Occoquan's Old-Time Charm Outlasts Calamity

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 19, 2008

Before dozens of cute shops, before the town-engulfing craft fairs, Occoquan's history had as many ups and downs as its topography.

The old mill town was ravaged by fire in 1916. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes marked another transformation when it wiped out the bulk of businesses, most of which didn't return.

And yet, such catastrophic events seem mere footnotes now as old-timers talk instead of the sights and sounds spanning decades in their riverside town and newcomers praise its quaintness.

Richard Bell, who retired from the Pentagon in 1980, lives in the house where his late wife, Madeline, was born 88 years ago. Recalling his first job at a brickyard nearby, he said, "I was about 18 and made 15 cents an hour." Ice blocks were carved from the river -- which routinely froze two-to-three-feet thick. They were then covered in sawdust before being shipped to Washington.

Bell's father-in-law, Ogle Harris, the son of a former slave, started a general store in 1919 next door to where Bell lives today. Bell said, "My brother-in-law would go fishing at 5 a.m., catch bass this big" -- spreading his hands wide -- "then hang them up in the market and give them away."

Tim Mentzer, an artist who was raised in town and whose mother was born in Occoquan, recalled making $2 to mow an acre of grass, then taking his earnings to Harris's, where he'd sit on the porch, savoring chosen treats. "Crushed grape soda was a favorite," he said. "We loved that and Bonomo's Turkish taffy."

A main route from Richmond ran through town then, over a wooden truss bridge that crossed the river at the north end. "You never forget some sounds," Mentzer said. "That one-lane plank bridge had a musical chime to it."

Less melodious were the explosions from the quarry across the river that would shake Occoquan's houses. The quarry is still running, but noise abatement programs put into effect years ago have made it a better neighbor, residents say.

Mentzer, 56, said that pre-1972, shopkeepers owned their buildings and many lived over their stores. Others lived on houseboats along the river.

Town boundaries and roads seemed to change overnight during the 1970s as Occoquan rebuilt. Mentzer said a friend exclaimed one day, "I went to sleep in Occoquan and woke up in Woodbridge."

Today, residents say the community has settled into "Occoquan time" -- a slow-paced, laid-back small-town rhythm that flows around periodic waves of shoppers and commuters.

Bell can usually be found on his front porch during what some call the evening "crawl hour" -- when an endless line of vehicles snakes its way through the twists and turns of Occoquan's narrow streets to avoid the traffic lights on Route 123 and Old Bridge Road.

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