Originally part of the immense tract claimed by Lord Fairfax in the 17th century, the Cornwell Farm property traces its modern day history after the Revolutionary War to 1789 when on February 15th of that year after being advertised in "several papers in the continent of America," the land that was to become Cornwell Farm was purchased by John Jackson for 253 pounds sterling.
The Jackson family was among the early colonists pioneering homesteads on Fairfax County's western frontier. Land records after the Revolutionary War show that Captain John Jackson and later his sons, John T., and Richard, from the end of the war until about 1820, accumulated hundreds of acres of land around the Georgetown Pike to the Potomac River.
The patriarch John Jackson would give the land to his son John T., who would build on it, farm the land, and eventually bequeath the acres that would comprise the future Cornwell Farm to one of his daughters, Julia. The historic brick manor was built before the Civil War in 1831 as a wedding present for her.
The "new brick house," as it was known, would have been expensive to construct at the time. Anything not made on the property would have been imported from Alexandria or Georgetown - in the late 1820s, Great Falls was at least a day's travel from Alexandria by cart.
Although the historic Georgetown Pike connecting Leesburg to Georgetown by way of Chain Bridge had been established by that time, the Pike was a rough country road and not well suited for transport of heavy wagon loads of building materials. Considering its size, architecture, location, and the era in which the house was built, construction was a major challenge. Even today, the structure stands as a formidable accomplishment.
The "new brick house" first appears on county tax rolls in 1831, still listed as unfinished, but with an assessment of $1,850. After nearly 80 years under the care of the Jackson family, the property was finally sold in 1868 to Benjamin F. and Phoebe Cornwell for $2,500.
Benjamin Cornwell was a native Virginian and his family roots stretched deep into Northern Virginia. He was born in Fauquier County on the 15th of February 1825. Benjamin was a Union Army veteran as a private with Company E of the 97th Ohio Infantry. Benjamin's brother, Jesse, who at the time of the Civil War was living in Great Falls, fought under the Confederate flag, riding with Mosby's Rangers.
After the war, Benjamin Cornwell and his brother, Jesse, settled no more than a mile from each other. Benjamin moved Phoebe and his five children into the brick mansion that now bears his name; Jesse settled into a small frame house on Georgetown Pike, west of what is now the center of Great Falls. Family members still tell stories of how Frank and Jesse never could put the war to rest. At get-togethers, they would sometimes get into shouting matches over whose cause was truly just, the Union's or the Confederate's. "Whenever we got together as a family, they started talking about the war again, and they never agreed," remembers Ann Cornwell Starke, granddaughter of Benjamin Cornwell. [Starke, 1979]
The Cornwells grew corn and wheat on the farm until Benjamin's retirement in 1887, when he was 62 years old. 38 years after moving into Cornwell Farm and 50 years after their marriage, Benjamin and Phoebe celebrated their golden anniversary at the farm in 1904. An excerpt from the Herndon Observer article dated 28 October 1904, commemorating this event follows:
A Golden Wedding in a Historic Home
In Fairfax County, Virginia, on the Georgetown and Leesburg Turnpike and on a line with the Great Falls of the Potomac, stands a large brick mansion which for well nigh a century has been a conspicuous landmark of that historic community. Connected with the house is a large farm abounding in iron ore on which mining had been started when the Revolutionary War occurred; but the patriotic miners exchanged their mining tools for muskets, and the abandoned mine has remained in status quo from that remote period to the present.
The house was built in accordance with the spacious idea of the Virginia planter of the olden times. The great hall and large rooms stand as silent witnesses of the big concept of Virginia country gentlemen in the days of long ago. The house was known as "Fairview" because of the beauty of the landscape seen from its porch and windows. While in the stillness of the night when all other sounds are hushed in sleep, the Great Falls of the Potomac become distinctly audible in the distance.
The old mansion with so many happy associations of the past clustering about it was the scene of a Golden Wedding on the evening of October 3. The bride and groom on the interesting occasion were Benjamin Franklin Cornwell and C. B. Wheeler who have owned and dwelled in the house for the past 38 years raising a large family of boys and girls, all of whom have married and founded homes of their own, some in the immediate neighborhood and some in Maryland and Massachusetts.
Benjamin Cornwell died on the 2nd of May 1907, 3 years after celebrating with Phoebe their golden wedding anniversary. He was 82 years old. Phoebe died ten years later in 1917 at the age of 86 at which time her heirs sold the property, which eventually changed hands over 10 times in the following century.
The Cornwell's granddaughter, Ann Cornwell Starke, wrote and illustrated a book about her life with her grandfather. Affectionately named Grandpa's Shadow, the book portrays an idyllic childhood - a childhood of keenly felt seasons and explorations in the surrounding woods and meadows. The book is a local history treasure that provides an incomparable glimpse of life on Cornwell Farm in the quiet years after the Civil War and before the turn of the century. Ann's first story is a poignant tale that brings us back in time to a Christmas Eve when Ann and her sister, Freda, were still very young:
All day snow had been quietly falling, so that by tonight the world was sleeping under a downy white blanket, sprinkled all over with diamonds that sparkled in the moonlight. Hundreds of twinkling stars seemed to hang so low that a tall man could almost reach up and touch them. Mamma said, "The angels must have been busy all day polishing and hanging them out!"
I looked hard for the Star of Bethlehem but couldn't see it anywhere - probably because the night of the Christ child's birth was not until tomorrow. No sound was in the crisp cold air except the tinkling of sleigh bells as Grandpa drove up to the front gate behind Tom and Dolly, our best riding horses. They were so pleased with the sound that they pranced and shook themselves to keep up the jingling.
Bundled in heavy overcoats, stocking caps and mufflers, we climbed into the sleigh, Grandma and Grandpa in the front, and Mamma, my sister and I in the back. Mamma had heated a couple of bricks and wrapped them in towels to keep our feet warm. She tucked the big buffalo robe snugly around us, Grandpa cracked the whip and we were off for the long drive on a dark country road.
I thought we would never get where we were going, but finally a flicker of light peeped through the trees ahead and then - suddenly we were there. Our plain little church looked as though a fairy had touched it with her magic wand. Lighted lanterns ahd been hung everywhere, both inside and out. Evergreens and holly branches tied with bows of bright red ribbons decorated the windows and doors, and most exciting of all was the huge Christmas tree standing on the stage and almost touching the ceiling. It sparkled with balls, lighted candles and tinsel but what caught my eye and pleased me most were the many presents hanging from the branches.
Having endured the most pivotal moments in our nation's history, Cornwell Farm continues to keep a watchful eye over historic Georgetown Pike. It now needs a new conservator to respect its past and continue to write its history.