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Quietly Tucked In Near the Potomac
Moyaone Residents Keep Close to Nature

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 23, 2005

Before her family moved into a glass-walled contemporary house in the Moyaone Reserve two decades ago, Jean Thompson had to evict 22 black snakes residing inside.

The former owners of the house had christened it "Chemeketa," meaning "place of peace," but had left it in less than pristine condition. "I spent 24 hours absorbing it," said Thompson, "and decided the house was worth saving."

The setting had much to do with her decision. Moyaone, pronounced moy-own with emphasis on the second syllable, is a heavily wooded community nestled near the Potomac River in the Piscataway National Park's scenic easement, straddling the Prince George's/Charles county line, 20 miles south of the U.S. Capitol.

Named for a Piscataway Indian village that occupied the site until 1623, this nature lover's paradise was designed to ensure that the view from Mount Vernon across the river would never be marred by development. Its 180 houses, most on lots of five acres or more, are tucked under canopies of hardwoods along miles of private gravel roads.

Beavers have created a new wetland area along Bryan Point Road. Blue heron deftly catch small fish there; the clicking noise made by northern cricket frogs sounds almost like someone is rolling dice in the marsh. A recent notice on the community's electronic bulletin board asked if someone had lost a goat.

Thompson, an artist and one of the founders of Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center, describes her trek from that city to her front door as an exercise in "funneling" -- gradually shaking off the suburban clamor. She heads over the Wilson Bridge, down Indian Head Highway to Accokeek, onto a winding country road, then follows gravel lanes to her long, tree-lined driveway. The rocky path to her door requires slowing down even more. "It's designed so that you have to look down as you walk," she said. "By the time you get to the front door, you feel like you're in West Virginia."

What the Moyaone Reserve has become over the past 60 years is a testament to the foresight and environmental awareness of a small group of people long before such was fashionable, as well as to the continued efforts of the Moyaone Reserve Association, the Accokeek Foundation and the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

In the 1920s, Henry and Alice Ferguson sought a 10-acre refuge from the city, but ended up purchasing 130 acres called Hard Bargain Farm overlooking the Potomac River across from Mount Vernon. For decades, their weekend retreat attracted a lively group for Saturday afternoon cocktails, Sunday volleyball games, archeological digs and nature watching.

The Fergusons gradually purchased hundreds of adjacent acres and began selling land to their friends. After Alice's death in 1951, Henry set the stage to preserve Hard Bargain for environmental education programs by establishing the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Karen Jensen Miles grew up in Moyaone and remembers Henry Ferguson as a petite man with a patch on one eye, who was prone to wearing kilts and telling children stories of former Indian villages on the property.

Now the program director for Hard Bargain Farm, Miles said she joined her parents, who were biologists, every Saturday afternoon at "Fergie's" in the 1960s. Children had the run of the farm. "We had no fear. . . . We'd go down into the ravines and feel like no one was ever there before," she said.

Sheryl Romeo, a real estate agent in Accokeek, recalled a story involving a contemporary house with a deck that cantilevers over a ravine. "Before [the couple] built the house, they had their banker come out to look at the land." Upon seeing the ravine, he exclaimed, "Gosh, how are you going to fill that in?"

But changing the landscape isn't the goal in the Moyaone Reserve; preserving it is. Before cutting any trees of six-inch diameter or more, homeowners have to get permission from the National Park Service.

Today, Moyaone houses range from a one-bedroom cottage to a grand house with an indoor swimming pool. No two are alike. "It probably has more mid-century modern houses than your average neighborhood with the exception of Hollin Hills," a neighborhood in Fairfax County, Romeo said.

Architect Charles Wagner, one of the early residents who worked with the Fergusons to establish the community, designed and built 15 of the houses, each with Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired simplicity and a shallow pitched roof. He used large expanses of glass to make the most of the views, "bringing the outside inside," said his widow, Nancy Wagner.

One house, now 123 feet long and 20 feet wide, has windows all around the perimeter. Wagner incorporated passive solar energy into his designs by making the most of southern exposures for winter heat.

Charles Goodman, the architect of Hollin Hills, lent his own touches to several houses in Moyaone, and like Wagner, wedded his designs to the rolling topography.

Jeff Yeager's house is a prime example of architecture designed to fit the environment rather than intrude on it. With twists and turns and nary a square corner in the structure, the Yeager house, designed by Goodman, looks as though it was planted on the spot. Curved-glass floor-to-ceiling windows make the most of the backyard view.

Once the home and studio of sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus, the house was one of the first built in Moyaone. Yeager, former president of the American Canoe Association, has spent 18 years tweaking the landscaping on the 3 1/2 acre pie-shaped property -- terracing a slope, converting a swimming pool to a life-filled pond and taming the bamboo. While clearing brush, he uncovered several pieces of Straus's sculpture, now prominently displayed.

Nancy Wagner, who has had careers as a newspaper reporter and a kindergarten teacher, still lives in the house she and her husband built in 1946. Back then, as they hammered and sawed, they watched a pair of eagles build their own nest in an adjacent tree. These days, a protective area limiting construction is required around eagle nests.

Wagner said early residents encouraged the Fergusons' vision of an environmentally connected community. Today, while many residents enjoy produce from a community-sustained farm, concerns center on the effect unchecked development outside Moyaone is having on the level of water in the neighborhood's wells.

Dixie Otis, a resident for 45 years, said Moyaone residents were once thought of as "a bunch of nature-loving nuts." Now, though, "There is a much greater awareness in the population at large of the need to preserve the out-of-doors."

Dorothy Odell, a retired real estate agent who has lived in the community since 1969, said, "People who move here select the community first, then try to find a house." There is a broad range of homes, incomes and politics in Moyaone, she said, describing life there as being "a little bit like Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood."

"People here really place a high value on a sense of place," Yeager said. "There's no substitute for the outside to us. This was a rare spot 18 years ago. It's even more so now."

Wagner said, "The trees separate us, but trees connect us, too."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company