Saturday, November 04, 2017

Northern Virginia Snow in the 18th and 19th Centuries



      Weather information goes back a long time in Virginia, thanks to record keeping by observers such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Snow is the most common form of natural disaster in Northern Virginia.  George Washington recorded that a gigantic snow storm on January 28, 1772 left thirty six inches of snow on the ground in Northern Virginia.  This number is the unofficial record for the area, assuming that Washington’s measurements were accurate.  Washington also reported a late season cold snap, with spits of snow and a hard wind on May 4, 1774.  During the winter of 1783-1784 the Potomac River froze over in November and the ice did not break up until March 15.  The previous year an entire regiment of the Virginia infantry marched across the frozen Rappahannock River


     The great winter events of the 19th century were theGreat Arctic Outbreak of '99” and the “Great Eastern Blizzard of '99”.  On February 11, Quantico recorded a record low of  -20°F.  The blizzard struck on Valentine's Day, dropping thirty four inches on Northern Virginia. The winter of 1898-1899 was so cold throughout the United States that ice flowed down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.





A Biblical Dust Storm Comes to Washington


Dust Storm

     Few things motivate politicians like impending doom.  One of the most peculiar natural phenomena to strike the Washington area was a gigantic dust storm blowing in from the Great Plains.  Years of environmental mismanagement on the Great Plains set the stage for a natural calamity. 

In 1931, a drought hit the Great Plains. Crops died and because the ground cover keeping the soil in place was gone, the naturally windy area began whipping up dust.  Dust storms became problematic and continued to grow in intensity. In 1934 an enormous storm drove 350 tons of silt across the Great Plains as far as the East Coast.  Ships three hundred miles off shore in the Atlantic reported collecting dust on their decks. 

In April 1935, a dust storm arrived in Northern Virginia from the Great Plains. A dusty gloom spread over the region and blotted out the sun.  Meanwhile, in downtown Washington, conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett was testifying before Congress about the need for soil conservation.  Bennett explained, (pointing to the darkened skies over Washington)  “This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about.” Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act the same year.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

War Rationing: "Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without."


     World War II brought sweeping changes to communities throughout America. Thousands of men enlisted or were drafted into the military. Large numbers of women, many of whom had never before worked outside the home, took full time jobs to help meet labor shortages. Unlike subsequent wars in which America engaged, World War II was a "total war" in which sacrifices were required on the home front.  Americans were told to "Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without."
    
     Many foods and war-related items were rationed.  Rationing began in January 1942.  Tires were the first item to be rationed because the Japanese had cut supplies of natural rubber. By November 1943, automobiles, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were being rationed.  Each person received a ration book, including small children and babies who qualified for canned milk not available to others. 

     In the beginning of the war gasoline shortages were acute on the East Coast .  Most petroleum was shipped by sea, and German submarines prowled off the East Coast.  German submarine "wolf packs" sank eight ships off the Virginia-North Carolina coast in January 1942, eight more in February, and one a day in March 1942. An A sticker on a car was the lowest priority of gas rationing and entitled owner to four gallons of gas per week. B stickers were issued to defense industry workers, entitling them up to eight gallons of gas per week. C stickers went to workers essential to the war effort, such as doctors. T rations were for truckers. X stickers, the highest priority in the system, entitling the holder to unlimited gallons of gasoline were reserved for police, firemen and the clergy.

     Young and old were exhorted to conserve, share and recycle to help win the war. In Home Demonstration Clubs, women learned about growing victory gardens, preserving food, and caring for clothing. Buying government bonds helped pay for the war effort, and children contributed by buying war stamps at school. Schools conducted drives to collect scrap metal, rubber, waste paper, cooking fats, and tin cans.



A first person account of the Normandy campaign from D-Day + 1 to the liberation of Paris. 

War from the perspective of the average citizen soldier.



General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aviation Comes to Washington (1926-1941)



National Airport

     In the early days of aviation, Washington had the reputation of having, “the poorest aviation ground facilities of any important city in the United States or Europe.”  Wiley Post, the first pilot to make a solo flight around the world, said, “there were better landing grounds in the wilds of Siberia than at Washington."

