Hi! Pam Sanderlin, Marketing Volunteer, here with a blog on another fascinating Smithsonian tour — Glimpses of Old Arlington. The tour was aptly named — after a brief introduction to Arlington County history by our leader, regional historian Kathy Holt Springston, we boarded a bus for a quick glimpse of 53 locations throughout the county, many of which are worth a deeper dive.
The introduction framed a fascinating picture of this relatively small county that boasts a rich history, including:
- Being established as part of the District of Columbia in the early Federal years (until 1846)
- Site of numerous Union forts during the Civil War
- Several aeronautical firsts with the Wright brothers
- Explosive growth early last century (fastest growing county in the country every year from 1950 through 1959)
In fact, Arlington County, currently the second smallest county in the country, was known as "Alexandria County, District of Columbia" until 1920 when its name was changed in honor of Arlington House.
Throughout the day, Kathy's stories brought the past alive as we zigzagged through Arlington on the bus. She pointed out house after house that was home to a historic person, family, or event.
- Glebe House (1815), named for “glebe” lands set aside for the church, a historic house with an octagon-shaped wing that gave its name to Glebe Road
- The Harry Gray House, built in 1881 by a former slave on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House estate
- Birchwood, frequented by Teddy Roosevelt for their wonderful homemade ice-cream
We made 6 stops along the way and each provided interesting insights into Arlington’s past:
Arlington Post Office: Here we saw 6 “historic” murals by Auriel Bessemer picturing Indians on Analostan Island, Captain John Smith and the Indians, tobacco picking by the Lee mansion, Robert E. Lee receiving his Confederate commission in Richmond, a picnic at Great Falls, polo players at Fort Myer, and a contemporary harvest at an apple orchard. Kathy pointed out that these murals represent 1930’s romanticized views of colonial life (for example, tobacco wasn’t really a Virginia crop…). Here are three of the murals:
Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department: This is the oldest volunteer fire department in Arlington County and the building, a historic landmark, was built entirely with donations and dedicated in 1920. In one famous fundraising method, prominent citizens were asked to contribute and a brick would be placed in their name. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson were among those who purchased bricks for the Cherrydale Station.
When we arrived, we walked past the firefighters, training in heavy equipment, as we went upstairs for a tasty box lunch.
Fort Ethan Allan: One of the very few remaining sites of Civil War forts, this earthwork fortification provides an excellent sense of the size and operation of a fort. Particularly compelling is one of the historic placards – a picture that states: “The View in 1865 – Taken from where you are standing.” What a great way to imagine what was going on right there, right then.
Federal District’s Northwest Cornerstone: There were 40 cornerstones marking boundaries of the federal territory that became the District of Columbia in 1801. We visited one that still exists in Arlington, which was included in D.C. until 1846. Residents of Arlington asked to be re-annexed to Virginia in order to be able to vote in national elections and to have more control over their budget and freer access to federal funds.
Ball-Sellers House Museum: The oldest residence in Arlington County, this house built by John Ball in the 1750s is a rare example of the dwelling of the ordinary person during the 18th century. We marveled at the attic where the five daughters who lived in this house slept. It is hard to imagine five girls growing up in such a simple and bleak space.
Doctor Richard Drew Home: We were welcomed to our last stop by a descendant of Charles Drew, whose groundbreaking research led to the modern day blood bank and proved that blood plasma could be used in place of whole blood transfusions. The house is a historic landmark and the family is delightful.
There was so much more we learned on this tour as Kathy shared her amazing knowledge of the area and its historic inhabitants – like the fact that until 1904, Rosslyn, now concrete and high rises, was made up of bars, bordellos, gambling joints, cocaine houses, and opium dens. Or that Robert E. Lee was a cat lover who left 22 cats to be cared for while he was at war. Or that the first water service in the county wasn’t until 1926.
Many on the tour talked about returning to some of the spots we visited to learn more – Kathy’s recommendation is to go to Hume School, home of the Arlington Historical Society, to get more than a glimpse of old Arlington.
View our upcoming study tours here.
By Pam Sanderlin