Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

I won’t presume to present a comprehensive history of Fourth of July celebrations in our sainted community.

But there’s one that was popular for decades in days of old that helped put Arlington on the map.

George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857), the builder of Arlington House whose onetime plantation is now Arlington National Cemetery, threw a heck of an Independence Day party annually for three decades during the first half of the 19th century.

The location for his come-one-come-all affair was a Potomac riverbank site called Arlington Spring. Its precise location, I’m told by Matt Penrod, a retired park ranger who worked years at Arlington House, was near Boundary Channel, close to the Pentagon’s North parking lot.

“Come on over to the shades of Arlington, where peace and pleasurable breezes, good air, good water, and a tolerably good fellow will make you welcome,” Custis wrote to a friend, as recounted in Murray Nelligan’s 1953 National Park Service book “Arlington House: The Story of the Lee Mansion Historical Monument.”

Back in the day, the parties at Arlington Spring unfolded alongside the slave cabins, an ice house and farm managers’ quarters erected by Custis after he inherited family land when he came of age.

The spring, which “gushed between the rocks” near a huge old Arlington Oak, was a site of what newspapers called “natural beauty” that attracted visitors from across the region. It was sketched for Harper’s magazine by journalist and Custis archivist Benson Lossing.

As a host, Custis first used the site in 1805 for sheep shearing exhibitions for hundreds of gentlemen farmers whom he hoped to impress with a new Arlington sheep breed.

By 1825, the super-patriot who knew every U.S. president during his lifetime would celebrate July 4 by pitching the actual battlefield tents used by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. (Custis inherited them.) Custis’s personal guests — patriotic societies, Sunday school classes, military companies — would hear him hold forth on the values of freedom and liberty.

For years, Custis allowed the militia called the Washington Guards to drill at Arlington Spring, served them dinner and awarded their best marksman a silver cup. One Fourth of July, he presented a silk flag to the Potomac Dragoons regiment, author Nelligan noted.

After Custis entered dotage, his son-in-law Robert E. Lee made improvements to the spring site, leasing it to a concessionaire. Events there then included a German music festival, a picnic to benefit an asylum and even a jousting tournament.

“Everyone speaks in praise of the good order in which the beautiful spring and surroundings are now kept,” a newspaper reported. After Custis died, Lee let the public know they were still welcome. Some 2,000 showed up on the banks of the Potomac for Fourth of July 1859. Lager flowed. The National Intelligencer newspaper commented that there were no rowdies.

Many Arlington Public Schools teachers were puzzled June 14 when they learned that 10-year Superintendent Patrick Murphy would retire this September.

Murphy won Superintendent of the Year in Virginia but came within one school board member vote from having his contract not renewed in 2017.

I always found him a straight-talker during interviews about his critics. Last week we learned he’s to run the schools in West Virginia’s Berkeley County.

An early-morning walk recently took me by the Madison Community Center, where the manager of its exercise gym allowed me a free trial on the treadmill.

That facility on Old Glebe Rd. was once my elementary school, until its closure in 1975.

Emotions surfaced as I worked toward a sweat and accelerated heart rate in the exact room where I’d heard the news, in November 1963, that President Kennedy was assassinated.