     Thomas Mitten, the owner of the Pennsylvania Rapid Transit Company in Philadelphia, opened the first airfield in the Washington area in 1926, hoping to reap huge profits by flying Washingtonians to Philadelphia for the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence.  Mitten’s “Hoover Field” was located on a thirty six acre tract in Arlington where the Pentagon now stands.  Mitten sold the airfield after only six months to a group of investors who incorporated as the Potomac Flying Service, which took over 25,000 passengers for sightseeing flights over the nation's capital between 1926-28.  A competing airfield, “Washington Airport”, opened across the road to the south on ninety seven acres.  Seaboard Airlines was established here, flying one daily round-trip flight to New York, starting in 1928.

     In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, the owners of both Hoover Field and Washington Airport sold out to the National Aviation Corporation, which merged the two airfields into a new facility called Washington-Hoover Airport.  The new owners built a modern terminal building and a new hangar.  The new terminal boasted a passenger waiting room on the lower floor.  The airport also offered a large outdoor swimming pool for the enjoyment of the sightseers who converged on the airport.  The pool served as an important source of revenue.

     Despite improvements, Washington-Hoover could not overcome it structural defects.  The airport's single runway was intersected by a busy street, Military Road, which had guards posted to stop oncoming traffic during takeoffs & landings.  Additionally, due to its low-lying location next to the Potomac River, and its poor drainage, the airport was prone to flooding.  Bordered on the east by Route 1, with its high-tension electrical wires, obstructed by a high smokestack on one approach and a dump nearby, the field was increasingly unable to handle increased air traffic and newer planes.  Hoover Field closed in 1941, replaced by the much larger Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), two miles to the southeast.



Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 



Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright in Northern Virginia




In the 1930s architect Frank Lloyd Wright grappled with the problem of creating a moderately priced house that was both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly.  Wright, who had been primarily employed to design houses for millionaires, began designing so called “Usonian” houses for the common man, houses that were simple, functional and beautiful.  Wright believed that the Usonian house would represent a new form of truly American architecture.
    
The Pope-Leighey House, now on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax County, is a classic example of this type of architecture.  The house was commissioned by journalist Loren Pope in 1939 and was originally located in Falls Church.  The 1,200 square foot house features native materials, a flat roof and large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling.  A strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces is emphasized.  Wright’s innovative use of four native materials (wood, brick, glass and concrete) created a sense of spaciousness.  The interior of the house is set up to be an efficient living space.  The interior features many types of versatile built in furniture. Wright designed the house, along with his other works, to bring nature inside.
    
Despite its beauty the house has certain drawbacks.  There is very little room for storage. Wright believed that you should only keep things that you used often.  As a result, closets are small and there is no room for clutter.  Owning a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (recognized by the American Institute of Architects in 1991 as “the greatest American architect of all time”) was not just a purchase, but a commitment to a way of life.  Although Wright always created works of art, some of the practical details of daily living sometimes suffered. 

In 1946, Loren Pope sold the house to Robert and Marjorie Leighey. In 1961, the state of Virginia condemned the house to make way for Interstate 66.  Robert Leighey died in 1963 shortly before the state issued an order to vacate the premises.  Marjorie Leighey donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation which moved the house to the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation (9000 Richmond Highway).


Another Wright masterpiece (still in private hands) was built in McLean in 1959.  Luis Marden was a photographer for the National Geographic who led a colorful and eclectic life.  He and his wife Ethel were the perfect couple to live in a Wright house.  Although the floors cracked and the furnace was never properly installed, Mrs. Marden wrote to Wright in 1959, “Our beautiful house.. stands proudly just under the brow of the hill, looking down always on the rushing water which constantly sings to it, day and night, winter and summer. It will … represent for us, as you put it when you were here, ‘a way of life’”.




     Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 





Treasure Legends of Virginia

     The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 


Depression Era Art in Northern Virginia


     During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government set up a number of public works programs to provide work for all Americans.  One of these programs involved artists.  Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's relief administrator said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.”  “The Section of Fine Arts” was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. The Section's main function was to select high quality art to decorate public buildings.  One percent of the funds allocated for the construction of public buildings were set aside for “embellishments”.  Artists were paid from these funds.  By providing decoration in public buildings, art was made accessible to all people.

