Whatever mode of transportation you used to get here, a good starting point is at the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center. You may go inside before or after your walking tour as it gives an excellent introduction to Fairfax through its permanent exhibit, the “Fairfax Story.” Admission is free. But I’ll still give you little background about the town.
Fairfax derived its name from Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron who received a land grant of 5,282,000 acres called the “Northern Neck” from King Charles II of England who was in exile during the English Civil War. The region once included what is now Loudoun and Arlington Counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax. The City of Fairfax began as the Town of Providence in 1805, a community centered on the Fairfax County Courthouse, which was completed in 1800. It was officially renamed the Town of Fairfax in 1875 and became an independent city in 1961. What began as an agricultural region primarily based on raising tobacco with enslaved labor, followed by wheat and livestock, Fairfax has become an affluent, complex, and populous commercial and residential Metropolitan DC suburb.
Now for the building in front of you. Built in 1873 for the then-considered expensive price of $2,750, this remains the oldest two-story brick public school house in Fairfax County. It was a byproduct of legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1870 to improve and reorganize its existing public school system. A brick, two-story addition was built on the front of the original school in 1912, almost doubling in size. It continued to operate as a school until 1925 when the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan bought it to publish and print a newspaper, the Fairfax Independent. A fire damaged the building in 1930 which was repaired by the 1940’s. After the editors declared bankruptcy, the KKK left and it was put back into use as a school again. Fairfax County Schools held the area’s first special education classes inside in the 1950’s after which it became administrative offices followed by a police academy. In 1992, the former school was rehabilitated into the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center. Now, walk eastbound on Main Street until you are able to see a long driveway leading to a large brick house with columns and chimneys across Main Street.
Commonly referred to as “Five Chimneys,” this stately brick Georgian-style house with a two-story colonnaded portico was built around 1880 by Richard Ratcliffe Farr to replace the original family house – which sat on today’s George Mason University near the intersection of Ox Road and Braddock Road. That house was burned down during the Civil War by Union soldiers in retaliation for Farr, then 14 years old, for singlehandedly blocking their advance to attack the Fairfax Courthouse by placing logs across the road and firing upon them. Richard eventually enlisted as a private in the Confederate partisan group, Mosby’s Rangers in 1863 and served with them until he was pardoned in April 1865. He would return to become one of Fairfax’s most prominent citizens becoming a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. During his time in public service, he became Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1882-1886. Under his leadership, those four years saw expansion and improvements to the school system; increased acquisition and construction of school buildings; more hiring of teachers, providing them continuing education and increased pay; access to free textbooks; an influx of White and African-American students while at the same time advocating that African-American receive the same quality education as their white counterparts; and the creation of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the country’s first state-sponsored college for African-Americans, and the State Female Normal School (later Longwood University), the state’s first for training women to become teachers. Later, he was appointed US Marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia by President Rutherford B. Hayes.
The house is still owned by local family descendants to this day. A couple of other residences still remain in Fairfax as well: the 1840 “Grandma’s Cottage,” also built by Richard for his mother, Margaret Wilcoxson Farr (aka: “Grandma Farr”) which now stands at Historic Blenheim Estate on Old Lee Highway and the 1915 Colonial Revival house, “Ballynahown,” built by his son Wilson located on Main Street adjacent to the Farr Homeplace.
Ok, now continue walking westbound this time on Main Street until you reach the next stoplight and crosswalk.
Before we proceed into the heart of Old Town Fairfax, feel free to grab a coffee or a snack at the Starbucks. While you’re sipping your coffee and looking at the town, all the land that makes up today’s Old Town Fairfax was once owned by a prominent businessman and public servant named Richard Ratcliffe. By the mid-1790’s, he owned nearly 3,000 acres of land including a 600 acre plantation, Mount Vineyard, which was located west of town at the intersection of Main and Oak Streets. From 1771 until his death in 1825, he served in a number of positions as the Fairfax County Sheriff, coroner, justice, tax commissioner, superintendent of elections, and Virginia General Assembly candidate. More importantly, he is remembered for his roles in establishing the present location of the Fairfax County Courthouse and creating what is today the City of Fairfax. He sold four of his acres for the mere sum of $1 to create the courthouse, jail, and related offices. Once the town was established, Ratcliffe virtually bought all of the town lots which he leased to businesses and individuals. The next couple of stops represent a few of those places he owned, leased out, and/or built.
Now cross Main Street again to get on the median.
