Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Let us now praise Arlington historians, the few whose enduring works are frequently consulted (by fan boys such as I).

The most popular books are those of C.B. Rose, Eleanor Lee Templeman and Nan and Ross Netherton (all deceased). But the most influential at the national level are two by the under-sung Charles Stetson.

The late attorney from the Carlin Springs neighborhood published in 1935 an authoritative volume with the deceptively narrow-sounding title of “Four Mile Run Land Grants.” This detailed history (reprinted 2013) is surprisingly engaging because, as with his 1956 follow-up “Washington and His Neighbors,” Stetson uses painstaking research to nail down events in the life of George Washington that unfolded right by Stetson’s Arlington home.

The land grants include Washington’s purchase in 1775 of 1,200 acres (at $7 per), along Four Mile Run and Long Branch, how Washington surveyed the area in 1785 with his enslaved valet Billy Lee, and enlisted cooperation from neighbor and Arlington ur-citizen Moses Ball (1717-92). “‘The small branch which comes in on the No. Et. Side’ now makes its way to Four Mile Run under a railroad culvert, and the depression of the old mill race can still be traced,” Stetson wrote.

That survey referred to a white oak tree (a cutting is still displayed at Glencarlyn Library). In 1914, a stone marker was placed there by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Stetson himself honored Moses Ball with a plaque when the historian repaired the masonry spring walls of the original Carlin Springs.

Current-day history buff Karl VanNewkirk cited Stetson’s work last month in a Zoom talk on Arlington’s first subdivision. He detailed the development of Ball-Sellers House (the county’s oldest), and the original Carlin springs. Stetson was also indispensable in the life of William Carlin (1732-1820), one of George Washington’s tailors. His cabin remains a private home on a hill on Carlin Springs Rd., occupied for eight decades by granddaughter Mary Carlin.

Stetson tells us how in the 1860-80s, the original springs attracted a railroad stop where Carlin’s descendants built a dance pavilion, ice cream parlor and bar that could host 250. And how in the 1880s, the grandson of George Washington Parke Custis sold an aging mill to John Barcroft, who would create another Arlington neighborhood.

Stetson’s home at 605 S. Carlin Springs Rd., shared with wife and three children, was built in 1874 by Confederate veteran Howard Young. It was called Eastlawn. When it was threatened in the 1950s by plans to build Northern Virginia Doctors Hospital, Stetson’s son Francis (like his dad, a law professor) and daughter-in-law Margaret moved it one block. But in 1976, nearby medical buildings were expanding, prompting Margaret Stetson to truck the home yet again, to its current site on South Kensington St.

When Stetson died in 1958, the Arlington Historical Society, of which he was a founder, adopted a resolution of condolence. Four years later, the local DAR announced plans to add a new plaque near the worn-down text of the old marker, which Stetson’s history-minded wife had kept an eye on.

Last week I hiked the woodsy path from the Long Branch Nature Center and revisited the stone marker enclosed in modern bricks. The elements have rendered its lettering illegible. It is time for the county to refurbish it. Charles Stetson would insist.

Is there any doubt how to pronounce WETA, the fine public TV and classical radio station that Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood is fortunate to host?
During the pandemic-crimped holiday season, I heard an on-air host pronounce it with two syllables as “WEE-TAH.” For decades, I’ve always said and (heard the professionals) say “W-E-T-A,” pronouncing all four letters.

“We are in fact still referred to as W-E-T-A,” station spokeswoman Olivia Wong assured me. “It’s possible that you’ve heard some of our pledge announcers refer to the organization in the more casual way, but officially the letters are all pronounced separately!”