     Post offices were considered a prime building objective of the Roosevelt New Deal, and a prime place for the display of public art.  Large murals, depicting enduring images of the “American scene” were the artistic vehicle of choice.  Artists were chosen in open competitions to paint scenes reflecting America's history and way of life on post office walls large and small. Mural artists were provided with guidelines and themes. Scenes of local interest and events were deemed to be the most suitable.  Americans shown at work or at leisure, grace the walls of the New Deal post offices. Social realism painting, though popular at the time, was discouraged.  You will not see bread lines or labor strikes depicted in New Deal public art.  The heroic was to be celebrated and embraced. Historical events depicting courageous acts were popular themes for post office murals.


     Seven of these New Deal artistic gems still exist in Northern Virginia.  In 1940 Auriel Bessemer completed seven murals for Arlington County’s first public building, the Joseph L. Fisher Post Office in Clarendon.  Bessemer was paid $800 to paint the seven murals depicting familiar local scenes such as Great Falls and Roosevelt Island.



Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 



The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Slavery in Northern Virginia

Interior of Slave Pen in Alexandria, Virginia

The vast majority of male slaves worked as farmhands.  Others worked as laborers, waiters, blacksmiths, drivers and servants at inns.  Although the free labor of the slave was the most obvious economic benefit to the owner, slaves were also a liquid asset.  The selling or hiring out of excess slaves to the labor hungry cotton plantations of the Deep South was a source of revenue for many slaveholders in Virginia.  A slave woman was commonly esteemed less for her laboring qualities, and most for those qualities which gave her value as a broodmare.  In 1857, a Richmond newspaper price list quoted the price of a “number one man…extra (fine)” at $1,450 - $1,550.  “Good” at $1,200 - $1,250.  Women sold for twenty percent less.

     To appreciate the hold that slavery had on the sense of economic well-being of both the slave owning and the general populations, it is important to recognize the economic pervasiveness of slavery in Virginia.  In 1860 Virginia had the largest number of slaves of any state in the Union. One out of every three white families in what is modern day Virginia owned slaves, making it similar to such Deep South states as Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.     A slave worth $1,800 in 1860 would have a current value of some $49,000, the price of a new luxury car.   So, even a modest slave owner would have a large economic stake in perpetuating the institution.

       Even a cursory examination of the writings of the time suggests that slavery led many slave owners not to empathize with the humanity of slaves.   The Alexandria Gazette of January 2, 1850, for example, put reward notices for a runaway slave named Wallace aged twenty one and a missing black horse aged seven years side by side, as though these notices belonged in the same category.

     Non-slave owners, without the motive of economic self-interest blinding them, could recognize the inherent problem of slavery in Virginia.  The Benevolent Society of Alexandria for Ameliorating and Improving the Condition of the People of Color, for example, published a statement stating,

     “These enormous cruelties cannot be practiced among us, without producing a sensible effect upon the morale of the community: for the temptation to participate in so lucrative a traffic, though stained with human blood, is too great to be withstood by all; and even many of those who do not directly participate in it, become so accustomed to its repulsive features, that they cease to discourage it in others.”





A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Free Blacks in Prince William County Virginia in 1860

 The Robinson Farm

Although only about one tenth the size of the slave population, Virginia had the largest free black population in the Union (some 30,000 plus).  Freedom was the greatest gift a master could bestow upon a slave, but the situation of the free black was only a little better than that of the slave.

Free blacks could not vote in Virginia, they were required to register every three years, and to pay for certificates of freedom.  It was unlawful for free blacks to organize their own schools.  Free blacks were feared and mistrusted.  They were accused of being unwilling to work, of spreading discontent among the slaves, and of causing a disproportionate amount of crime.  Several Virginia governors advocated that all free blacks be forcibly expelled from the state.  The Assembly did not enact this legislation but did pass laws providing for voluntary re-enslavement.

