25 years ago when I was a junior officer, I would hear stories about a great post near Washington, DC, called Vint Hill Farms. I was told that if I could ever swing an assignment there, I should do so as it was a great location. As events unfolded, that opportunity never presented itself and the base closed in 1997 as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Base Realignment Commission. The base is now under the control of a development authority working for Fauquier County. I was looking for a longer ride today, so I set off to make the 25 mile journey to see what the fuss was about. Temperatures were 25 degrees colder than my ride just two days ago and cold weather gear was once again in order.
Before reaching the base, I came across the unincorporated village of Greenville and stopped to pereuse some historical markers by the Greenville First Presbyterian Church. Greenville (so the signs tell me) was originally named Greenwich, after Charles Green, a Briton who built a home in 1855 and a few years later donated it for use as a church. During the Civil War, Mr. Green asserted his neutrality by flying the Union Jack over the church and claiming the land to be part of the UK. Despite his rather dubious legal claim, the scheme seemed to work as both sides of the conflict respected Green’s wishes. In turn, the church provided aid and comfort to wounded from both armies.
EDIT: The British flag is properly called the Union Flag. The Union Jack monicker is appropriate only when the flag is flown from a ship. Many thanks to Clive Chapman for the correction!
There is a second British connection to this land. In 1778, British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries marched by this place on their way from Saratoga, NY, to Charleston, SC, as prisoners of war. Saratoga was a major turning point in the revolution and it was at the time the largest British army to ever surrender (it would remain so until the Battle of Gallipoli in 1918). Saratoga is an exceptionally long way from Northern Virginia, as is Charleston. I would not have wanted to be part of that march…
Having taken in the history of Greenville, I pressed on another three miles to Vint Hill, where I immediately noticed signs of an old military base. The abandoned barracks are clearly visible from the road and the odd cement island at the community entrance belied the former presence of a security gate. I pedaled around and quickly found the barracks. They were just down the road from the Vint Hill Inn, which displayed a no vacancy sign despite obvious signs of abandonment. It was a little sad to see these buildings in such a state of disrepair. Servicemen and women once lived here, doing important work for the nation.
Vint Hill Farms got its start during WWII, when an enterprising signals intelligence analyst dangled a wire from a dairy barn and began intercepting German military and diplomatic cables. Eventually, wires would spread over several hundred acres. As the years passed, these wires gave way to advanced radio intercept antennae, targeted against the Soviet Union. When the base closed in 1997, over 2,600 employees worked at the facility. It felt odd to be pedaling about on a quiet Sunday morning on what was clearly once a bustling base. I passed the old library, base theater, and post exchange – all abandoned.
The development authority is trying to lease out these old buildings (there are signs announcing their availability all over the place) but it doesn’t appear they are having a great deal of success. They are doing a much better job of leasing land to companies and letting them build brand new facilities for their use. The effect is jarring – brand new office buildings just a few hundred yards from the abandoned part of the base.
One old building that seems to be doing quite well is the Inn At Vint Hill. This 19th Century home previously served as the base club and now serves as a “full service special events facility, featuring a perfect private location, scenic beauty and casually sophisticated cuisine,” as its website describes. On this day, the inn appeared to be hosting a coat-and-tie affair for several dozen people. They all were quite happy and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Very nice.
And with that, I concluded I had spent enough time touring and needed to get home. It was cold and windy as I pedaled through Nokesville but I got back in pretty good shape. The long-range forecast has the cooler temperatures remaining, so I guess it’s not quite time to put my cold weather gear into storage.
Historical Marker Segment!
Below is the story of the captured British and Hessians, still a very long way from their destination.
And here we learn of the boyhood home of Richard Ewell, a Confederate General of some repute. The fact that he was raised in the area actually has some relevance as his knowledge of local terrain allowed him to move on secondary roads while another Confederate Corps moved on the main road (which I was cycling on today). Sadly for the Confederate’s, Ewell’s knowledge of the area road network was not equalled by his ability to command men in battle. His side was routed at the Battle of Bristoe Station, which readers may remember from a previous post.