Sunday, April 26, 2009

Step Back in Time to the Ball-Sellers Place

Arlington Annex with Vic Socotra

It is not right that you have to do it by car, but that is the only good choice to get across the big road, these days. You can’t even turn left most places on Arlington Blvd. without having some busy commuter drive up your tailpipe. If you were to walk it, as the crow flies from Buckingham, I would allow about ten or fifteen minutes and a couple hundred years. No problem, really, and, if you let yourself, you might just imagine the smell of frying salt pork from an old farm stove for much of the distance.

When the Colonists began to settle this part of Virginia, they did not look east and west. They looked up from the big brown Potomac, and to the valleys carved by the water coming down the fall line. Four Mile Run is one of the more prominent valleys near Buckingham, and that is how settlers would have come up the trail from Alexandria.

In the mid 18th century, yeoman farmer John Ball built a one-room log cabin in what was the adjoining farm to the west, on the other side of the junction of Lubber and Four Mile runs.

The Ball Sellers campus, 5620 S. 3rd St. (Click to enlarge the image.)

He lived in the Colony of Virginia, in British North America. The land that he settled belonged to Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. That in itself is a story, since upon succeeding to his title and to the family’s Northern Neck Proprietary land grant, he became Lord of all the land from the Tidewater to the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.

He lived out in the Shenandoah Valley until his death at the ripe old age of 92. He heard about the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

His Lordship lived much better than John Ball, though everyone likes to fix things up. Ball later added a lean-to and covered the structure with clapboard. I was astonished to find that the rude structure survives today. The cabin is a rare example of how people lived here in simpler times, and it is the oldest house in Arlington.

Ball obtained a 166-acre land grant along Four Mile Run from Lord Fairfax in 1742. He then set about clearing the land, and building the cabin from the hewn logs. He notched them and stacked them and chinked the cracks with mud plaster. If you walk over to see it, you can see the original logs with the daubing, as well as the wide plank floors. The rare oak clapboard roof is among the few board roofs preserved in the nation.

Inside the Ball Sellers house as it may have looked hundreds of years ago (with a modern convenience or two in the adjoining room). (Click to enlarge the image.)

John, his wife Elizabeth, and their five daughters lived in this little house above Four Mile Run. The rushing water provided free power for a mill, the grindstones of which are still on the property. They raised wheat and corn and provided milling services for their neighbors.

John Ball died in 1766, the year of the Declaratory Act passed in London. Through it, Parliament asserted the right to make laws for the colonies in all matters, including the settlement of estates and the sale of land. That was going to mean trouble, sooner or later.

When Ball’s meager estate was settled, a tailor named William Carlin bought the spread. His clients included notables George Washington and George Mason, and his hands would have measured the inseams of the Founding Fathers. Three generations of the Carlin family owned the property for the next century, through the Revolution and the occupation by the Union Army in the Civil War.

The Yankee army chewed through the structures of what was then bucolic Alexandria County, like locusts, for firewood and shelter, but the cabin survived. The third generation of the Carlins, brother and sister Andrew and Anne, ran a dairy farm and built the 1880 house that adjoins the Ball cabin in a neat little campus. The wisteria that grows behind the house is theirs.

This was the placid heart of old Arlington. Cows and cash crops, and a lot of quiet. If it had not been for the great paroxysm of the Yankee occupation, you could say that nothing much happened here at all.

When the Carlins sold the property in 1887, the land was subdivided into a community known today as Glencarlyn. It is the oldest subdivision in Arlington. It is composed of modest homes designed to accommodate modest people. They shoulder one another closely on streets narrower than is the custom now, though the grid is laid over the old farm that hugs the edge of the valley.

Marian Rhinehart Sellers was the last private owner of the house. She gave the house to the Arlington Historical Society in 1975. It is open for viewing most weekends, if you care to see it.

The house is located at what we call 5620 S. 3rd St., though it once was the center of a little universe. If you look it up on Google Earth, you can see exactly where the boundaries of the farm once were, just as Lord Fairfax would have known them.

We have poured a lot of concrete since then, and now channel our automobiles in assertive straight lines across the valleys, east and west. But at the Ball-Sellers place, the earth abides.

Vic is a retired spook who has an abiding interest in the people and places of Arlington. Originally from Michigan, he lives in the Buckingham neighborhood and works in Ballston.

Vic is a retired spook who has an abiding interest in the people and places of Arlington. Originally from Michigan, he lives in the Buckingham neighborhood and works in Ballston. Photos and story Copyright 2009 Vic Socotra.

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