The Washington Post

Arlington’s little house in the big woods

The upstairs of the Ball-Sellers House in Glencarlyn is surprisingly cozy, with a window, a bed and simple toys like the ones that occupied the Ball daughters in the 18th century. (Liz Vance/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

From the outside, the white-sided, two-story house several blocks off Carlin Springs Road, just south of Route 50, looks much like any other home in Arlington County’s Glencarlyn neighborhood. Closer inspection reveals what would appear to be an addition to the rear of the first structure: lower than the first, with an unusually long, slanted roof.

Yet the smaller structure predates the two-story front of the 1880s home by more than 100 years. Known as the Ball-Sellers House, it is an original log cabin built in 1750, the oldest house in Arlington County.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ball-Sellers House Museum Director Annette Benbow of the Arlington Historical Society led a group of visitors through the log cabin. Benbow urged the group to imagine an Arlington without cars or roads, where acres of dense forest covered land since replaced by dense neighborhoods.

“This was before the Revolutionary War, before the French and Indian War,” says Benbow. “Close your eyes and hear all the sounds. What sounds would you not hear in 1750?”

The nonprofit Arlington Historical Society has owned the Ball-Sellers House since its last private owner, Marion Sellers, donated the home to the organization in 1975. Since restoring the house to its 18th-century appearance, the society has opened the log cabin to the public for tours every Saturday afternoon between April and October; lacking electricity as well as plumbing, the house is too cold for tours the rest of the year. They had 330 visitors last year — on a busy day, they might have a dozen visitors, twice that many if there’s an event or a group tour.

The log cabin provides a glimpse into Revolutionary-era Arlington, providing the society a unique opportunity to educate the public about the origins of the county. “This was total frontier in 1742 when John Ball decided to move here,” says Benbow, pointing out that George Washington bought a tract of land to the south of John Ball’s property specifically for its forest.

Earlier that same year, the sixth Lord Fairfax decided to separate his property from Suffolk and Stafford counties to establish Fairfax County; John Ball, a farmer, bought 166 acres of land within the new county, moving with his wife and three daughters to the site, where he built the log cabin by 1750. (Multiple boundary changes mean the house, always in the same spot, has resided in four different counties.)

The Ball family, which grew to include two more daughters, cleared land to raise cattle, sheep, geese and chickens and to farm crops including flax and other produce. John Ball later owned a mill at what is now Four Mile Run, where he ground corn, wheat and flax for himself and eventually for his neighbors.

An ancient wisteria vine dating to sometime before 1920 wends its way over a pergola-like structure at the back of the log cabin, its trunk grown so thick it more closely resembles a tree than a vine. Several feet away, in the home’s back yard, Michael Polovina of Plot Against Hunger shows visitors the heritage garden, planted with vegetables and herbs that would have been grown in the time when the Ball family lived there.

“Squash, radishes, cucumbers,” Polovina said. Herbs like lavender, lemon balm and rosemary, he explained, would have been dried and hung in the colonial home, to be used for cooking as well as to improve the odor of the house.

Plot Against Hunger, a division of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, is partnering with the Arlington Historical Society for the third year running to plant and display the heritage garden. The crops, which yielded several hundred pounds of produce last year, will be donated to Arlington residents in need and distributed through AFAC.

Inside the cabin, Benbow leads the way through the two rooms on the ground level up to an attic room, where most of the children of the family slept. Students of historical architecture regularly visit to see the roof, because an original 18th-century roof that has survived intact is a rarity. When John Ball built a lean-to addition to the house, sometime in the 1750s, he built a second roof on top of the entire structure, preserving the original.

Stuffed between the roof and the walls for insulation, what looks like brown tobacco leaves turns out to be ancient newspaper. One partially restored specimen, displayed on the first floor, is revealed to be part of the front page of The Washington Post from 1907.

Working from John Ball’s will, which included an inventory of the Ball household at the time of his death, in 1776, the historical society restored the house to its 18th-century appearance. The wooden folding bed with its mattress of straw ticking, wool spindle and period outfits help visitors imagine daily life in colonial-era Arlington.

The biggest challenge to young visitors, Benbow says, is imagining life with the period toys at the house — hoops and a cup-and-ball toy.

“When they ask, ‘What did they do for fun?’ I show them the two games,” Benbow says. The Ball daughters were “busy milking the cows, spinning the wool, spinning the flax into linen thread and tending the garden, so those are the toys they would have played with if they had any energy left. They were busy girls!”

Bettina Lanyi is a freelance writer.


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