NVCC to unveil marker that honors Ankers family, Civil War

July 11, 2011

The Loudoun County campus of Northern Virginia Community College will mark a dual gala Saturday: the unveiling of a Civil War trail plaque and groundbreaking for the Ankers Family Memorial Garden, where the marker will stand.

The marker commemorates the Feb. 22, 1864, Confederate ambush at Samuel Ankers’s blacksmith shop, which was nearby. At least 12 Union soldiers and one attacker died in the action. The marker also honors 35 of the 50 captured Union soldiers who died from illnesses at Georgia’s Andersonville Prison.

The remains of some of the 12 Union soldiers killed in the ambush, and others from both sides killed in area skirmishes, are in a graveyard near the marker that is outlined by eight white posts. Thirty-seven years ago, while I was teaching at the college, I found a graveyard, marked “Civil War soldiers” on an old map. Joyce Harris, the landscapist whose research provided data about the battle and the interred, said that when the garden is complete, a low fieldstone wall will surround the burial ground.

The garden honors the Ankers family, owners of the college property from 1856 to 1964. By 1847, and possibly before, Samuel Ankers and succeeding generations had farmed the land, which Samuel had named the Ankerage. In 1938, the family began its annual reunions at the site and at other sylvan locales. Austin “Pippin” Ankers Miller fondly remembers the old merry-go-round at Great Falls Park. Since 1984, the family has had its reunions at the college.

David T. Scheid, head of NVCC-Loudoun’s horticultural program, had the idea for the garden. He had observed that the campus’s future expansion plans called for a parking area that could have obliterated the Civil War graveyard.

In spring 2003, Scheid split his advanced landscape design class into four teams and asked each to come up with a motif for a garden that would also preserve the cemetery. One team contacted an Ankers family member. Janelle Ankers Swensson, who lived nearby, came by to see the plans.

The students’ ideas impressed Swensson, and she asked that their designs be shown at the next Ankers family reunion.

Scheid then asked student Joyce Zeitlin Harris to create a design that incorporated the various plans and ideas from the family. Harris completed her amalgam in fall 2005, and the family and others began raising funds to get the project going.

Harris, an artist and a horticulturist, said she “views the garden as living art.”

“We have to apply the same principles to gardens as we do to paintings,” she said.

“We wanted to preserve the openness of the land. Here, on the hill after the build-up of Sterling Park, the Blue Ridge opens up. The garden needed rural sensibilities: simplicity, charm, comfort.”

The design calls for foliage and flowers planted during the Ankers years. Miller, 83, a senior member of the Ankers family now living in Columbus, Ohio, recalled the type of flowers that grew on the farmstead when she was a child.

Facing Route 7 were red roses, she said. “The old-fashioned climbing kind — tough. Even after the horses ran over them, they came up.” Also facing the main road were shade trees. Miller recalls maple, mulberry and walnut trees.

Around the front and east side porch of the old house was a rare perennial, snow-on-the-mountain. Another rarity, castor beans, edged the vegetable gardens to the home’s north.

King Alfred spring daffodils highlighted the back yard. “My sister Alice won a prize for them at a 4-H contest,” Miller said.

Also behind the house were hollyhocks. “We cut the stalks down in the fall, put them beside the barn, and the seeds in the stalks came up again,” she said.

Gladiolas, planted in the fall, and snapdragons and purple lilac shrubs joined the hollyhocks. Miller said marigolds were the favorite annual flower.

The plantings and their surroundings cannot be completed until more funds are raised for the memorial garden, which is Harris’s next project.

The unveiling of the marker and groundbreaking will be from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College, 1000 Harry Flood Byrd Hwy., Sterling.

Donations for the garden can be mailed to NVCC Educational Foundation, with a notation that the funds are for the Ankers Family Memorial Garden. The address is NVCC Educational Foundation, 4001 Chapel Rd., Suite 312, Annandale, Va. 22003.

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