Saturday, February 20, 2016

Stuff I Love: The Department of Useless Information

My brother and I often joke that we would be the top employees if there was ever a Department of Useless Information anywhere in the world. Between the two of us we know a lot of random and fairly useless information spanning historical references to pop culture to geography and sports. While this skill helps with things like pub trivia and small talk at parties, it's not a particularly marketable skill. Unless one of us went on Jeopardy. I'm voting for Scott to do this.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Stuff I Love?" Everything! For once my skills for useless information will serve a higher purpose. Remember my friend Jordana? Jordana and I played the role of fake bridesmaids at a Mary Kay party and we navigated Jungle Jim's together during a visit to Cincinnati last January. Jordana is in grad school and is taking a course on humanities this semester. She has to visit various art and public spaces for assignments related to the class. This month, the focus is on public spaces.

Given that we live in a region where lots of history happened, I suggested that she visit a monument. After some discussion about which monument and Jordana's desire to visit a less visited option, I came up with the idea that she should drive around and investigate the Virginia Historical Markers. If you've driven on any road in Virginia you've probably seen one of these; they're white squarish signs along the road that mark an important historical event or person. Virginia has the oldest and largest of these marker programs in the United states. There are over 2000 markers throughout the state. Many of the earliest markers are along US 1. The markers include everything from battle sites, birthplaces, and other random historic events that have made it through the application process. The Department of Historic Resources maintains the program.

I've always wanted to plan a road trip around these historic markers. Road trips have always been a favorite of mine and I remember seeing these signs everywhere when we first moved to Virginia in the early 1990s. Other states have these signs but I don't think I ever really noticed them until we moved here because they are literally everywhere. There's so much history in Virginia specifically and the DMV generally. In my own neighborhood there are several historic markers, mostly from Arlington County. There's the Lomax AME Zion Church, opened in 1874 and a spot of one of Martin Luther King's speeches in 1963. The Drew School was also in this area; it opened in 1945 to serve the Nauck community. And finally, there's Green Valley Pharmacy. The pharmacy opened in 1952 and served the African-American neighborhood when others would not. The owner, Dr. Leonard Muse, is in his 90s but still works in the pharmacy along with his granddaughter. When I first moved into the neighborhood, I didn't know the history of Green Valley Pharmacy. It wasn't until I saw a group of middle schoolers on a field trip that I realized the historical and social significance of the place. There's so much history in this region and we (the collective DMV "we") tend to take it for granted. We often neglect it which is why we can't have nice things. So I was very excited when Jordana suggested that I join her in her project. What other nuggets of history would we find?

Despite the fact that there are several websites devoted to these markers, we found it challenging to find an actual map of the markers. If we knew of a marker or a keyword from a marker we could look it up on Google maps or the DHR website but that wasn't really what we were looking for. How is it possible that this program has existed for over 80 years and no one thought, "Let's create a map! Tourists and intrepid road trippers will love it!" Given that this program was originally created to encourage tourism, you'd think there would be a map.

But I digress. Jordana found an app instead. It's called Field Trip and it is awesome. Field Trip uses your location, a Google Map, and a database of historic markers to make it easy to find the sites near your location. Each marker is in the database along with additional historical information about the person or event listed. We decided to start near Jordana's house in Fairfax and were immediately dropped into the Battle of Ox Hill which took place in 1862. Starting with this event, our day would be filled with more John Mosby and Stonewall Jackson than two people actually need in their lives. But I guess that's what happens when you live in the middle of where a large portion of the Civil War took place

After tracing part of the Battle of Ox Hill and attempting to locate Jordana's house on the map of the battlefield, we continued our drive to Frying Pan Park and meeting house. According to A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers (and the marker itself), the meeting house is a "rare example of 18th-century architecture in western Fairfax County." From Field Trip we learned that in 1840 it was the most integrated church in the area. While the meeting house has been preserved and there are lots of signs, there was no indication why the rock in the below photo was enclosed by a fence. We guessed (as did the FB hive) that it's actually a grave marker. We also threw out the idea that maybe it was cursed and another friend suggested that it turns into a gremlin at night but grave marker seems to the most grounded in reality answer. There is a cemetery here but this stone is closer to the road so maybe the fence is there to protect it from terrible NOVA drivers. Good job, Fairfax County. 

After Frying Pan Park, we jumped back on to Route 50 to continue our trip into Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville. Did you know you can take Route 50 from Ocean City, MD to Sacramento, CA? That would be a cool road trip. Along the way we attempted to see the home of President James Monroe but the marker was missing. I was able to look it up and apparently Monroe "lived there for some years." I believe that's the historical equivalent of "he's just not that into you" for a house rather than a person. We were also treated to a weird song called "James Monroe" on the Southern Gothic Spotify playlist Jordana found. Upon a second listen, I don't actually think this song is about President Monroe so listen to this little gem instead.

