- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

In theory, Occoquan, Va., is close to the tumult of Interstate 95 and Potomac Mills. In spirit, though, it might as well be a century removed.

The town on the banks of the Occoquan River in Prince William County has retained much of the charm it has had since it was settled in the mid-1700s as a mill town and river port. For its first 100 years, Occoquan was a place to harvest and store ice, mill grain and transport logs to Philadelphia and New York. Before the Civil War, the town was a main mail delivery center between North and South. There were churches, hotels and one of the area's first opera houses.

The 20th century brought some rough times to Occoquan, though. A fire destroyed much of the town in 1916. The town's stables, jail, the Methodist church and a hotel burned down the nearest fire department was in Alexandria, and it took nearly an hour to get to Occoquan.

Then came the opening of Route 1, which carried traffic away from Occoquan and led to the closing of many businesses. Finally, Hurricane Agnes struck in 1972, destroying buildings, streets and the Occoquan-Truss Bridge.

Some of the old stone buildings remain, however. The shelves full of tobacco and grain are long gone, but there is a new economy in the old town. Occoquan has become a must-visit place for antiques and crafts lovers. The Mill Street retail area along the river is home to more than two dozen stores where visitors can find unique, often handmade, gift items and collectibles.

"You won't find chain stores here," says Rene Cardenas, supervisor of the Prince William County/Manassas Tourist Information Center on Mill Street. "This is very different than a mall. It is a place for serendipitous shopping. You often find something you didn't know you were looking for."

Christmas is a popular time for both window shoppers and power shoppers to converge on Occoquan. Santa arrived by boat the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Every Friday in December, the stores stay open until 7 p.m., and strolling carolers roam the streets.

The Golden Goose, at the corner of Mill and Union streets, is a key stop for Christmas shoppers. The store is all Christmas, 365 days a year. There are rooms full of decorations, from Dickensian villages to German-made Nutcrackers to ornaments for those who collect birds or dogs or teddy bears.

Taking a prime spot at the front of the store is a patriotic Christmas tree, where shoppers can pick up red, white and blue Santas or police-badge ornaments.

"We're having trouble keeping the patriotic items stocked," says Laverne Carson, owner of the Golden Goose.

Many of the other stores have large selections of country Christmas crafts and hand-dipped candles. But there are hundreds of items that make great gifts any time of the year. Heart of Occoquan, at 406 Mill St., is a seven-room store that features antiques, pottery and a wide selection of folk-art prints.

Carol Hogan, owner of Heart of Occoquan and president of the Occoquan Merchant's Association, says the merchants in Occoquan try to remember the spirit of the season. The group sponsors an "Un-Trim-a-Tree" for needy children in which people can pull a child's name and his gift wish from two trees in town.

After browsing the shops, visitors can learn about the local history. At the east end of Mill Street, in the remaining part of an 18th-century grist mill, there is the Hill House Museum, a small collection of artifacts from Occoquan's history.

The more adventurous can explore the town on a self-guided ghost tour. At 301 Mill St., for instance, formerly the Occoquan Inn, the ghost of a Dogue Indian is said to inhabit the upstairs. The building at 309 Mill St., once Prince William County's main funeral parlor, is now home to art galleries and, reportedly, ghosts. According to town legend, footsteps can be heard echoing through the building, even when no one else is there.

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