"This vehicle stops at all good fishing holes and Lynn's Store, Occoquan, Va." says the bumpersticker on the green Subaru, telling you a lot about the Subaru's owner, something about Lynn's Store and not much at all about Occoquan except that some people fish there.
Fishermen troop out Route 123 to Occoquan every year for one of the rites of spring -- the shad and herring run, from mid-March to early May. But not it's time for the rest of us to discover this day-tripper's dream -- a little bit of history, a lot of little craft and antique shops, a few good restaurants, a waterfront for fishing and boating, but most of all, a chance to stroll for a while in the small towns of imagining -- all within an hour's drive of Washington.
Occoqan means "at the end of the water" in the Doeg Indian language, and that's where the chief lived. Captain John Smith, the first outsider to enter the river, found the tribe's "King's House" on the upper shore of the Occoquan in 1608.
As to Lynn's Store, the hunting and fishing emporium celebrated on bumper-stickers, it was established as a general store in 1888 and converted over in 1966 to the needs of modern times. Only the five-cent candy sticks retain that old-time flavor. Andy Lynn, the fourth generation, says of the old family general store, "It was great for romance, but hell when it comes time to pay taxes."
English novelist and traveler John Davis, who came to Occoquan as a teacher, wrote:
"Occoquan consists only of a house built upon a rock, three others on the riverside and a half-dozen log huts scattered at some distance. Yet no place can be more romantic than the view of Occoquan to a stranger, after crossing the rustic bridge . . . across the stream. He contemplates the river urging its course along the mountains that lose themselves among the clouds, vessels taking on board flour and from the mills, and others, deeply laden, expanding their sails to the breeze, while every face wears contentment, every gale wafts health. . ."
That was written in 1801, three years before Occoquan was formally established as a town; give or take a few buildings, it's not a bad description of the place even today.
A thriving business district occupies the length of Mill Street. Arts and crafts -- and traffic -- are encouraged with annual shows.
Fishing and boating are big attractions, although regrettably there is no equipment for rent. Prince William Marine Sales sells boats, and fishing gear and bait can be bought by Lynn's Store (figure 65 cents for a hand line, $8.95 for the least expensive rod and reel; worms cost $1.25 and up). Fishermen 16 and over need a license ($5 buys a state license for Virginia residents, $3 an out-of-state temporary license), also available at Lynn's.
History is alive and well at the Mill House Museum (open weekends 1 to 5 in April, May and October; daily except Monday, noon to 5, June through September; admission free), where a slide show of Occoquan plays to the strains of John Denver. Guides point with pride to a patchwork quilt depictting Occquan's historic homes, landmarks and places of business. It took 30 women two years to make, and won the blue ribbon for group work at this year's Woodlawn Plantation needlework show.
Kids are amused at the "whatzit" table, full of old iron implements, and impressed by a collection of Indian arrowheads found in the area. Memorabilia on display at the museum creates a mental snapshot of Occquan's past -- the old post office window box, the black bag belonging to Dr. Frank Hornbaker who served the area from 1908 to the 1930's, a black lace parasol, the ledger from an 1874 store (1 coop chickens .35), a Civil War cannon ball, and a large assortment of tools (tobacco cutter, grain cradle) used in the 18th century industrial community.
From the museum, wander along Mill Street, peeking into shops, sampling the restaurants. The small-town ambience of a waterside main street promotes leisurely browsing. The first antique shop on your right was the ferryman's house before bridges; its basement was a prison during the Revolutionary War.
Stop off at the Corner Shop, once the old movie theater, for charming patchwork crafts. The Undertaking is an artist's cooperative patterned after the Torpedo Factory.Watch the potter at his wheel and then go upstairs for a well-priced selection of ceramics, baskets, briar pipes, wind chimes, wooden toys, weaving, stained glass, batik and fantastic furry hand puppets.
On to The Country Shop, with rainbow-hued bolts of calico lined up like books on a shelf, and a cherry smell. Don't miss the doll room in back for little-girl-dream dolls in antique lace and velvet dresses.
