Once a happening place

The town of Washington got off to a “rockier” start than implied in the September 14 article on the town’s population [“Hardly the ‘town of Washington’ anymore,” Sept. 14]. The town was authorized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1796 (along with twelve other new towns) in response to a request from George Calvert, James Jett Jr., and James Wheeler.

At that time, there was no one living on the land that became the town. The land was part of Calvert’s large farm on the east, plus four acres that William Porter had sold to Jett and Wheeler from Porter’s large farm on the west. A dirt road ran between these two farms, located at the bed of today’s Gay Street, which was part of the road from Sperryville to Chester Gap. Calvert did not even live on his farm, but at Horseshoe Farm on Fodderstack Road that is now owned by Chris Bird. Porter’s home was the house now owned by John and Beverly Sullivan.

In 1797 the four men petitioned the General Assembly again, requesting that part of Porter’s farm be added to town land and submitting a proposed plat of the town laid out into 51 half-acre lots with seven streets, with four of the streets named after themselves (as they are today). Interestingly, this plat is identical to the plat that Franklin Clyde Baggarly produced in 1931 and asserted was prepared by George Washington in 1749, even though none of the four men after whom the streets are named lived in the area in 1749. (The Baggarly plat is now in the care of Peggy Ralph, our Clerk of the Court).

The town trustees then proceeded to sell the 51 lots, subject to the condition imposed by the General Assembly of “building on each a dwelling house, sixteen feet square at least, with a brick or stone chimney, to be furnished fit for habitation, within seven years from the day of sale.” (The original structures probably looked like the log building located at 322 Main Street today). However, by 1822 fully 17 of the 51 lots still did not have such a building on them, and these lots were taken and resold by the town trustees.

After that, the town began growing. An 1835 description of the town stated “besides the usual county buildings lately erected (the courthouse, clerk’s office, and jail), the town contains 1 academy, 55 dwelling houses, 4 mercantile stores, 2 taverns, and 1 house of public worship. This village is rapidly improving and is in a flourishing and prosperous condition. Population 350 persons of whom 4 are attorneys and 2 regular physicians.”

The article also described some of the industries located in the town: “4 blacksmiths, 4 carpenters, 2 saddlers, 1 hatter, 1 tanner, 2 wagon makers, 3 tailors, 4 shoemakers, 1 cabinet maker, 1 silversmith, 3 milliners, 1 plasterer and bricklayer.”

So, not only was the town well populated in 1835, but there was considerable commercial activity within the town.

Maureen Harris
The writer is a volunteer at the Rappahannock Historical Society and is collaborating in writing a history of the town of Washington

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