Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our sainted parish is revving up to mark the 100th anniversary of its renaming, from Alexandria County to Arlington County in March 1920.     

My personal contribution to what will be months of commemoration of that action by the state General Assembly rolled out this week.       

It’s a 21st-century digital interactive “storymap” displaying photos of homes, schools, churches, stores and infrastructure —in their exact locations—that an Arlingtonian in 1920 would encounter during, say, a morning stroll on foot, by horseback, car or trolley.      

Using Esri software, the storymap was assembled with volunteer help from the Arlington Historical Society and designed by the techno-whizzes at Arlington-based Blue Raster LLC.     

Check it out online at arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org/images-of-arlington-county-1920.      

The reason for Arlington’s name change—long somewhat mysterious to us moderns due to a scant legislative record and meagre newspaper coverage—was to reduce confusion among the citizenry between events held in what today is Old Town Alexandria and those closer to our own Clarendon.     

But there are other mysteries enshrouding our name. Most directly, our county was named for Arlington House, the memorial to George Washington built on the Potomac from 1802-1818 by the founding father’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.      

That future father-in-law of Robert E. Lee originally named his project Mount Washington. But talk about confusion! The new capital Federal City was taking shape across the river under the label of Washington D.C. (which encompassed Arlington at the time). So Custis switched it to Arlington House, after his ancestral plantation in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. His bequest of the property to the Lees in 1857 became the reason for creation of Arlington National Cemetery.     

Taking the name derivation further back to England (an inquiry undertaken by black-belt Arlington history buffs) has divided researchers for decades.    

 The Eastern Shore Custis plantation built by planter John Custis IV (1678-1749) is thought by many to have taken its name from his British ancestors’ home in the village of Arlington, Bibury, in  Gloucestershire, in the pretty English Cotswold hills.      

But an alternative claim — first advanced in a mid-19th century book by G.W.P. Custis’s associate and Virginia Episcopal Bishop William Meade — links our name to Henry Bennet, a 17th-century Earl of Arlington, often spelled as “Harlington.”       

The late Arlington historian C.B Rose, however, concluded in 1976 that the timing of the earl’s life makes it unlikely he was the inspiration to John Custis. That motion was seconded in 1989 by former Arlington Historical Society president Warren Clardy. He actually visited Gloucestershire and did research at the British Museum and other English libraries before writing in the October 1989 issue of the Arlington Historical Magazine.       

Former Arlington treasurer Frank O’Leary, speaking recently to the Optimist Club, dutifully repeated the Harlington version, but he tells me he personally is skeptical.       

Another not-quite-resolved riddle is why our 1920 civic activists chose the name Arlington (already the label on one of three administrative districts). As the county newsroom recently uncovered, the alternatives considered were George Washington (more confusion!), Pocahontas (not local) and the Alexandria acronym Alcova (not really a word).      

Most likely the name Arlington was favored for its popular association with Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. The nation had long viewed Arlington House as Lee’s even though it was his father­-in-law, Custis, who conceived it, built it and occupied it for 55 years. 


Arlington lost one of the two stalwarts of Mario’s Pizza on Oct. 11.     

Joe Williams, age 87, dished out the late-night slices for more than 50 years. “He never missed a day of work—except for his wife’s funeral,” I was told by former Mario’s owner Alan Levine. “He was a role model, everyone’s father.”      

A memorial celebration was held Oct. 21 at New Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Williams’ longtime co-worker Willie “Lefty” Lindsay, featured with Joe in promotions, still mans the ovens at Mario’s.