200 Years of Ordinary History

(By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

For all the majesty of its name, the Mount Gilead house is a humble place, sitting behind a plain iron gate in a yard of box elms and holly bushes, its seven-acre site a serene oasis in an ever-widening expanse of putty-colored prefab homes in Centreville.

It's no Mount Vernon, even if it is nearly as old -- and in some respects, Fairfax County officials say, it might be just as historically priceless because it is so ordinary.

The Mount Gilead house's former residents include a tavern keeper, a tanner, slaves, a Foreign Service officer whose brother was a New Hampshire governor and -- according to legend, anyway -- a lovelorn ghost. Its most illustrious guest was Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who used the two-story home as his private quarters during the first Manassas campaign.

"We don't have many 1780s working-class homes," county Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said. "It's a wonderful example of how people lived. It's a story of Fairfax County."

County officials hope to transform the site into a cultural attraction such as a park, whose centerpiece would be a small museum in the house, potentially offering a peek into the way ordinary mortals have lived in Northern Virginia for hundreds of years. The Fairfax County Park Authority assumed control of the house after the county bought it in 1996 for about $1.2 million. The authority is planning to ask the public this month what should be done with the acquisition.

Frey acknowledges that the modest, two-story structure does not wow people the first time they see it. "I took some of my people on staff over, and as we pulled up, I heard this 'Ohhhhh . . .,' " Frey recalled. "I said, 'You were expecting Mount Vernon?' " Frey said he would also like to expand the Centreville Historic District from its current 17 acres, including the site, to 50 acres.

"Everyone has one common vision for this property, and at the top of the pile is to preserve the natural resources that are there," said Michael Rierson, manager of the resource stewardship branch in the Park Authority.

Most 18th-century homes that survived in Northern Virginia allow a look at the long-ago lives of the elite. The Mount Gilead house offers a glimpse of everyone else.

Not counting the purported ghost of a jilted Southern belle who is said to be pining for her Union soldier, the house's current occupant is Ted McCord, a U.S. history professor at George Mason University who rents the property from the county.

"I've often thought about the people who have sat around this fireplace over the years, especially during the Civil War," said McCord, 60, sitting beside a cold fireplace last week.

McCord, too, hopes the home might become a museum with exhibits that reflect its changing uses since its construction around 1785. It is the oldest house in western Fairfax County, he said, and should be preserved and opened to the public.

"I think it's important because everyone needs to know their heritage. You need to know from where you've sprung," said McCord, who also teaches at Northern Virginia Community College. "These houses and monuments are tangible monuments to a past, a simpler past. In some ways it helps ground us a little better; it helps us to better appreciate what we have and what we've lost."

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