Where History Can Be Lived

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Each fall, West Springfield High School history teacher James Percoco asks his students whether they have ever wondered where they would be standing if they had been born 250 years earlier. The question stumps them. When you're a teenager, it can seem like your high school has always been there.

Percoco, "Mr. P." to his students, tells them their Fairfax County school is on the site of what was once Ravensworth Plantation, which stretched for thousands of acres. Suddenly it makes sense that they buy their groceries at the Ravensworth Shopping Center. He also tells them that Rolling Road, just outside the school, got its name from the heavy casks of tobacco that were rolled along it.

Fairfax County is known today for its affluence, strong economy and well-regarded school system. The county has one of the nation's highest median household incomes: $94,610, according to Census Bureau data. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that Fairfax rivals the District as a regional economic powerhouse. Over the past 15 years, the growth of the county's private sector, fueled by a boom in work outsourced by the federal government, has meant the addition of about 100,000 professional and business jobs, the researchers found.

But Percoco doesn't want his students -- or the rest of us -- to get so caught up in the commerce of Tysons Corner or the traffic congestion on Interstate 66 that we forget about the county's rich past. He calls the 395 square miles a "living learning laboratory" for teaching history.

He is not alone. Hundreds of county residents spend time as docents in history museums, attending historical society meetings, serving as reenactors. To reflect the composition of the population, there are men, women and plenty of children, some as young as 3 in period dress, standing in for a sunny child of bygone times.

History buffs know that there are many lessons to learn in Fairfax.

They know that in 1608 Capt. John Smith met the Native Americans who lived here and drew the chief's village, called Tauxenent, on a map. They know that the nation's first president didn't just sleep in Fairfax, but he lived, died and made whiskey here. And they are familiar with a museum commemorating the Cold War that is planned for a site above a one-time Nike missile base in the southern part of the county.

For a glimpse into Fairfax's past, spend some time with Percoco's applied history students. The seniors in the one-of-a-kind class spend only part of the year in their school. Many of their lessons come as they work as volunteers at, or visit, the area's historical sites.

One recent morning, students ambled around the Mount Vernon estate, peering into Washington's bedroom and his study. They groaned when they heard that the slaves had to wake up long before sunrise to begin preparing meals. And two of them, noticing the small trunks in the bedrooms, lamented that members of the nation's first "first family" must have had very limited wardrobes.

A tour guide told them that "the General" was very precise about mealtime and that anyone who was more than five minutes late was not welcome. The students put a wreath at Washington's tomb and another at a graveyard where slaves are buried in unmarked graves.

People who are old enough can toast the first president with his own brand of rye whiskey. In 1799, Washington was the nation's largest producer of whiskey, churning out 11,000 gallons a year at Mount Vernon. Archaeologists found the remains of the distillery in 1997 and launched a six-year restoration project. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed a law last month allowing the sale of small quantities of spirits at the estate.

Undoubtedly Mount Vernon is Fairfax's best-known historical site. But there are many places to visit to get a glimpse of what life was like in Fairfax a couple hundred years before it was transformed into a suburb and grew into a mega-suburb.

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