You are now looking at the second oldest house still standing in Old Town Fairfax. Built in 1821 by Dr. Simeon Draper and his wife Catherine on a quarter-acre lot purchased from Ratcliffe, this house served as his home and medical practice. He also purchased another nearby lot down the street which was said to be the location of his apothecary shop. He continue to practice medicine until his death at the age of 47 due to an outbreak of Asiatic cholera. The apothecary was sold to pay off debts and the house was used by Catherine as a “House of Private Entertainment,” similar to today’s Airbnbs. Saddled with debt, she sold it in 1871 to her daughter and son-in-law Maria Louisa and William Chapman, who was the town’s tailor and postmaster.
Continue down Main Street to the next house on the right side.
Now you are looking at the oldest standing house in Old Town Fairfax, which became the first city-owned building to be placed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1807, tanner and shoemaker Henry Logan purchased the lot from Ratcliffe and built this small brick house. By 1824, it was expanded by Ratcliffe himself as well as Gordon Allison and his family, who operated a store and a tavern. Over the years, the house has been owned and occupied by 12 different people with the last two being the most notable, Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, a social reformer, and her daughter Kitty Pozer. “Mrs. Pozer” as she was known bought the property in 1927 until she deeded the home to the City after her death in 1981. For over 20 years, she was the Washington Post’s gardening columnist sharing her lifelong passions of gardening and horticulture, even designing an extensive private garden that the City also purchased to create the namesake memorial garden. Make you way behind the house to see her amazing collection of shrubs, trees, annuals, and perennials that include irises, lilies, azaleas, daffodils, and tulips.
Proceed down Main Street, staying on the right side until you see a large white building with columns on the front.
For over 100 years, Old Town Hall has hosted soirees, feasts, reunions, concerts, and numerous weddings and receptions. The building of this grand hall began in 1900 under the financial supervision of Joseph E. Willard. He was the son of a former wealthy Confederate spy and a Union major. Willard distinguished himself by becoming a Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and United States Ambassador to Spain. Using his inheritance from his father’s hotel fortune, he built and completed the Hall and presented it to the City in 1902. In 1996, the two-story structure was restored to its original splendor and updated with modern amenities. The historic spot also features President James Buchanan’s cabinet table which can be used for buffet dinners. On the second floor lies the Huddleston Memorial Library filled with a mysterious collection of Civil War and Virginia history books.
Afterwards, cross University Drive to get to the next point located on your right side.
Captain Stephen Roszel Donohoe put out the first edition of the Fairfax Herald in 1882 after arriving in the town from Alexandria. Later he would become a Virginia State Senator and during the Spanish-American War, he was Captain of the Fairfax Company after which the title ultimately stuck. In 1904, he moved into this one-story building and continued to operate his newspaper until 1966. His original printing equipment was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution and still remains a part of its Museum of American History collection.
Remain on the right side of Main Street as you continue walking. You’ll notice three buildings with similar architecture.
The next three commercial buildings you are observing are excellent examples of vernacular architecture that was common at the turn of the century. It is an architectural style characterized by using local materials, ancestral knowledge, and traditional building techniques to build housing and buildings. Absent are formally trained architects but rather the design skills and tradition of local builders.
Built in 1895, this was a market owned by W.T. Ralston. The next building also dates back to 1895, Nickell’s Hardware Store, which was owned by West Virginia-born James Elliott Nickell from 1920 until his death in 1955 at the age of 74. The third building, a two-story, three-bay gabled structure built in 1900 served as a granary.
From here, continue on Main Street and catch me at the next intersection.
This brings us to the first of our Civil War-related stops. With less than 150 miles separating the Union and Confederate capitals of Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, Northern Virginia, including Fairfax found itself in the center of much of the conflict. The armies of both sides frequently passed through, plundered, and occupied the region resulting in multiple battles and skirmishes, notably the First and Second Battles of Manassas (Bull Run) and the Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly). With its close proximity to the Nation’s Capital, Fairfax typified the Civil War on the border dividing citizens and their families according to their loyalties to the North and South. The region also became a hotbed of espionage activity as spies would circulate amongst officers and gathered valuable intelligence about troop strengths and planned movements. One of these spies was a young woman named Antonia Ford, who resided in this home with her parents Edward and Julia Ford. Siding with the Confederacy, she utilized her youth, beauty, and charm to obtain intelligence from Union officers who often gathered in the home during the First Battle of Manassas (1861) and in the two years following. She supplied the information to General Jeb Stuart, whose cavalry her brother Charles served in. Stuart, in writing, issued an order declaring her an honorary aide-de-camp which ultimately was used against her in 1863 when she was accused of spying for Colonel John Mosby, whose ranger unit (which we will go into more detail at the next stop) captured Union General Edwin Stoughton in his sleep. Regardless of whether she was directly or indirectly involved (Mosby denied the allegations), she was arrested and incarcerated in DC’s Old Capitol Prison only to be released a few months’ later thanks largely in part due to the lobbying efforts of her arresting officer, Major Joseph Willard who fell in love with her. The two married in 1864 and settled in the Nation’s Capital where Major Willard was part owner of the famous hotel that still bears his family’s name today on Pennsylvania Avenue. Their son, Joseph E. Willard was the financier of the Old Town Hall at the intersection of University Drive and Main Street.
