Of Ravensworth and sites long vanished
Annandale Travel Blog› entry 45 of 107 › view all entries
An article in the Washington Post caught my eye on Saturday morning. "Remnants of Estate Remain Amid Strip Malls, Subdivisions" read the caption. The article told the story of a 1780s house now, now for sale, nestled among a subdivision in Burke, VA. The house is one of the few physical remains of the Ravesnworth estate that dominated Fairfax County in the period before the Civil War. I'd heard of Ravensworth and encountered an historical marker here and a place name there. But, I'd never put the pieces of this slice of local history all together. Monday was the Columbus Day holdiday. The day would be sunny and clear. A day begging for photos to be taken.
Ravensworth was a vast 22,000 acre tobacco plantation. It occupied what is today the community of Annandale and significant parts of Springfield and Burke. Its origins went back to the 17th century when William H. Fitzhugh purchased the tract in 1685. It became a part of his land holdings in Virgnia, but he never lived in Fairfax County. Instead, the tract was divided by his two eldest sons after his death in 1701. They and their descedants lived on the property, worked the plantation, built three manor houses, and married into the Randolph and Lee families.
I began my local history quest by stopping first at the Ravensworth historical marker. It's located on Port Royal Road at the entrance to a modern industrial park on the border of Annandale and Springfield. The Ravensworth mansion, built in 1796 by William Fitzhugh, was located here. It became the summer home of Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis. (She was related to the Fitzhughs.) Lee descedants lived in the house until it burned in 1926.
I returned to Braddock Road and made a right to cross the Capital Beltway (I-495) traveling North.
Still further along Braddock Road is Green Spring Gardens. Green Spring Gardens is a 27 acre county horticultural park with many garden and greenhouse displays. (I spent a bit of time looking at the neary by gardens. Early fall may not be the best time to visit the gardens! I'll have to return next year and write a proper Review.) But, my main interest today was in seeing the manor house dating from 1784. This farm was not part of Ravensworth but was adjacent to it. Significantly, the Moss family that began the farm in the 1760s diversified away from tobacco as their crop. Instead, they planted corn and wheat and raised cattle.
From Green Spring I now followed Little River Turnpike back into central Annandale, once a part of the Ravensworth lands. Annandale formed as a community in the 1830s at the commercial crossroads of the Little River Turnpike, a toll road leading from Alexandria to the Shenandoah Valley, and the Columbia Pike from Washington, DC. Central Annandale is now home to a thriving Korean-American comunity and business with signs in Hangul script add flavor to the commerical center.
Oak Hill house was my next goal. Again crossing back over the Capitol Beltway I turned in at the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park cemetery. This modern cemetery houses reinterred remains discovered at what had been the 19th century Guinea Road Cemetery during a road widening project.
Leaving the cemetery site, I passed Northern Virginia Community College to turn onto Wakefield Chapel Road. As the name might suggest, Wakefield Chapel is near here. Built in 1899, this structure is much "newer" that the ones I'd been seeking. But, it's a very pretty one, all in white rustic gothic. It was a Methodist church for 50 years, but is now owned by Farifax County.
The object of this drive along Wakefield Chapel Road was Oak Hill. This third of the Ravensworth manors is still standing. The house was built by Henry Fitzhugh (father of William and Nicholas) for the Ravensworth land agent in 1779. Oak Hill is still privately owned, but opened to the public once a year. It sits majestically amid the surrounding suburban homes constructed in the 1970s, partly visible from the street, but well hidden by foliage, including original boxwoods. However, the house did not take on its present Georgian form until rennovations in the 1930s brought in modern plumbing and electricity.
A short distance down Wakefield Chapel Road from Oak Hill I found a red clapboard and brick house. A sign in front announces it is "Turkey Branch Farm, circa 1820". Turkey Branch is another private home and, nestled among mid-20th century suburban homes, it has not been a farm for some time. (The word "branch" is a regionalism for a tributary rivulet or stream. Turkey Branch runs nearby.) However, the house has associations with Ravensworth. It most likely began as an outbuilding on the plantation. Perhaps the name Turkey Run was adopted when its land was spun off from the estate.
Wakefield Chapel Road led back to Braddock Road near where the tour began. But I had one more site to see. The house mentioned in the newspaper article. It was located further along Braddock Road in the other direction, then some distance along Guinea Road in Burke. The house, described in the article as built in the 1780s for Ravensworth's farm manager, is at the end of a surburban cul-de-sac. It fits in with the much newer Colonial-inspired tract houses, if a bit eclectic looking. It's a real survivor. The present house is actually formed from two cottages that were later connected. After the demise of Ravensworth, it was a farmhouse and passed through several families who farmed the surrounding acreage.