What we started to discover along the way was the sort of history that we're not sure is actual history. Yes, we followed the Civil War battles from Ox Hill through to battles in little towns like Aldie and Upperville and slightly larger little towns like Middleburg, but the consistent theme through these markers were things like "John Mosby avoided capture here" or "Stonewall Jackson stood watch so his men could rest, then he took a nap, then they went and started First Manassas" or "Stonewall Jackon's mother might have grown up around here" (these are actual markers but I've paraphrased for you). Where were all the inventors or the non-war themed markers? Jordana wondered where all the whimsical history markers were; is history doomed to be textbook boring?

That's not to say we didn't learn interesting things. We drove through four counties (Fairfax, Loudoun, Clarke, and Faquier) and learned their namesakes and founding dates, learned that the father of American architecture's work is not as impressive as we hoped (B. Henry Latrobe and Long Branch), and that the estate of Welbourne was inspiration for both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. We saw a lot of churches. We enjoyed a cider tasting at Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery and coffee at Middleburg Common Grounds. Mt. Defiance (the actual land not the cidery) was part of the Battle of Middleburg; we saw the monument as we drove back through town.

Jordana couldn't get over how it was nearly impossible to stop to actually see any of the markers.We discussed this at length during the trip. I suggested that we look at the markers from a 1927 perspective (that's when the marker program began). There were less cars in 1927 than there are today. Those cars weren't designed to drive at the speeds we drive at today. People spent their leisure time differently. They didn't have smart phones so they would have to get out of their cars or at least pull up beside the marker to read it. Pull-off areas were added to marker areas in 1934; safety being the main reason. These markers were designed for a time that didn't have the Internet and Google. For that audience, historic markers would have been enough. We take it for granted today that if we want to know about a topic, any topic, we can use our phones to figure it out. As convenient as my phone is, it takes away the adventure of learning and the hunt for history. 

We also realized how much history in this concentrated area was focused on the history of a few people, mostly John Mosby and Stonewall Jackson. Yes, we learned about the Barlow and Haight families, the aforementioned B. Henry Latrobe, and "A Revolutionary War Hero" (marker B-33), but it was mostly the Mosby/Jackson show all day. There was Mosby's Rock, where raider Mosby would retrieve secret documents from Confederate spy Laura Ratcliffe and Jackson's Bivouac, basically the spot where Jackson took a nap. Where was the rest of history? As I read later in the day, it wasn't until the last 20 years or so that the markers have looked past the "Great Men of History" to more diverse people and "neglected history" rather than countless battles and napping spots for defeated generals. 

Our last stop of the day was Chantilly. The original plantation (now a very expensive country club) was built by Charles and Cornelia Calvert Stuart in 1817. Cornelia's grandfather was Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The stone house on the property near the sign is all that's left of the original property. We took a few last photos and made our way to Dogfish Head Alehouse which happens to be a five minutes away from this last marker. A sign of progress or some such thing I'm sure. As we enjoyed a beer and dinner, we discussed what we enjoyed and disliked about our day. A few key takeaways:
  • I have the snacking habits of a 6 year old. I brought pretzels sticks, Goldfish crackers, and Star Wars shaped fruit snacks along as our road trip snacks. We needed snacks and that's what I had at home.
  • Modern drivers are not designed to allow for leisurely viewing of historic markers. I'm pretty certain we made at least three enemies as we made our way through Middleburg and back. 
  • I missed my calling as the provider of historic narration for any tour group. Jordana drove so I played navigator and read the signs and other information from Field Trip and the guidebook. If the Department of Historic Resources ever wants to make an audio tour of the guidebook, I hope they'll contact me to be the narrator.
  • The "Great Men of History" were not nearly as great as they may have seemed. We were disappointed with Long Branch and tired of the antics of Mosby and Jackson. Where's the fun history or the weird history? Don't they deserve historic markers too?
  • Always stop for a cider or wine or beer tasting. I have some Mt. Defiance cider waiting in my fridge and it's going to be delicious. If you really care about local businesses, stop at these places whenever you're doing a little road trip. Skip the fast food and the Starbucks and truly go local.
  • History is everywhere. We should all be better about slowing down and learning about what happened in our own backyards (both literally and figuratively). 
Signing off from the Department of Useless Information. If you need me, I'll be plotting my next Virginia Historic Marker road trip. I think I hear Central Virginia and Piedmont calling.

Next week: The final "Stuff I Love" post - tentatively titled "Texas, Tacos, and Travel." 
Department of Historic Resources
A Guidebook to Viriginia's Historical Markers complied by Scott David Arnold
Fairfax County History Commission
Field Trip app
Arlington County Projects & Planning

All photos by me

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