William E. Linthicum Jr. was born in a two-room shack on a slice of land now surrounded by Manassas National Battlefield Park. When he’s not carving up animals, he rests in a recliner two feet from where he entered the world, and six feet from where he watched his mother leave it.
For decades, as development squeezed in on the battlefield where thousands died in two major Civil War battles in the summers of 1861 and 1862, he has manned the kill pen and cutting room at Linthicum Custom Slaughtering, which he built behind the family home. Spooked cows set to face his .22-caliber rifle have broken his hand and both shoulders before slumping to the concrete floor. He once stuck a knife through his leg while skinning a moose.
“I yanked it out. I didn’t think I was hurt that bad,” said Linthicum, who made it to 70 this month on Tylenol and tenacity.
Now he says a plan by the National Park Service and the state of Virginia to shut down busy Sudley Road just outside his front door — a linchpin in a deeply contested proposal to build a 10-mile Bi-County Parkway connecting Prince William and Loudoun counties — threatens to kill his family-run operation.
“They’ll run me right out of business if they close it,” he says.
The problem is, the Park Service and the slaughterhouse owner have different ideas about what’s most worth preserving: a nation’s history, or a family’s.
The Park Service has long-standing plans to close both Sudley Road, also known as Route 234, and Route 29 within the park’s borders. The commuter routes intersect near the center of the park, marring the sober tranquility of key battle sites with traffic snarls and exhaust-
belching semis. Park officials want the mundane distractions gone so visitors can better envision the bloody past.
Commuters — and potential customers who might want Linthicum to skin, cut, wrap and freeze their deer or other animals — would be shifted a couple of miles away to the proposed new parkway and an offshoot called the Manassas Battlefield Bypass. Those roads would be built on the western and northern edges of the battlefield.
The new roads and closures are not a done deal. The projects haven’t been funded, except plans for some initial engineering money starting in 2017. The parkway alone has a preliminary price tag of $440 million, and its estimated completion date is 2020. But top state officials have been pushing the proposal, and intense negotiations are underway between federal, state and local officials as well as preservationists on a final agreement needed for federal approval. Without it, the project can’t move forward.
Some residents oppose the parkway because it would come near, or through, their property, or because cars routed around the old closed roads could pour down narrow lanes not meant to handle them.
What Linthicum frets about is having too few cars, not too many — the latest challenge in a life lived stuck between a modernizing Washington area and its past.
Linthicum had his own cattle for a time, but the rustlers made that unsustainable. “They’d take the back legs off them, whatever they could carry,” he said.
His primary work became cutting up other people’s cattle. That, too, faded, as ranchers sold their land to the home builders putting roofs over new residents. Prince William and Loudoun each have added more than a quarter-million people over the past three decades, and Fairfax County added another half-million.
Linthicum shifted again, and butchering for hunters now is his family’s bread and butter. Business sagged after the recession, but they still cut about 2,500 deer each year.
Dealing with a constant stream of carcasses became part of the family’s rhythm. Linthicum transformed his family’s original shack, which had no plumbing or electricity, into a comfortable two-story home and built the cinder-block slaughterhouse out back. Confused hunters would sometimes deposit their latest buck on his doorstep, which his mother found hilarious.
“They’d drag it to the front door. She’d sit there and laugh,” Linthicum said.
Some relatives found limits to what they could do. A nephew refused to kill lambs, whose screams sounded too human. His sons wouldn’t kill the cow they raised in the back yard. “That’s my pet,” one said.
“I went in there and did it. It just doesn’t bother me,” Linthicum said, standing beneath a steel ceiling track he bent himself to slide the hooked animals from room to room. He first slaughtered hogs on the family farm as a schoolboy.
What bothers him is what he sees as the arbitrary actions of government officials.
The road plan is part of an intricate and controversial deal. State officials want the new parkway to relieve congestion in the outer suburbs, though critics say it will spur development. In exchange for bulldozing four acres of their land, park officials would get the go-ahead to shut the roads they say undercut the historic experience of the site.
Some preservationists insist it’s wrong to destroy even a peripheral piece of the battlefield as part of the bargain. Park officials sympathize.
“We’re not typically in the business of building roads across park land,” said Ed Clark, superintendent of the park. But “I can’t be an all-or-nothing guy in this. To get a little, I have to give a little.”
On a recent afternoon, Clark stopped in the middle of one of the park’s pivotal battle sites, nine miles from Dulles International Airport and less than a mile from Interstate 66. He spun around to see rolling fields in every direction. “We’re so close to all this development and all this sprawl, and you have something that looks like this,” he said.
But Clark kept walking and soon came upon the crowded intersection he wants eliminated, where dump truck after dump truck rumbled by. “This is the heart of the park,” he said.
Linthicum and his wife, Linda, raised a family on this land fraught with American history, not far from where Confederate Gen. Thomas J. Jackson got the nickname “Stonewall” in a brutal battle with Union forces led by Gen. Irvin McDowell. But Linthicum sees limits to what should be done in the name of preservation. “If they was going to take everything they fought on, they’d have to take the whole state,” he said.
Clark said park officials would make sure Linthicum’s customers could still reach him. But Linthicum doesn’t believe it. And like members of the nearby Sudley Methodist Church, he worries about being knocked off the beaten path. “Nobody could see the sign. Nobody would know we’re here,” he said.
On July 16, local activists seeking to scuttle the parkway persuaded the Prince William Board of Supervisors to pass a motion largely written by opponents that complicates ongoing negotiations. The motion says neither Sudley Road nor Route 29 should be closed to through traffic until the battlefield bypass opens along the park’s northern border.
That motion contradicts a February resolution by Virginia’s powerful Commonwealth Transportation Board, which said Sudley can be shut when a key portion of the Bi-County Parkway is complete.
The discrepancy is important because the battlefield bypass is expected to cost $183 million and take until at least 2035 to finish. Park officials do not want to wait that long before starting to rid the park of congestion.
Over 43 years of chopping and slicing, Linthicum has had to evolve with his customers. He had to learn about skirt steak, a popular cut of diaphragm meat that is good for searing. His operation also sends meat out to a Pennsylvania processor to make cheesy jalapeno deer kielbasa.
His least favorite job is bear, which he says has a distinctive rotten essence. “I don’t know how anybody in their right mind could sit down and eat a steak off a bear,” he said.
Linda Linthicum, 67, spent 32 years as a meat wrapper at a supermarket, where she’d weigh and package product. Then she’d come home and start at it again with the man she married as a teenager. Maintaining health insurance was vital for her husband’s line of work. “I can’t tell you how much Giant paid to fix him up,” she said, including 11 surgeries to mend his torn-up shoulders.
They’ve shared a lot amid echoes of the park’s past.
A couple of years ago, they noticed a figure in the darkness as they drove near their home.
Linthicum said it was a “guy standing out there in a Confederate uniform.” He asked Linda if she saw the same thing.
She remembers the skin: “It didn’t look flesh color. It was grayish color.”
At first, Linthicum wondered if it could be a reenactor. “No, that dude didn’t look right. He just stood right there and stared at me.”
Linthicum looked back at his wife, then gunned it.
They said the ghosts haven’t sent them packing. They’ve gotten used to hearing chains clanking in the empty slaughterhouse.
Park officials would love to buy Linthicum’s one acre, as they recently did a neighbor’s property. Linthicum says there was a time when he considered that. No longer.
“I ain’t going to sell them nothing,” Linthicum said. One of his sons has joined the business now and hopes to take over. “They’re going to have to carry me off of here.”