Taking History Easy in Fairfax, Virginia

by Marlene Fanta Shyer

(September 9, 2004) It is my little secret. It's where I go when the destination is Washington, DC but the motive is avoiding fear. Fear of the prices of hotel rooms, for one thing. Fear of crowds, for another. And of course, nervousness about the hassle of the security measures that are wall to wall in the country's capital.

A twenty-five minute Metro ride away from the mall and its brand new World War II Memorial is a bit of peaceful America that's so low key and convenient that I've made it my headquarters when the intention is to immerse myself in American history (and history in the making. ) In the sleepy town of Fairfax, the motels are a third cheaper, sometimes as little as half the price, parking's free, and a there's a handy bus system that takes you around town or to the Metro station for fifty cents. The entire city is casual and family-friendly with its own Main Street, state-of-the-art library with its special Confederate military history section, tiny shops and even a local psychic, who may or may not be in touch with the spirit of Antonia Ford.

The Fairfax Museum welcomes Visitors & Friends

Antonia Ford is the Southern belle-turned spy, who during the Civil War fell in love with a Union Soldier, Joseph Willard. She was imprisoned for espionage, her lover helped arrange her release and later married her. The drama of their story and love letters are on view in the 1800's school building, now the Fairfax Museum. (The Willard Hotel in Washington is her husband's namesake.) In the museum also are the bayonets, eyeglasses, Union officer's belt, an 1880 wheelchair, a parlor organ, a Union Army Drum and Sticks and many more items that bring the Civil War and its time to life.

A short walk away (pretty much everything in Old Town is) is the oldest residence in the city, the 1812 Radcliffe-Allison House, with its adjoining
garden, created by its 1920's owner, who was gardening editor of the Washington Post.

The city originated from a grant made by King Charles II of England, and in 1719 Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, came into possession of the land. The 1799 Courthouse Building stills stands and is used by the County court system. George and Martha's will was probated here but unfortunately for the history of Fairfax, George never did sleep here.

The six-square miles of the city, which includes twenty-one parks, is like the bull's-eye of the region. Its dead center location means major attractions are nearby: the new Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport, with its cavernous space and Enola Gay star attraction, is ten miles away. The Manassas Battlefield, where tours give a you-are-there immediacy to the battle of Bull Run, twelve miles, and Mount Vernon, where George and Martha did indeed sleep, twenty-two miles.

Rats slept there too. They infested the homes of our forefathers in great numbers, no matter how prosperous the landowner, how elegant the estate. In the restorations of eighteenth century homes like Gunston Hall Plantation, (twenty miles away) home of George Mason, a framer of the US Constitution, the rats are featured players. They stole items that became artifacts of
historical importance and served posterity by hiding them in their nests. Babies' hats, documents, bits of linen and other household paraphernalia have been found in the walls hundreds of years later and are now displayed in these restorations.

A mile from town, Blenheim is another of these old houses, and its treasure is in its attic, once used as quarters for Union soldiers. These men left poignant souvenirs on the attic walls: drawings, signatures, bits of poetry in pencil, charcoal and wax crayon, as in a quote of Longfellow's, '' Be still sad hart and cease repining. " One message was left by a fourteen year old drummer, and records show that many of these men (and boys) died later in the war between the states.

Around each bend in Fairfax are also home-town pleasures that include free music performances at the city parks, any number of festivals--crafts, chocolate, lights and carols--and restaurants. The local ones are high in quality, numerous and unpretentious. My favorites are Mama's Italian, Dolce Vita's and Connaught Place, as good as it gets in gourmet Indian, with
the highest price entrée only $17.95. Everyone else's favorite seems to be the barbecue at Red, Hot and Blue's, known for its amazing ribs.

Ribs or no, relaxation or heavy-duty sightseeing, it's always time for another Fairfax visit, next time with the kids.

TIP: more info at www.visitfairfax.com

Marlene Fanta Shyer writes for adults and children - and sometimes about Larchmont, where she lived for many years. Reach her at http://www.marleneshyer.com