- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Visitors to the Sully Historic Site in Chantilly can learn about plantation life in the late 18th century as well as walk the landscaped grounds, sit under the mature trees and revel in an oasis of calm in frenetic Fairfax County.

Located within the original buffer zone of Washington Dulles International Airport, Sully was scheduled for demolition. The Federal period house was home to Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia's first congressman and uncle of Robert E. Lee. He inherited the land and 29 slaves from his father, Henry Lee II, in 1787.

Thanks to the foresight of Sully's last private owner, Frederick E. Nolting Jr., and Robert "Eddie" Wagstaff, a Sully neighbor and historian, efforts were begun to save the plantation.

Saving Sully, however, took an act of Congress. Mr. Wagstaff petitioned Rep. Joel Broyhill of Virginia to introduce a bill to save it. The bill was passed in August 1959, and Mr. Nolting, a diplomat stationed in Paris, flew to London to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the bill on Sept. 1, 1959.

The Fairfax County Park Authority took over the site in December 1959. During the next 10 years, Mr. Wagstaff lived in the house as caretaker, curator and guide. Before his death in 1970, he established the Sully Foundation to ensure the continued preservation of the house.

Today, about 30,000 people visit Sully annually to experience firsthand what life was like in an earlier era.

"Our overall mission is to educate the public about life in the late 18th, early 19th century in Fairfax County," says site administrator Carol McDonnell. "We do that through our tours and our museum education programs with children. Throughout the school year, about 3,500 students come through for special two-hour tours. We divide them up in groups, and they get real hands-on, fun things to do… . Each child has a task."

Mary Ann Heavey, a third-grade teacher at St. Leo the Great School in the Fairfax City, says she has been going there for 15 years.

"What I like about it is that they break the class up into groups textiles, school, kitchen or slavery," she says. "They ask interpretive questions. In the kitchen, they make biscuits. It's a hands-on experience where the children add the ingredients to the bowl. Then the children make their own biscuits, and they are baked on the hearth. It's an ideal setting. I just love the place."

Each family visiting the site receives a "Sully Hornbook," which provides activities to help youngsters to see how much of the tour they remember. Additional books can be purchased for $1. The book was created by Debbie Robison, a Sully volunteer.

Sully offers a variety of other programs in addition to the one for schoolchildren. An annual quilt show and sale is held in September, and an antique car show is held on Father's Day. Christmas candlelight tours cover three time periods the 18th century, late 19th century (Victorian) and the 1860s (Civil War). For the latter, there is a Confederate encampment with re-enactors and music on the south lawn.

In February, Sully celebrates Black History Month with special programs at a newly constructed slave quarter. "Harvest at the Quarter" will be held in the slave quarter from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Cooking on the open hearth, cornhusk doll making, woodworking and wheat flailing all will be part of this special day.

The 16-foot-by-20-foot slave quarter was rebuilt this year with the help of the Sully Foundation.

"The whole thing is built on the footings that were found… . The entire thing is from materials of the time period," Ms. McDonnell says. In the excavation, a hearthstone was found, which is now the center of the cabin's fireplace. "Besides tours, we will do cooking, laundry, gardening, storytelling and music."

During the Lee period, Sully was operated chiefly by slave labor. Surviving letters reveal some things about slave life.

"One of the letters shows that Richard Bland Lee on the 13th day of October 1791 sold one Negro boy named Isaac, about 4 years old, to George Shipley," Ms. McDonnell says.

Other letters reveal the impact of the Civil War the home's occupants were awakened before dawn on Dec. 29, 1862, and ordered to make breakfast for the cavalry.

With all the research and maintenance required and a small staff, Sully relies on a cadre of volunteers. Evelyn Rossie of Falls Church recently was awarded the Volunteer Excellence Award for her work at Sully.

"It was quite an honor," she says. The award was a "division award," and only one was given to an adult and one to a junior from among all the historic sites in the county.

"I teach the kids that come on field trips. I am also a house docent and give tours of the house," Mrs. Rossie says.

Mrs. Rossie also is involved with a stitching group that meets twice a month to make reproduction clothing that is sold in the gift shop.

"The money from our sales goes back into buying things for Sully hands-on items that the kids can touch," she says.

Joyce Evans of Fairfax County is another volunteer who works in the Sully gift shop. "I love it it's kind of addictive," she says. There's something that draws you back."

The gift shop is housed in a log building that dates from the early 1900s. It originally was a schoolhouse near Haymarket. It also serves as the entrance to the tour of the Sully Historic Site.

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