1993 Editor's Note: Eugene Scheel is a cartographer and collector of tales. His talent produced the Historic Map of Prince William which Historic Prince William commissioned in 1990. During his research, Mr. Scheel heard the lore and legends of many of the town and post offices of the area and has started to write us these stories as a companion to the Historic Map. He recently delivered the first installment of this new book Historic Prince William has commissioned which included the introduction we present to you here.
1996 Editors Note: Eugene Scheel's Crossroads and Corners is now one of the publications available from Historic Prince William.
As settlement ventured inland, an idea came to those dragging casks of tobacco to these seaports. Why return empty-handed after a journey of several hours or several days? The up-country plantations needed salt, sugar, yard goods and gunpowder. If a seaport merchant would extend a credit to the teamster, then he could sell goods for a small profit in the hinterlands.
In a month or so the teamster would return with tobacco and pay the merchant. What the teamster didn't sell he could store, and so began the country store, known into this century as a storehouse. A house or two followed, then a blacksmith, and we had a village. The Virginia Legislature also tried to establish villages, catering to the wishes of such wealthy landowners and merchants as John Graham at Dumfries, established 1749; Cuthbert Bullitt at Newport, 1787; and Willoughy Tebbs at Carrborough, 1788. But while free enterprise worked, politics didn't and only Dumfries--among these first "established" towns lived. All flanked Prince William's largest Potomac estuary, Quantico Creek--an Algonkian Indian word meaning "by the long stream."
The 'grubbing up' of a Virginia post road (the Telegraph Road of a later generation) in 1774 reinforced the port villages. Benjamin Franklin, the colonies' first Postmaster-General, established post offices at Colchester (just across the Occoquan in Fairfax) and Dumfries which increased traffic on the post road (before the Revolution often called the King's Highway) and nurtured a line of villages along the Tidewater.
By the late 18th century scattered storehouses in the up-country marked corners and crossroads and adjoined water-powered mills and plantations. Thus where new the legislature established "towns," many were already realities before their official pronouncements: John Love's Buckland, 1798; William Skinker's Haymarket, 1799; Nathaniel Ellicott's Occoquan, 1804; and Prince William County's own enterprise, Brentsville, in 1822.
Then came the proliferation of post offices. In 1820 there were eight, by the outbreak of the War Between the States, there were fifteen. As people came to receive their weekly mail, it became sound economics for the postmaster to set up a storehouse. Market wagons set out from the store, and the proprietor continued to buy supplies on lines of credit from the large Tidewater firms.
President Grover Cleveland advocated a post office every four miles so people wouldn't have to walk more than two miles one way to pick up their mail. And by the 1890's there were thirty-five post offices in the county, every one replete with a store-or two, because there often was a "Democratic" or "Republican" post master or mistress, the position being a political plum that could double one's income.
By the early years of this century, Teddy Roosevelt thought Rural Federal Delivery was the way to go, and as fewer folk came to the stores, the small businesses began to close, the post offices with them. Macadamized roads were also coming in, and it became easy to travel to Manassas, Catharpin, Haymarket, Occoquan and Dumfries. And then came the automobile and mail-order catalogues. Daily in Prince William newspapers, one read the plaintive ads, "Buy local goods".
The World War II gas shortage gave many a store and village a brief lease on life, soon countered by the automobile. Dwight Eisenhower gave three more villages a final blow when he closed hundreds of rural post offices. Cherry Hill, Hoadly, and Waterfall in Prince William County were closed. The final knell came with shopping centers in the late 1950's, but there are survivors--Aden, Brentsville, Buckhall, Catharpin, Cornwelltown, Greenwich, and Independent Hill haven't heard the bell.
All the villages and towns in this publication will be indexed and located on Historic Prince William's Historic Map of Prince William County. The brief histories will be arranged alphabetically and a footnote will identify the people who contributed to Mr. Scheel's research.