Proceed down Chain Bridge Road to the next intersection. I'll meet you at the corner once you cross North Street.
During the Civil War and even afterwards, Fairfax County and neighboring Loudoun, Fauquier, Clarke, Warren, and Prince William Counties became an area known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” It takes its name after one of the war’s most interesting and dynamic commanders, Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby whose exploits struck fear in the hearts of the Union armies operating in the area. Mosby was a small town Virginia lawyer who joined the Confederate Army when his home state seceded from the Union. He became Gen. Jeb Stuart’s best scout earning himself both a command and a nickname, the “Gray Ghost.” His command, the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry, known as Mosby’s Rangers or Mosby’s Raiders, was a partisan unit noted for its lightning quick raids on Union encampments and supply lines and its ability to elude capture and disappear, blending in with the local populace. Think of them as a guerilla warfare group or even a Special Forces or Special Operations group similar to the Green Berets or Navy Seals.
It was in Fairfax that Mosby and 29 of his rangers embarked on their boldest raid. At around 2am on March 9, 1863, Mosby entered the vicinity of Fairfax Courthouse with the intent of capturing Union Col. Sir Percy Wyndham. Wyndham, a British mercenary, slandered and condemned Mosby’s unorthodox tactics even to the point of calling him a “horse thief.” Mosby was irate and wanted Wyndham as a prize. He even replied back that the only horses he had ever stolen had Union troopers on their backs armed with two pistols and a saber. During the raid, he searched this house with no success only to find out that Wyndham was in Washington, DC for the night. Despite that setback, he would not come away empty handed. Learning from his fellow rangers and captured Union soldiers that there was a Union general staying at the nearby William Gunnell House, Mosby darted his way over there.
In later years, this was the home of Robert Walton Moore. A lifelong Fairfax resident, he was a lawyer, congressman, and counselor of the State Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a frequent guest.
Now to get to the Gunnell House, continue on North Street and keep walking until you see the next street (Truro Lane) on the right.
Located on the grounds of Truro Episcopal Church, this 1835 home belonged to Dr. William Gunnell, a local physician and later a surgeon for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Today, it serves as the church’s rectory, office, and meeting space.
It was here during the Mosby raid that the Union area commander, Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton was staying. Following information provided by a captured Union soldier, Mosby and several of his men posing as Union soldiers entered the house and found Stoughton in bed. Mosby awoke the general with slap on his behind, “Get up general and come with me!”
Stoughton roared, “What is this, do you know who I am?”
“I reckon I do general. Did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes, have you caught him?”
“No, but he has caught you!”
Escaping undetected, out of Union lines and into Confederate territory, Mosby made off with not only the general, but also 2 officers, 30 soldiers, and 58 horses. Word of the raid spread quickly amongst the Union forces creating concern that President Lincoln could be Mosby’s next target. When confronted with the news, Lincoln angrily remarked that he could create another general with the stroke of a pen, but he hated to lose such expensive horses. Mosby’s notoriety soared and he continued to operate with complete impunity until the end of the war. As one of the few Confederate leaders to never formally surrender, he was pardoned by his enemy’s former commander, General turned-President Ulysses S. Grant. The two became fast friends with Mosby even becoming a Republican drawing the ire of his fellow southerners. He continued to practice law and served as the United States Consul to Hong Kong and in the Department of Justice.
Once you're finished, head back up Truro Lane this time staying on the right side of the road. I'll wait for you when you're out of the parking lot.
The two-story Italianate-style brick building you are standing in front of was once the Old Fairfax Jail. The first jail appeared on this spot in 1802 and was used mostly for the usual sins against the Sabbath, public drunkenness, swearing, etc. Unfortunately it burned in 1884 and was replaced with the current building in 1885 complete with the jailer’s living quarters in the front with the cells in the back. It operated as a jail until 1953 when the jail facilities were added to the courthouse. Today it is the Administrative Services Division of the Sheriff’s Office.
Continue eastbound on Main Street You'll see a brick building on your right, a set of stone steps on your left and a stone marker with two cannon in front of you.
