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Keeping Old Mill Turning and Relevant

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

In the days when gristmills transformed mountains of harvested grain into common kitchen commodities, they also shaped the growth of early American settlements and became busy hubs where farmers and businesspeople met, conducted transactions and gossiped.

Those days are gone, but Fairfax County Park Authority officials say a significant renovation of Colvin Run Mill Historic Site would once again expand its role in the community and enhance its historical value.

As part of a long-overdue revision of the Colvin Run Mill's master plan, park officials intend to lay the groundwork for a new visitors center with space for community meetings and a place to tell a more complete story of the 19th-century gristmill's role in the county's history. Park officials say the mill, which is operational and whose distinctive design represents a breakthrough in 18th-century automation, is a rare treasure that deserves a better showcase. About 30,000 people visit each year.

Although many visitors can delight in observing a working mill grind corn or wheat into flour and grits that can be purchased in the general store, no space is devoted to explaining the mill's history and influential role in early Northern Virginia. Especially when the grindstones are not turning, visitors are left to wander around looking at buildings with little guidance.

"We want to be better stewards of their time," said Mike Henry, the site administrator. "They're looking for that visitor center, that orientation point, and we don't have that now."

Park officials also would like to determine what should be done with the 30-acre part of the park that lies south of Leesburg Pike, or Route 7. That area, which contains the millpond that provided the source of the mill's power, remains mostly in its natural state.

"Part of what we want to do is take a look at the entire site," said Scott Sizer, a senior park planner.

First, members of the public and park officials must reach consensus on Colvin Run Mill's master plan, which has not been altered since 1973. The process involves brainstorming among members of the community and park staff members; drawing up and revising a plan; and submitting the plan to the Park Authority board for approval. The process includes at least two public meetings and is expected to be completed by the end of this summer, in time, park officials say they hope, to include money for possible improvements in a bond issue.

"This is the plan that sets up what's going to happen to these buildings," Sizer said. "If it's not in the master plan, we don't fund it."

Park officials held their first informational public meeting last week. About 30 people showed up, and many of their questions dealt with concerns about long-term plans by the Virginia Department of Transportation to widen Leesburg Pike and the potential impact on the park. Park officials at the meeting said that their ability to influence VDOT's plans depends on the lobbying abilities of public officials, but they also said that devising a solid master plan would help influence the outcome.

Colvin Run is one of many mills built in Northern Virginia as agriculture flowered across the Shenandoah Valley. The mills' importance was reflected in real estate advertisements for farm properties at the time that often noted their locations were "convenient to church and mills." Many mills, though, were destroyed during the Civil War.

The Colvin Run property initially was owned by George Washington, who believed it to be an ideal place for a mill. A squatter occupied the site while Washington was off fighting for American independence, and Washington did not have a chance to build a mill of his own, Henry said.


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