Forty years ago, just about this time of year, a handful of people expressed their interest in joining together to create a historical society for Great Falls. There was no handbook to advise on what to do, how to launch a society, what to research, or ways to inspire and unfold a passion for history in a certain direction. The organization blossomed through the willingness and enthusiasm of its members. It has been large, it has been small, it has focused on the 17th century, but also the 18th and 19th centuries. Those committing to doing history might have lived here for generations, or might have just arrived. Each person who has stepped forward to volunteer has offered their own personal gifts, abilities, and experiences, and have often been nourished and enriched through the process of cooperation and collaboration. The Society has also faced its limits and has confronted the limits of its members. Often in moments of deepest need, someone comes forward with the talent needed to advance once again.
Naomi Whetzel made the photo exhibits. Dave Bettwy built the web site. Karen Washburn and Pat MacVeach told the story of historic houses through pictures, taking local residents on an armchair tour of historic houses throughout Great Falls. Burt Brittin and Bill Chadwick, being both former naval officers, recognized the extraordinary achievement of George Washington’s Pawtomack Canal and urged its preservation and protection. Bill Garrett and his son Ken were touched by their appreciation of the Pawtomack Canal history and visually presented a milestone article on the feat accomplished that has excited readers, and our members and neighbors ever since.
Our members joined together to assemble a cookbook of 19th century recipes, before the time when there was a stove, filled with ingredients found in one’s backyard and garden. Jean Tibbetts was a wonder over more than a decade as she worked on the Publication Committee to bring writing projects to fruition. The award, in her honor, encourages members and others to continue the hard work of completing historic work.
Our members loved to participate in potlucks which took place at the Colvin Run Mill, and The Dranesville Tavern, with a harvest picnic in October and a spring picnic in May, and an annual banquet each February at the River Bend Country Club. Beginning in the 1980s the longing for a place for our collection of photographs, maps, oral history interview tapes and documents of properties of Great Falls homes began. Many members have been engaged in sharing local history with local elementary school classes to “promote an understanding and appreciation of historic values and events among our students.” An exciting part of the year was conducting a speech contest for young people.
Members joined together each year to prepare a historic calendar containing historic photos on a certain topic per year. A lot of research went into each theme. As the internet took shape and the promise of digitization arose, the idea of digitizing our photo collection was proposed at the time of our 20th anniversary – only to be accomplished close to 15 years later.
Old school days, heritage days, grange and old school days, later to be called Great Falls Day, came into favor, as one-room schoolhouse reenactments were presented and historical exhibits were shared.
Historic preservation has been supported and encouraged throughout our 40 years, most recently in support of the Resident Curatorship Program, being launched throughout Fairfax County.
Just this past week, we received a note from Chris Osborne, our 10th President, who served from 1994 through 1996. He is currently living in Reno, Nev. He sent a donation in honor of the Society’s 40th Anniversary and sent a note that his donation was in honor of Burt Brittin, President from 1982-1984, as Burt was his mentor in his early days in our society. Having regard for the past, and a willingness to join with others in building a legacy requires respect for those who have come before us and an appreciation of their guidance.
We have been blessed by Naomi Whetzel’s commitment to gather photos, TR Cook’s continuing commitment to capture images of our events, and the beautiful gifts showered on us by Archie Brown who added to our image collection with photos and video.
As we move forward, we are sure to encounter other limitations on our combined talents and needs for expertise that does not lie within our midst. We appreciate those who lend a helping hand, as Carlos Berrios did last year, organizing our digital files for more efficient searching.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Great Falls Historical Society with an accurate picture of what has gone on, Alex Brudno and I have gone back over 40 years worth of our newsletter, the Chronicler, to understand the genesis of this organization. We have found an amazing gift that only Milburn Sanders’ words as he described the Great Falls Grange seem appropriate: The Great Falls Historical Society is “a monument to volunteerism, old-fashioned country neighborliness and community improvement.”
Our work continues to build community spirit by bringing the past into the present – hoping that we will leave a legacy for future generations.
The Great Falls Historical Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization