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Fairfax County around 1840 was a desolate area with rundown farms and abandoned fields. The county’s population had decreased by more than 30 percent between 1800 and 1840. One of the main reasons was poor farming practices that depleted the soil. A shipment of several tons of guano (partially decomposed bird droppings) helped to revive the area.
In the mid-1820s, a naval officer who distinguished himself at New Orleans during the War of 1812 inherited Sharon, an “utterly barren and unproductive” estate near the Great Falls of the Potomac. Thomas ap (the Welsh term meaning “son of”) Catesby Jones was undaunted by the challenge and soon applied lime and manure, as well as plowing the subsoil to turn up fertile soil. On a naval expedition to the west coast of South America, he brought back several tons of guano and applied it to his lands with great results.
Word soon spread of this success and Northerners in search of cheap farm land began to move south. Among the first to settle in Fairfax County was Lewis Bailey from upstate New York, the son of Hachaliah Bailey of circus fame. The elder Bailey had moved down in 1837 and bought hundreds of acres of land in what is now known as Baileys Crossroads to winter his circus animals. Lewis bought 150 acres from his father and set about establishing one of the more prosperous farms in the area.
Then in 1842, Jacob Haight, an industrious Quaker from the Hudson River Valley, bought the former Richard Bland Lee estate Sully Plantation after seeing an advertisement in a New York newspaper. Haight rotated crops, applied sheep manure and guano, and sowed timothy and clover to develop a model farm. Other Quakers from the same area in New York found the low land prices attractive and followed his example. These newcomers settled in four main areas of Fairfax County—along the Little River Turnpike near Sully, in the vicinity of Fairfax Courthouse, along Georgetown Pike and on the Leesburg Turnpike around Baileys Crossroads.
Agricultural journals and local newspapers noted the improved farms, attributing the Yankees’ success to their energy, hard work and superior farming methods. As word spread, more came to Fairfax County. Among these were a group of Friends from the Philadelphia area who bought Woodlawn Plantation after the great-grandson of Martha Washington gave up trying to cultivate the land. These Quakers were more interested in the white oak timber, valuable for ship building, on the 2,000-acre site. But they also sold parcels ranging from 100 to 200 acres to others to farm on the condition that the sellers could continue to cut the timber and the purchasers would not sell “intoxicating liquor.”
By 1847, some 200 Northern families, averaging six members each, had moved to Fairfax County. Three years later, one of every three white males in the county had migrated from the North or from outside the United States. In addition to farmers, there were professionals including lawyers, teachers, clergymen and doctors, as well as skilled craftsmen and businessmen including millers, innkeepers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc. This influx of diverse workers and their families helped reverse the tide of population loss.
Contributing to the success of the local economy was growth in the populations of the District of Columbia and Alexandria, which both offered good markets for county farmers who transported their goods using local roads for the most part. However, there were many complaints about the condition of the roads (sound familiar?), particularly during winter rains and spring thaws. In the 1850s, two major rail lines were constructed with one running from Alexandria to Gordonsville, Va., (near Charlottesville) and another from Alexandria to Leesburg. This expanded the market for farmers’ produce and reduced the cost of moving goods. The growth in prosperous farms marked a departure from the aristocratic, structured society of the planter families to a more middle-class society with greater upward mobility opportunities.
It was against this backdrop that the storm clouds of war began to gather, despite most county residents being focused on local matters. On October 17, 1859, when John Brown and his band of abolitionists took possession of the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, antipathy toward the North began to grow and by early 1860, secession was on many Virginians’ minds. While Fairfax County’s delegate to the convention to discuss Virginia’s relations with the Federal Union, William H. Dulany, was one of 55 to vote against secession, 85 voted in favor, setting in motion a period of turmoil and destruction within the county, the state and the entire nation.
Source: Fairfax County Virginia, a History (1978)