Prince William County, its current leaders say, has been home to only one U.S. senator in the 225-year history of Congress. And that senator served only a year — the first year the Senate existed.
When William Grayson died in 1790, he was buried on a hilltop at Belle Aire plantation, an estate in what is now Woodbridge.
Despite the role he played in the country’s history, Grayson was not long remembered. Over decades, his grave crumbled and was vandalized. Now, thanks to a local history buff, it’s gotten a facelift.
“It has great historic value,” said Bill Olson, the most prominent proponent of the restoration. “Grayson was a patriot.”
Olson was so serious about it that he made an offer: If the county’s historic preservation team would do the work, he would personally take care of the cost of supplies, up to $20,000. And that moved Grayson to the top of the county’s list of historic projects.
Starting in late July, about four county employees a day have been hard at work at Belle Aire.
They reaffixed the tomb’s cracked outer layer, put down a metal screen to keep the crumbling material in place and painted over it with sealant. They determined the locations of other graves in what was once a small cemetery and set down headstones to mark the remains. The work wrapped up this week.
“It took some pretty serious man-hours,” county archaeologist Justin Patton said. It would not have been done had Olson not volunteered to fund it, raising the question of whether a private citizen can dictate which projects public employees work on. But Patton said the partnership saves taxpayer dollars and was approved by the Board of County Supervisors. “I think it’s a great project,” Patton said. “You have a private donor who stepped up, and the county provided technical expertise.”
Olson said he was happy to grease the slow-moving wheels of county construction work. “I’m rather impatient with all levels of government,” he said. “But you can get them to do things.”
Olson isn’t just the funder of the Grayson grave restoration: He is Prince William’s go-to grave guy.
As a member of the county’s 16-member historical commission, Olson chairs the cemeteries committee. He has compiled a list of more than 500 historic cemeteries in the county and believes that there are at least that many more still to be added.
“I guess I just kind of think cemeteries are special. They’re sacred,” he said. “Though in most religions, you feel the body’s not there anyway. At least, the important part.”
That’s probably lucky for Grayson, who was a Revolutionary War officer and the namesake of counties in Virginia and Kentucky. His original tomb at Belle Aire, the plantation owned by his brother, Spence Grayson, is described by historians as resembling George and Martha Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, where a large brick vault stands over the sarcophagi.
But the plantation was used as a field hospital during the Civil War and then torched by departing Union soldiers. According to local lore, the tomb was dynamited.
By the end of the 19th century, the tomb had a more-humble covering: a large stone hump. Decades of rainfall seeped into the cement, froze, thawed and caused cracks, which filled with more rainfall and led to bigger cracks. Chunks of stone tumbled away.
This month, workers cut a hole in the tomb and used a special camera purchased by Olson to look inside. They saw no bones, although Patton said they could be there, buried beneath the soil.
The work also brought a surprise: When the workers peered in using the camera, they saw a peace sign and initials painted inside the six-foot-deep tomb as well as a string of beads.
Based on the groovy graffiti, the team dates the intrusion to some time in the decade or two before the previous repair, conducted in the 1980s by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Although the past two turbulent centuries left little opportunity for Grayson’s remains to rest in peace, the main plantation house just up the hill went through a turnover of its own.
After changing hands from one Virginia family to another, the property was purchased in 1999 by the Good Shepherd Housing Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers housing to mentally ill or low-income residents at 31 places across the county. Living in the historic house are five men with chronic mental illnesses.
The nonprofit wasn’t prepared to take on the role of the historic grounds’ caretaker.
“We kind of just stepped into it by default,” said the Rev. Bob Allard, president of Good Shepherd’s board. “Our first concern is the house and the people here. We kept the grass mowed, but we didn’t have the money to do this sort of thing.”
The house’s current-day purpose still makes Belle Aire a sensitive spot for a historic site. Good Shepherd agreed that the county could add eight parking spots for visitors to the tomb and a walkway to get to it. The county will also put up signs warning visitors not to go beyond a certain point and a barrier of trees to give the house’s residents more privacy.
Olson hopes that schools might plan field trips to see the tomb. Frank J. Principi (D), a county supervisor, said Prince William might offer occasional information sessions there.
“It’s not going to be something that 5,000 people go to every year,” said Brendon Hanafin, the county’s historic preservation chief. “Public impact is really secondary on this. It’s preserving the tomb that’s really our driving factor. Sometimes the artifacts themselves are very important — not sometimes, always.”