While millions of Americans pour into the DC area to visit the historical meccas that abound, Stoneybrooke residents can take note that there is plenty of history to be found right here in our own community – quite possibly in your own backyard!
Historians have survey records and documents that identify the farm or plantation called Retirement Farm located south of Alexandria, consisting of 553 acres as early as 1879. More revealing is the coinciding description from the Book of Surveys 1742-1757, which records the almost identical parcel deeded to a Sarah Brooks.
However, the first ownership of the so-called Retirement Farm, including a main house, is credited to Walter Brooke, who is believed to have acquired the estate in 1778 after his close friend George Washington suggested he buy some retirement property in the proximity of Mount Vernon.
Walter Brooke, born in 1740, came from a family of large landholders in Maryland, having ties on his mother’s side with the Mason family of the famous Gunston Hall Plantation. He began his career as a midshipman in the British Navy, later taking command of a British merchant ship. In 1775, he received a commission as a Captain in the Virginia Navy to aid the cause of the American Revolution. His tour on the Independence, later christened the Liberty, advanced him to the selection as one of the three Commodores of the Virginia Navy. In 1777, he was named commander-in-chief of the Virginia Naval Forces, though his career was to be brief. Due to a severe case of gout, he retired the next year.
His first year of residence at Retirement was earmarked by tragedy with the death of his eight-year-old son, Robert Taliaferro Brooke. Buried at Retirement, the young boy’s grave was marked with a tombstone elaborately designed and cut in France and presented by Lafayette as a memorial to Commodore Brooke’s son. One hundred years later this grave and stone were transported to the Zion Episcopal churchyard in Charles Town, West Virginia, at the request of the Commodore’s granddaughter. It remains there to this day.
Little evidence comes to light regarding Brooke’s life at Retirement and his remaining years from 1788 to 1798. His associates and friends and the accounts of social life recorded of other nearby estates indicate there was much visiting, festivities and community participation. Perhaps we can assume Retirement also played an active role in early American life. The mystery of some once-discovered letters written by George Washington to Commodore Brooke have now become obscured, but leaves historians with hope that more evidence will appear. Commodore Brooke was buried at Retirement; this is a fact. No one has been able to mark the spot now, nor was a gravestone ever identified as his. This second mystery gives the residents an opportunity to speculate what hidden historical “find” his own lot in Stoneybrooke may contain.
The success of a historical research project hinges on the discovery of material that can be authenticated by facts. The history of Stoneybrooke’s past would come to an abrupt end were it not for the “hearsay” material that continues to be passed down through the years.
Some of the gaps in history can be attributed to fires and lost records in the County Courthouse Deeds and Records office. Equally frustrating is the system used by this area to record deeds. Rather than listing land by parcel or geographic location, the deed is recorded under the owner’s name. Thus, one must know the name of the owner for whom he is searching.
The Hopkins Atlas of 1879 is the first map survey which records the parcel of land, including Stoneybrooke, knows as Retirement Farm. Owned by Commodore Walter Brooke in 1788, we find one hundred years later it is owned jointly by Sam Collard and Y. Owen Kerby & Brothers. It is shown on the Mount Vernon District No. 3 map as being directly off Gravel Road. The map shows Gravel Road to be almost identical to the present day South King’s Highway, joining Telegraph Road in the direction of Hayfield Farm. The Hopkin’s Atlas of 1879 also credits Y. Owen Kerby with 550 acres of land in the Alexandria sector. He is listed as a farmer with origins in Prince George’s County, Maryland, dating back to 1862. Oddly enough, it is Sam Collard who is the recipient of the present-day historical mention. The name of Collard Street to the Groveton community is in memory of him.
Records appear to be missing until the 1940s when U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin was titled owner. LaFollette’s wife was a descendent of a prominent Virginia family. However, Retirement Farm was left unoccupied by the LaFollette’s with the exception of tenants and caretakers.
A senior citizen of this area recalls the appearance of Retirement Farm prior to 1945 as being “badly run down and looking more like a large shack than a plantation home.” However, Joseph H. Oredorf, a well-known Virginia architect, viewed it in more historical terms. It was a “large gracious house…basically, it was clapboard with beaded siding, and had a quite nice entrance with little pediment and simple square posts. At its right side was a tremendous chimney similar to that of Colchester and like some of those in Williamsburg.”
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Cohen, the new owners in 1945, were responsible for the vast remodeling of the house almost to its present appearance. The addition of a fieldstone façade, two largely symmetrical wings at each end and an elaborate portico changes the exterior drastically. Rumors still persist that during the remodeling, letters from George Washington to Commodore Brooke were found in torn-down walls. They were reported to have been given away to local residents. Historians are still searching for this “find.” A portion of the original mantle and paneling were give to a nearby historical home. Curiously, when Retirement Farm became Benmae Manor in 1945, a stone gatepost sported a sign with the dates 1710-1945.
This leaves historians with the speculation that perhaps more evidence was unearthed regarding the owner of Retirement Farm prior to Commodore Brooke. Could it be that the first recorded owner listed as Sarah Brooks (1742-1757) was in reality Sarah Brooke, the mother of Commodore Brooke?
Traditionally, Stoneybrooke is not left without its legend of superstitions. Retirement Farm was reported to have had occasional visits from “ghostly white horses racing across the lawns in the early morning mists that were driven by strong winds.” Mr. Cohen reported to Merigold Orr that he had only seen them once. You will have to ask the present occupants whether or not the legend continues!
Research credits and special acknowledgement to: Mrs. Edith Sprouse, Mrs. Viola Merigold Orr (Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Inc., Vol. 9, 1964-65); and the Research Division Librarian, Fairfax County Main Branch Library.
For those who are interested in a historical map of this area, the Hopkin’s Atlas of 1879 is available for public use at the Fairfax County Main Branch Library. This book is kept in the Virginia Room, but you may photostat copies of the Mt. Vernon No. 3 map upon request.
NOTE: The foregoing article was researched and written by Barbara Preston, a neighbor here in Stoneybrooke. It is reprinted from time to time in the Sentinel for our newcomers with Barbara’s kind permission. It was originally published in the Stoneybrooke Sentinel in September, 1972 – Editors