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FairfaxColvin Run Mill set to reopen renovated miller's house

Colvin Run Mill set to reopen renovated miller’s house

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Long before cavernous McMansions and whiz-bang electronic devices, Americans in modest homes entertained themselves with simple games, toys and hobbies.

The public will be able to experience a slice of 19th-century middle-class life – and learn a little history, to boot – starting April 3 when the Fairfax County Park Authority reopens the newly renovated miller’s house at Colvin Run Historic Site, 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls.

The April 3 event will kick off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m., followed by refreshments in the garden, and festivities will continue until 4 p.m. There also will be outdoor games, blacksmithing and woodcarving demonstrations, and the chance to tour the site’s 200-year-old water-powered mill while it operates.

Located between the site’s hilltop attractions – a general store and blacksmithing workshop – and the massive four-story brick mill located downhill by Colvin Run stream, the miller’s house consists of two square downstairs rooms separated by a hallway with a staircase leading to upstairs offices, and an office addition on the ground floor.


The Park Authority decorated the rooms according to different time periods.

The 1810s room features wooden trim painted a shade of light blue that matches the kind found while the building was being renovated, said site manager Julie Gurnee.

Furniture in this time period would have been handmade. The room has a game table in the center, surrounded by Windsor chairs. The table’s leaf folds down for compact storage and its green-felt surface is topped with playing cards. A placard explains the rules of whist, a popular period game.

A Sheraton-style couch, named after English designer Thomas Sheraton, anchors one corner and is upholstered in a pattern featuring vines, plants and birds. In another corner is a tea table surrounded by ladder-back chairs.

On a writing desk in the 1810s room is a yellowed copy of the Essex Reporter newspaper from Salem, Mass., dated Sept. 2, 1812. The lead story is headlined “Brilliant Naval Victory!” and tells how the frigate USS Constitution emerged victorious in a clash with the British (and formerly French) frigate HMS Guerrière in the War of 1812.

Crossing the central hallway, visitors then enter the house’s 1890s room, which has a homier, more lived-in feel. An upright piano, topped with a heavily fringed lamp, graces one corner. The room’s center features a cozy furniture arrangement with a chessboard. Children’s dolls rest on a chair and a toy train set snakes out on the floor nearby.

With the exception of the piano, the exhibit’s furniture, books, games and toys expressly are intended for the public to handle and inspect.

“A lot of historic place have collections where you can’t touch the furniture or sit on it,” Gurnee said. “These are actually all reproductions, so you can come in and sit on the couches, play with the toys, enjoy the space here and feel a little more immersed in it.”

Black-and-white photos of the family of Addison and Emma Millard, who lived in the house from 1883 to 1934, adorn shelves and walls. The largest is a portrait of Florence Millard, who died in a mill fire when she was a child.

Informational graphics projected on the walls in both rooms tell of local history and the Millard family. Addison Millard, who died in the mid-1890s, suffered from white-lung disease, an ailment of millers caused by inhalation of grain particles, according to a county historical report on the site.

Each downstairs room has a fireplace bracketed by a doorway and a tall, curved-top cupboard set into the wall, the top half of which is glassed-in. A cutaway wall section in one room reveals the home’s original brickwork.

The circa-1811 home, which is the oldest red-brick house in Great Falls, was built in the “country” Federal style and originally was owned by Philip Carper. The house now resembles how it initially appeared, but it later had a porch and other additions that were removed decades later. Signs at the site point to “ghost lines” where those additions formerly joined the house.

Just like their modern counterparts, 19th-century Americans tried to keep up appearances and put their best foot forward. This was the era when sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption.”

The miller’s house displays some lovely, tiger-patterned shells, which were intended to convey to visitors that the host family could afford to travel to exotic, tropical destinations.

Even the floor coverings had class implications. A piece of oilcloth floor covering under the gaming table in the 1810s room, a sample of which felt as sturdy as linoleum, was painted in a black-and-white checkered pattern to resemble a tessellated marble floor. By contrast, the 1890s room’s floor is covered entirely with a practical in-grain carpet, which is reversible.

Visitors who shop online and have anything they want delivered the next day might want to peruse the exhibit’s reproductions of period mail-order catalogues by retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Montgomery Ward & Co. Much of the furniture in the 1890s room would have been mass-produced and ordered from a large retailer.

The house’s renovations have been in the works for a decade. The Park Authority used 2012 bond funds to stabilize the house structurally and preserve its exterior envelope to protect the interior from moisture and extreme temperatures. HITT Contracting completed the $665,000 project in 2017.

The second phase of improvements, which cost $272,000, replaced carpeting and painting in the upstairs office area, added information-technology infrastructure, upgraded security and installed interpretive exhibits in the two main downstairs rooms.

Various contractors completed those renovations in 2018. A company called Quatrefoil produced the wall videos, a brochure and other display enhancements, which were finished in early 2020. Because of the pandemic, the Park Authority could not reopen the house until now, Gurnee said.

In the future, the miller’s house will be open for paid tours, programs and special events, Park Authority officials said.

COLVIN RUN MILL MILLER’S HOUSE-2 Framed photos of the Millard family decorate a wooden display shelf in the 1890s room at the miller’s house at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
COLVIN RUN MILL MILLER’S HOUSE-3 A writing plume rests in a glass inkwell in the 1890s room at the miller’s house at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
COLVIN RUN MILL MILLER’S HOUSE-4 A toy train set and dolls, all replicas, may be handled by the public in the 1890s room at the miller’s house at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
COLVIN RUN MILL MILLER’S HOUSE-5 A heavily fringed lamp, book and stereoscopic viewer rest atop an upright piano in the 1890s room at the recently renovated miller’s house at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
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