Gwendolyn P. Washington is carrying on a family tradition that’s also a historical marker.
She is one of seven members of the Dumfries Town Council, as was her husband, Clyde Washington, and her father, John Wilmer Porter.
Her father bears the distinction of being the first African American elected to a governing body in Virginia, and the town hall is named for him.
“Dumfries has had an African American on its Town Council for more than 50 years. That speaks to the fact that the town is progressive and inclusive,” said Vice Mayor Willie J. Toney, a resident since 1997.
The Prince William County town, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, spans 1.6 square miles amid a gently hilly landscape.
About 5,000 people live in the town, largely on modest one- and two-level homes on wide lots. A few townhouse neighborhoods also dot the community. There is some undeveloped land, much of it wooded.
“Dumfries has always been welcoming, even early on, and today it’s a diverse community racially, socially and economically,” said Washington, a lifelong resident.
The rise and fall of tobacco: The town was chartered in 1749 minutes before Alexandria’s charter was signed and consequently is the oldest continuously chartered town in the state.
The 1760s were Dumfries’s heyday, said Joann Barron, director of the Weems-Botts Museum, constructed in 1749 and open for public tours.
Back then, Dumfries was the third-largest seaport in the country and had 9,000 residents, 30 warehouses, a theater and opera houses. “Tobacco was king,” Barron said. Tobacco also played a role in the town’s decline.
Trees were clear-cut to obtain lumber for shipbuilding. When they were gone, tobacco was planted. The land was quickly depleted of nutrients, said Barron, and rain brought erosion. The soil flowed into the harbor.
In 15 years, the port was too silted for ships to maneuver. “We went from this big, rich city to a ghost town,” Barron said. “Anyone who had resources, left. When the Civil War hit, only 20 families remained. It was a wonderful Colonial city, but erosion killed it.”
Attracting business: “I see people over the last few years getting more involved in the community. We sponsor many activities — February 8 Black History Month Celebration, April 5 Quantico Creek Cleanup, April 12 Easter Egg Hunt, May 3 Multicultural Festival — and people come,” said Washington.
“Our goal is to make Dumfries a place where people want to live, work and play,” she said. “We’re trying to get more businesses so people will have more job opportunities.”
Kristin W. Forrester, also a member of the Town Council and a resident since 2007, added: “We’re constantly working to make the community more attractive to business and have some promising commercial and residential development coming up.”
One tangent to a growing community is traffic, especially on Route 1. “Except for the traffic, which is horrendous, Dumfries is a good place to raise a family,” said Nancy C. West, a former Town Council member who has lived in the town since 1962.
“I enjoy living here. People are warm, friendly and willing to look out for their neighbors, and I like that,” said Toney, the vice mayor.
Parks and recreation: Ginn Memorial Park, once a donkey farm, “is a place for active and passive recreation,” Toney said. Merchant Park, behind the Weems-Botts Museum, has a pavilion and a bandstand; behind Town Hall, there’s Garrison Park. “For a town this size to have three parks is very commendable,” said West. And Leesylvania State Park and Prince William Forest National Park are nearby.
The town continually adds sidewalks to residential streets and the retail corridor on Main Street “to enhance connectivity for residents so they can walk and bike everywhere,” said Toney.
Transit and shopping options: Interstate 95 is readily accessible. “Slugging — you hitch a ride and with three passengers speed on the HOV lane — is popular,” said Toney, “and knocks time off your commute.” Drop-off points are the Pentagon, 14th Street NW and L’Enfant Plaza.
Franconia-Springfield on the Blue Line is the closest Metro station.
Virginia Rail Express stations in Woodbridge and Quantico are five minutes away.
Dumfries Shopping Center and Triangle Shopping Plaza offer small shops and restaurants. Wal-Mart is on Route 1. Potomac Mills is a 15-minute drive, Fredericksburg and Manassas 30 minutes, Springfield Mall and Pentagon City 35 minutes.
Living there: Dumfries, Zip code 22026, has irregular boundaries — roughly, Interstate 95 to the northwest; Dumfries Road, Route 1 and Dewey’s Creek to the northeast; and a jagged line winding from Quantico Creek to I-95 to the south.
According to Cheryl Thomson, an agent with Buyers Advantage Real Estate in Woodbridge, 92 properties, including townhomes, condos and single-family dwellings, are for sale. They range in price from $121,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo to $3 million for a single-family house with six bedrooms and four bathrooms.
Forty-one properties are under contract, ranging from a two-bedroom, 11 / 2-bathroom home for $86,000 to a house with five bedrooms and 31 / 2 bathrooms for $399,999.
Twenty-one homes sold over the past year, ranging from $115,000 for three bedrooms and 21 / 2 bathrooms to $578,376 for five bedrooms and 41 / 2 bathrooms.
Schools: Dumfries Elementary, Graham Park and Potomac Middle, and Forest Park High. Students can also apply to specialty middle or high schools.
Crime: In 2013, according to the Prince William County Police Department, there were 53 motor vehicle thefts, 14 burglaries, 13 robberies, three assaults, two rapes and one homicide.
Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.