason Neck land in 1748. He died, still with interests in Colchester, in 1798.

Wine bottle seals were popular throughout Great Britain and its colonies from the mid -17th through the late 19th centuries. Custom-made seals, like this one, were placed on wine bottles by adding a glob of glass to the still-warm bottle and impressing a mark into the glob to create a seal. The seals were a mark of wealth among the elite and were made for gentlemen, but have also been found associated with merchants and tavern keepers.

Follow CART's exploits at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com .

Sully Mirror Reflections of History
Peer into history through a looking glass.

Sully Historic Site is home to a late Federal-period looking glass that was missing from the site for nearly 200 years. It was returned in 2008 and now rests in the parlor of the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, northern Virginia’s first congressman. Records indicate the glass was owned by the Lee family.

Looking glasses similar to this one were very popular in homes of wealthy Virginians such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The whereabouts of this 46-inch tall and 25-inch wide mirror had been unknown until it appeared on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York. A gentleman from South Carolina purchased the antique looking glass, and former Fairfax County Park Authority Collections Specialist Jeanne Niccolls contacted him to see if he would loan Sully the mirror to display with other Lee family artifacts. Fascinated by the mirror’s historical importance, in 2004 the gentleman donated it to the Park Authority.

Sully Mirror Panel      The original manufacturer of the mirror remains unknown. Thanks to funding from the Sully Foundation, Ltd., the mirror underwent restoration by a company in Richmond, Va., from 2006 to 2008 before being returned home to Sully in 2008.

A reproduction painting that depicts a water scene with a boat and men fishing adorns the top of the mirror. The glass panel is decorated with a technique called eglomise, the art of painting on the back of glass and allowing the picture to show through. The original glass panel was too fragile to undergo treatment for display in a permanent exhibit, so it was conserved and is stored in the Park Authority’s collections at the Walney Visitor Center in Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

The frame is giltwood, which is wood with a thin layer of gold leaf or foil applied to it.

The mirror is on display at Sully Historic Site.

Moonshine Mash Pot  Moonshine Mash Pot
Mysterious Object, Cryptic Note
By Kathryn Blackwell

'Twas a bewildering way to regain a piece of the site's history.

Many years ago, in the dead of night, someone left a tilted pot at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. With it was a note that read: “This object, whatever it is, was removed from here over 20 years ago. NOW RETURNED.??

So…. What is it?

The pot is metal with a spout on one side at the bottom. The inside is covered in enamel, the outside is rusty, and there is a hole in the bottom. That bottom is not flat, but rounded, so that the object doesn’t stand on its own.

The most promising idea is that this is part of an illegal moonshine still. That would make sense. It’s easier to carry corn in a jar than in a heavy sack. Grain, especially ground corn, is an integral part of making moonshine, and tradition says a still was found at Colvin Run around 1970 when restoration work on the mill began.

We have contacted many museum professionals across the country, uploading photographs and descriptions of the item to email listservs and asking what people think it might be. We were directed to curator Melody Worthington from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in North Carolina. That museum and restored homestead preserve the history and cultural heritage of eastern North Carolina. The site includes living history demonstrations of traditional tobacco farm life at the turn of the 20th century. Melody conferred with colleagues, and they agreed that it is probably a moonshiner’s “mash pot.??

The hole in the bottom is most likely from where the pot was held over the heat source.  The coating on the inside assured that the flavor or quality of the moonshine was not affected by the metal pot. The bottom spout would be used to drain out liquid and spent mash when the distilling process was completed. There would be another object on top of this bucket that would trap the alcohol vapors rising out of the soupy mash concoction. The vapor would be then funneled into a “worm,?? a coiled piece of metal that would be cooled by running water (another valuable and accessible resource at a mill). That would cause the alcohol vapor to condense into liquid. The alcohol then could be either collected in containers or distilled again by running it through a “thumper barrel,?? which is a heated barrel that would trap the vapor.

And a mystery is likely unraveled. With that, we raise a glass of thanks to the unknown person who returned a piece of history to Colvin Run Mill.

Clock Face Sully's Tall Case Clock
By Barbara Ziman

You flick your wrist, glance at lighted numbers on a dashboard, or pull out a cell phone to check the time of day. But not too long ago, during the Federal period (1795-1820), clocks were still considered a luxury for most people.  They were becoming more readily available, but even the well-do-do usually had only one clock in their home.  A clock was a status symbol suggesting a certain standard of wealth, and some wrist watches today retain that image.

Tall Case Clock      Sully was built in 1794 for Richard Bland Lee, northern Virginia’s first congressman and an uncle of General Robert E. Lee. As part of his furnishings, Mr. Lee would very likely have owned a clock.

A part of the permanent exhibit at Sully Historic Site includes a tall case clock from the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Museum Collections.  Complementing the parlor décor of Mrs. Lee’s sofa, pianoforte, and tea table, the clock is a popular artifact with both staff and visitors.

Sully’s clock is in the Chippendale style and is dated to 1760-1770.  The clockworks are attributed to clockmaker John Guild and were originally made for Judge Joseph Reading. The dial is inscribed “Joseph Reading, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.??  According to Dr. David Sperling, a well-known antiquarian horologist, the clock’s cherry wood case is a product of Bucks County, Pennsylvania cabinetry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, clockworks and cases were manufactured by craftsmen who specialized in their respective media.  The works were then placed inside the case that was made to hold them. 

Typical of clocks at that time, the face has Roman numerals.  The shape of clock hands changed over time, an indication of the time period when they were made.  Sully’s tall case clock fits into 1760-1775 time frame with its “owl-eyed?? hour hand and spear-shaped minute hand. The clock case is topped by a broken pediment and finial, a design commonly used in Chippendale pieces.  The lower part of the case, which would accommodate the chains used for “winding?? the clock, is paneled, and each section of the case is trimmed with dentil moldings.

You can see the clock on tours at Sully Historic Site. The site is open for guided tours daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.  During your tour, look for the tall case clock in the parlor.


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