At the corner of Mill and Union Streets, slip into Rivertown General Store, an update of that old standby, which stocks candy and tea in Mason jars, coffee in open burlap bags, kitchen stuff all over. The scent is a heady mingling of spices. Around the corner is a sign that says: "home style fudge with cream and butter made right here." The Full Scoop makes 35 pounds of fudge a day, including exotic flavors like pina colada and walnut-cherry vanilla.
Up Union Street, Back Stage Dance Supplies sells realistic masks of Nixon, Ford and Carter for $19.95. Costumes are for sale or rent. For the moment, you can be anyone from Raggedy Ann to Scarlett O'Hara (with 35 yards of fabric in your dress). Jeanne Gervais, who owns Back Stage and designs its madcap costumes, moved to Occoquan seven years ago from a dance and modeling business in Washington.
"Occoquan's a delightful little town, more like a big family," she says. "A neighbor will always call to tell me if my light goes out. It's a slower life.Most of the shops work out of a cigar box. There's a trust here people don't get in shopping malls. We let them touch."
Occoquan has two lucheon spots, three restaurants, a fish market-carryout, and a crab house overlooking the water.The lunch places feature fresh, homemade sandwiches, soup, salads, and baked goods, and the option of eating indoors or out. Country Kitchen offers a small brick patio-garden blooming with daffodils and tulips; Toby's Cafe boasts impossibly fluffy pies, such as lime-coconut chiffon.
Blackbeard's restaurant's huge seafood salads are served in seashell dishes. The Occoquan shore dinner features whole Maine lobster, steamed clams and oysters, spiced shrimp and corn on the cob, at $13.95. The menus is for seafood lovers, but there's a hefty steak for the nonconformist and children are not forgotten (open daily, call 550-9296 for reservations weekends).
The Occoquan Inn (since 1755) also serves lunch and dinner. The menu's more varied, with seafood as well as country ham with raisin sauce and Cornish hen with apple stuffing, and a bit lower-priced (phone 690-1808). The Carousel, opened last July, features steak, fish and seafood in the $9 to $11 range.
After eating, work off the calories by wandering the town and poking into its history. In 1734, the General Assembly ruled that a public to bacco warehouse be built on the lower side of the river. In 1749, Charles Ewell of Bel Aire planned an ironworks on this site; it was built by his brother-in-law, John Ballendine, six years later.
Three years later, in 1758, Ballendine built his 11-room stone house, Rockledge, under the supervision of William Buckland, the architect of George Mason's Gunston Hall. Rockledge still stands overlooking the town, although it was badly burned by an aronist in January.
The late 1700s saw the Occoquan ironworks abandoned in favor of flour mills. Oliver Evans patented the first fully automated grist mill, which was installed at Occoquan by Thomas Ellicott, one of a family of millers from Ellicott, Maryland. Only the miller's cottage remains -- the mill was destroyed by fire in 1924 -- remains; it now serves as the Mill House museum and home to the local historical society. Thomas' brother, Nathaniel, bought the mill and Rockledge in 1800.
By 1835, the town had 50 dwellings, several mercantile stores and mechanics, a cotton factory (one of the first in Virginia) and a large flour mill grinding 150 barrels a day. The village was flourishing and looked forward to further improvement.
"But the promise was not realized. Slit washing down Occoquan Creek from from extensive clearing and tobacco farming on the lands above filled up the channel and ships were no longer able to reach the mills at Occoquan," according to Northern virginia heritage, by Eleanor Lee Templeman and Nan Netherton.
During the Civil War winter of 1862, General Wade Hampton, who was in charge of Confederate defenses south of Bull Run, made his headquarters in the old Hammill Hotel, now the Beachwood Apartments at the corner of Union and Commerce Streets.
In June 1972, Hurricane Agnes swept away the iron truss bridge that had linked Occoquan and Fairfax County since 1879. A new bridge opened in 1974.
So much for the past.Occoquan's future is being charted by a small band of merchants and history-minded citizens who are determined to see it flourishing again.
Despite the silting of the river, repeated fires, and the march of time, Occoquan survives -- a living, not a museum restoration. And high on a hill sits ivy-covered Rockledge, its roof badly charred, a silent testimony to Occoquan's past -- and future.