Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our minds on baseball, few of us who’ve suited up to play on the diamonds at Barcroft Park gave much thought to the facility’s namesake. In later life, I can compensate.

The broader Barcroft neighborhood (with its school) owes its name to Dr. John Woolverton Barcroft (1817-95), a physician and technological innovator whose legacy is in the fields of energy and water supply Arlington shares with Fairfax County.

Thanks to good neighborhood histories (and descendant memoirs), we learn that Barcroft, born in Kingwood, New Jersey, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania before earning his medical degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University). He married Lucinda Bray in 1844.

Restless in his Jersey medical practice, Barcroft came to our area in 1849 — right before the railroad came through — to join his father in Fairfax. In the area now at Holmes Run at Columbia Pike, he constructed a home and a mill while continuing to practice medicine.

That joint career lasted until the Civil War. The Union Army, in retreat after its second shellacking at Bull Run in 1862, ransacked his mill. That sent Barcroft, a man “of strong Union sentiments,” back to his New Jersey and Pennsylvania havens until the smoke had cleared.

After Appomattox, Barcroft returned to what is now Arlington and took over the land along Four Mile Run (near the Pike and S. Dinwiddie St.), where George Washington Parke Custis, creator of Arlington House, had built a wood and stone mill back in 1836. (It was the site of a Civil War skirmish you can read about on a sign near today’s Arlington Mill Community Center.) Barcroft built a home nearby with a view of the District.

Using Custis’ foundations and his own quarry, Barcroft in 1880 built his flour mill and mill race on that site, said to be powered by the largest (36-foot) mill wheel on the East Coast. He rented it to professional millers, and it was used both for grains and as a sawmill reflecting Barcroft’s interest in carpentry. The nearby rail lines aided transport of products.

Before the mill burned down in the 1920s (and the site became an ice plant), it served for decades as a stimulus to the commuter neighborhood’s commercial development, stretching well into Bailey’s Crossroads.

In the 20th century, Fairfaxians gave his name to Lake Barcroft, after it was created by construction in 1915 of the dam that assured the water supply for the City of Alexandria.

Lake Barcroft, of course, is today a thriving suburban subdivision, the lake a favorite for recreators.

Barcroft died in Northern Virginia in 1895. But he and his wife are buried in York County, Pa., according to the Barcroft School and Civic League’s account by descendent Sjana Barcroft-Hundt.

His name lives on, the civic association says, as a frequent write-in on the ballots during local elections.

Arlington’s Barcroft Shopping Center on Columbia Pike was so-named in 1949. The ballpark, built as Arlington Little League got going in the early 1950s, was known in that decade as Four Mile Run Park.

As it emerged as an institution enjoyed by Arlingtonians countywide, the ballpark was renamed for the proud neighborhood that honors the multi-talented Dr. Barcroft.

Among the most practical local adjustments to pandemic life was this January’s transfer of the “Plot Against Hunger” program.

Launched in 2007 by the now-over-stretched Arlington Food Assistance Center, that effort to steer home-grown produce to the needy is now run by gardeners with the nonprofit Friends of Urban Agriculture. Those volunteer experts partner with Virginia Cooperative Extension, Marymount University and some 40 churches, schools, libraries and community gardens for distribution.

Their March 13 – 20 kickoff campaign at several locations included giving away garden kits and live demonstrations (socially distanced) of techniques such as crop planting and repotting of seedlings. President Robin Broder tells me it was a huge success.