Despite stifling restrictions, many free blacks managed to improve their lot.  A freed slave named Jim Robinson, the illegitimate son of Landon Carter of Pittsylvania, operated a drover’s tavern along the Alexandria and Warrenton Turnpike, near Manassas Junction.  Eventually he was able to purchase his wife and three of his five children as well as buy several hundred acres of land.  He was unable to purchase his sons Alfred and James, both of whom were talented stonemasons, who had been sold south and eventually ended up in New Orleans.  James’ fate is unknown, but Alfred returned to Northern Virginia in 1888.

The Robinson family continued to work their farm after the Civil War.  The farm was sold to the Department of the Interior in 1934 to become part of the Manassas National Battlefield.  Prior to selling their farm, the Robinson family acted as informal stewards of their part of the battlefield, taking Confederate remains to a small cemetery to join an estimated 500 unknown soldiers. The family philosophy was summed up in the phrase, “Just remember, these remains belonged to someone’s son who did not want to die in this manner.”






White Virginians wanted to believe that their slaves were basically happy, to the point that they would prefer to serve their masters rather than to choose their own freedom.  

Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

President Taft Gets a Bumpy Ride.


 On July 21, 1911 President William Howard Taft was scheduled to address a group of Union and Confederate veterans in Manassas, Virginia at the Jubilee of Peace, celebrating national reconciliation on the fiftieth anniversary of the First Battle ofManassas.  At the suggestion of his military aide, Major Archibald Butt, the President decided to motor to Manassas rather than take the train.  Numerous Congressmen bent on making political points with the visiting veterans accompanied the President.  The Presidential party, due in Manassas at four o’clock, set out from the White House in four motor cars at half past twelve.  About five miles from the town of Fairfax clouds began to gather, and the caravan made speed to reach the town before the storm broke.  The storm was short and sharp, a regular cloud burst. 

The President had lunch in Fairfax and then set out again for Manassas before three.  According to Major Butt, “[we] were bumped and jolted over the worst road I have ever seen” before coming to a motorcar stranded in a stream filled with frantic people.  It was part of the Presidential party, a car filled with Senators.  Major Butt waded into the stream and found the lowest point.  The rest of the cars proceeded to ford the stream, laughing at the stranded Senators as they passed.  The laughter was short lived.  The party soon reached Little Rocky Creek, a stream even more treacherous than the first.  Another car was put out of commission.  The two remaining cars retraced their bumpy route and re-crossed the first stream trying to make a detour that locals said would take the President into Manassas.  As the party re-crossed the first stream yet another car stuck fast in the water.  From here the trip was uneventful, except for twice frightening horses on the road.  Just after passing Centreville the President’s car ran into dust, for between there and Manassas not a drop of rain had fallen.  At the edge of town the President’s car was met by a troop of cavalry and through clouds of dust the President was escorted into town.

 According to Major Butt, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flubdub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”


While the President gave his speech two members of his staff scurried about trying to see what could be done about getting back to Washington by train.  They succeeded in finding a railroad magnate with a private railway car, which he put at the disposal of the President.  When the President arrived at the little depot at seven, there were gathered most of the party that had set out from Washington, bedraggled, wet and thirsty.  They had arrived in carts, in buggies, and in “any old vehicle which they could hire along the road.”  



General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

The First Civil War Peace Jubilee


President Taft addresses the Peace Jubilee


On July 21, 1911, the town of Manassas, Virginia hosted a Peace Jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil War's first great battle. George Carr Round, a Union veteran who settled in Manassas, is credited with organizing this gesture of reconciliation.

According to a contemporary account, “The Peace Jubilee, when a northern President, William Howard Taft, and a southern Governor, William H. Mann, of Virginia, shook hands during the exercises, like the 1,000 veterans of blue and gray present, symbolized the cementing of the two sections.”  This was the first time in history when survivors of a great battle met fifty years after and exchanged friendly greetings at the place of actual combat.

At noon on July 21, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas, the veterans moved to the top of Henry Hill. When the signal was given, the veterans marched forward with hands outstretched.  For five minutes they shook hands.  The day was capped off by an address by President Taft. 

According to Major Archibald Butt, President Taft’s military aide, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flub dub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”


                                                   


General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.