As one of the oldest buildings in Fairfax, the Courthouse survives as a symbol of an era when it was the center of community activity for the townsfolk. With the creation of the new Nation’s Capital in 1790, Alexandria became a part of DC. As a result, the Fairfax County Courthouse was no longer in the county and Founding Father George Mason petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to move the courthouse to a place closer to the center of the county. Designed by local architect James Wren, the courthouse opened in 1800 with subsequent expansions made throughout the 20th century. The courthouse would attain its main historical significance during the Civil War. During the 1863 Mosby raid, the courthouse served as the rendezvous spot for Mosby and his rangers, who broke up into squads to capture horses and men. Two years prior in 1861, the first land engagement occurred here resulting in the death of the first Confederate Officer in the war, Captain John Quincy Marr. At this point, you may head over to his memorial with the two cannon which was erected in 1904 marking the site of the skirmish. In the wee hours of June 1st, a Union scouting party led by Lt. Charles Thompkins entered the town to recon Confederate forces around the courthouse. His force ran into 210 untrained and ill-equipped Confederate cavalry and militia, some of whom didn’t have weapons or ammunition. The soldiers scattered. Nearby, Captain Marr attempted to rally his company, the Warrenton Rifles but was shot and killed during the attack. His body was found in a clover field 800 feet away from the courthouse at daylight. Although brief, both sides sustained casualties and led to the buildup of the first major battle of the war in Manassas.
For another courthouse story, proceed down the sidewalk along the courthouse, going past the flag and historical markers.
Valuable historic records, deeds, wills, and slave manumissions are preserved in the County Clerk’s Circuit Court Historic Records Office today, the most notable being the original wills of George and Martha Washington, probated in 1800 and in 1802 respectively after their deaths. During the Union occupation of the courthouse, the quick thinking and fleeing court clerk, Alfred Moss, saved the will of George Washington and other historic papers for fear of confiscation and/or vandalism. However, Martha’s will was misplaced only to be discovered and removed in 1862 by Union Lt Col. David Thomson, who shortly before his death, gave the will to his daughter Mary Espy Thomson. Miss Thomson sold the will to the Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan, Sr. for an undisclosed sum. Legislative action was initiated by Fairfax County to return the will to the courthouse. In conjunction with Fairfax County’s action, the Commonwealth of Virginia pursued the will’s return all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1915, prior to the Supreme Court hearing the case, his son J.P. Morgan, Jr. relented and returned the will to the Commonwealth of Virginia and eventually went back to the courthouse.
As you leave the courthouse grounds, you'll notice a small set of steps leading to a crosswalk Be careful crossing Chain Bridge Road as there is no stoplight and you'll see your next stop directly in front of you.
This impressively restored 1830 brick house belonged to Joshua Gunnell, who devoted most of his life to public service in Fairfax. He served as a constable, deputy coroner, deputy sheriff, Commissioner of Public Buildings, Overseer of the Poor, and justice.
Like some of the other homes we previously visited, this home also has its place during the Fairfax Courthouse skirmish and the Mosby Raid. Former Virginia governor and Congressman William “Extra Billy” Smith was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom when he heard the commotion from the Union cavalry attack outside. After preparing and loading his rifle, he dashed out in the street to voluntarily take charge of the Warrenton Rifles after their commanding officer, Captain Marr went missing (and was later found dead). Soon after, he made the transition from civilian life to Confederate Army life leading troops in battles such as Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. By the time of Gettysburg in July 1863, Smith was the oldest Confederate general on the field at 65 years old. Talk about being feisty and still full of fight.
In the Mosby Raid, Lt. Col. Robert Johnstone of the 5th NY Cavalry was staying here with his wife. As Mosby’s Rangers approached the home, Johnstone threw open a bedroom window and asked for their identities. The rangers laughed and searched the house. While Johnstone’s wife kept the Rebels at bay, Johnstone escaped out the back door wearing only his nightshirt and hid under the outhouse for the rest of the night. Unable to find Johnstone, the rangers left Fairfax with their spoils in tow. Embarrassingly, Johnstone received the nickname of “Outhouse Johnstone” as a result of the incident.
Continue walking down Chain Bridge Road until you reach the intersection with Main Street. You’ll see a gas station on your right.
Congratulations, you made it through! This marks the official end of the tour. I hope you enjoyed it and learned a lot from me today. As a reward, treat yourself to any one of the nearby restaurants, eateries, bars, or cafés located along Chain Bridge Road, Main Street, North Street, and University Drive. Once again, my name is Christian Mirasol. Thank you so much. I look forward to taking you on a future historic adventure. Cheers!