My husband often tells stories of the road trips taken with his parents and sisters during the 50’s and 60’s. They would pack the station wagon, hitch up the “pop up” and go off to see the country. The trip, he noted, was often punctuated by his mother saying, “Henry, pull over, there’s a sign.” And my father in law would pull over so that the family could read the historic sign, and often snap a picture of it.
Well, there are plenty of places to stop and check out the signs in Northern Virginia. Virginia is certainly a place for history buffs. One way to learn about local history is through the many signs and markers seen around the area. You may have noticed that there are a variety of looks for these signs and markers. Some are on poles, and others look like table tops. Here are a few clues as to why.
Historical markers have different sponsors, and with the different sponsorship comes different looks. Individuals, towns, counties, organizations, parks, and state and federal governments and agencies all may sponsor signs or markers. Here is some information on just three of the types of signs seen locally.
There you are, just leaving the Swiss Bakery on Port Royal with your tasty treat and what catches your eye? A black and white sign with the word “Ravensworth” on it in big letters. You have just caught sight of a Virginia Historical Highway Marker.
Virginia’s historical maker program is one of the oldest in the country. Virginia’s state historical highway markers have text with black lettering against a silver background and a unique shape. There are now over 2500 state markers.
The state has guidelines regarding proposals for a new highway marker. The purpose of the markers is to educate the public on persons, places, events, or institutions that have a significance not just for the local community but at least a significance for a regional section of the state.
Information on the application process and on sponsorship of a marker can be found on the website noted above. The site also allows you to search for makers by county (Fairfax County has 73 and Fairfax City has 2) or search by zip code. (Just so you know, there are none in 22015 but there are some in the neighboring zip codes.)
Heading west on Braddock Road, just before you get to Rolling Road, there is a sign, but not the same color as that Ravensworth sign, and just beyond the sign is a pond. You’ve just come to the Bog Wallow Ambush sign (and what is left of Bog Wallow), a Fairfax County historical marker.
Fairfax County currently has 53 markers that look similar to the Virginia signs. Fairfax County signs have a buff and blue coloring, topped by the Fairfax county seal.
The Fairfax County History Commission has guidelines regarding proposals for new signs. Signs need to be of local historic significance regarding a person, place, or event.
Like the State, the county has an application process and information on sponsorship of markers on its website. The website noted above allows you to search for signs alphabetically. Also there is an interactive map that will allow you to find signs in a specific area and access information on the sign. In the Burke area there are a number of signs including the Copperthite Racetrack, the Huldah Coffer House, and the Bog Wallow Ambush.
Civil War Trails
If you have ever been to the October open house of the Burke Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, you may have caught sight of a long display outside of the meeting hall. If you took a moment to stop, you would have learned about the African-American wood choppers and teamsters during the Civil War.
This sign and one nearby are Virginia Civil War Trails signs. Begun in 1994 by a group of historians wishing to highlight the sites between Petersburg and Appomattox Court House, the program has expanded to include more than 1,600 sites in five states. Each site has a dedicated sponsor who pays $200 annually, to help offset the cost of maintaining and, as necessary, replacing the sign. These signs resemble table tops.
Burke has two Virginia Civil War Trails signs which the Burke Historical Society sponsors. One relates the story of Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart raiding a number of locations in Prince William and Fairfax County, Virginia at the end of December 1862. The other sign commemorates the African-American wood choppers and teamsters. The wood choppers worked outside the protective lines of the Union military to cut wood to use for powering the steam locomotives of the United States Military Railroad, and for campfires for heat and for cooking.
The organization’s website has information on sponsorship and guidelines for recommending a new site. It also has an interactive map that will assist in locating signs.
As you speed down the road and catch sight of one of these historic signs, consider taking time to pull over and see what it has to say. It just might spark your interest in exploring more of your local history.