In 1976 as the nation celebrated its 200th anniversary there was a renewed interest in historic preservation. The City of Falls Church chose the restoration and preservation of Cherry Hill Farm as its special bicentennial project. It was a cooperative effort between the City and community groups. While the City owned the land and buildings the Friends of Cherry Hill Foundation was founded to furnish the house and barn. Extensive research and time went into acquiring appropriate furnishings for this Greek Revival style house and mid-19th century barn. The Friends also trained docents to give tours and began educational programs that would interpret life in mid-19th century Virginia.
An Early American Farm
Cherry Hill Farm was once part of a pre-Revolutionary War plantation located at the crossroads of a trail leading from Winchester to Alexandria and another trail leading to the Little Falls on the Potomac River. This 248-acre tract was patented to John Trammel by Lord Fairfax in 1729. John Trammel’s property descended to his son, Sampson, and then to Sampson’s daughter, Susan Pinnit Cloud. A John Mills bought the property at auction in 1833 for $2,537.60.
Circumstantial evidence indicates a residence on the property by 1840 when a building assessment of $200 first appeared in county tax records. A John Mills whose name is listed in the 1840 U.S. Census for Fairfax County was the most likely occupant.
Augustine Newton bought the entire tract in 1843 and a year later made an agreement to sell 66 plus acres to William Harvey. This is the parcel of land we know as Cherry Hill Farm today. William Harvey is believed to have built the present day farmhouse in 1845.
This was a highly speculative period for Virginia land. Northerners were drawn to Virginia by cheap land prices. Harvey paid $665.00 for the 66 acre property in 1845 After declaring bankruptcy he sold the farm to George Steele for $1,950.00 in 1848. In 1856 William Blaisdell of Massachusetts purchased the property for $4,000.00 and moved his young family here.
The Blaisdell Family
Today Cherry Hill is furnished to reflect the times when the Blaisdell family lived at Cherry Hill. The Blaisdells arrived from Massachusetts in 1856 and raised their five children here between the years 1856 and 1868. William Blaisdell made numerous improvements to the property including a hand hewn timber barn, corn crib, and necessary that still remain today. The hothouse, icehouse, smokehouse and summer house buildings have long since disappeared. Blaisdell planted apple, pear and peach orchards and grew a variety of fruits and vegetables that he sold at the Centre Market in Washington, D.C.
Cherry Hill During the Civil War
Cherry Hill was involved in the Civil War both as spectator and participant. Many stories about the house concern this era. Since the perimeter of Washington’s defenses was less than two miles away, the property was crossed many times by Union troops and Confederate rangers. Farm produce was very attractive to soldiers who lived on hard tack and parched corn. Legends tell of a skirmish fought in the peach orchard at Cherry Hill. Mr. Blaisdell did have a peach orchard at the time and archaeological evidence indicates some sort of hostile action took place as Minnie balls, buttons, a shell fragment and Union soldier belt buckle have all been found on the property. However, most of the bullets found were never fired and indicate there were soldier encampments here rather than actual battles.
William Blaisdell was one of 26 men who voted against secession in Falls Church. 44 others voted in favor of secession. After the first battle at Bull Run the Confederate Army occupied Falls Church for two months. During this period most northerners fled town. Southern claims from nearby neighbors tell of feather mattresses, silver and likenesses all being packed into wagons in great haste as people in town fled north. However, Mrs. Blaisdell had given birth to a child two weeks prior to the battle and it is unlikely the family could have fled. Tax assessments for personal property indicate a decline of $200.00 for the year 1861. The Blaisdells lost 7 hogs, 3 cows, and a carriage. In addition, household furnishings assessed at $103.00 were only valued at $33.00 by the end of 1861.
William Blaisdell most likely constructed the upstairs closet with secret hiding compartment after sustaining these losses. Silver, money or other valuables could have been stowed here for the duration of the war. The closet with the secret hiding compartment can be seen in the child’s bedroom today.
By the end of September, 1861 the Confederate Army had departed and the town remained under Union control for the rest of the war. However, farmers still suffered the effects of Union encampments in their fields. Crops, timber and livestock were often confiscated. In addition, the townspeople lived in continual fear of a raid by Mosby’s rangers.
By the end of the war farmers in the area had started to recover. The growing Federal City created a greater demand for local farmers’ produce. In 1865 Blaisdell was able to sell Cherry Hill for $7,000. He stayed on as farm manager until all debts were paid to him. By 1868 his personal property was again valued at prewar numbers. The Blaisdell family returned to Concord, Massachusetts in 1868.
The Riley Family
Joseph and Mary Pultz Riley moved their young family to Cherry Hill in 1873. Joseph Riley began the practice of subdividing the farm into lots and successfully lobbied for the incorporation of Falls Church into a town. He also led the drive to raise funds for the first public school in town. The Jefferson Institute was built with funds raised by Riley and others in Falls Church. His stature as a civil leader earned him the nickname “Judge” Riley.
There were five children born to Joseph and Mary Pultz Riley. The eldest daughter, Mary Edwards Riley married Samuel Styles. As a result of her early interest in public libraries and her children’s gift of land, the City of Falls Church named its library after her. Margaret Riley married Leo Graham Parker. She lived at Cherry Hill until the end of her life. Her collection of cookbooks remains in the house. Jean Elizabeth Riley, and her husband Harry Birge, resided in Falls Church. Kathleen Maude Riley married Charles Gage. The Gage House was their home (known to them as “Poverty Pines”).
The only son, Joseph Harvey Riley, was a noted ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institute. Upon his mother’s death in 1927, he inherited Cherry Hill. Joseph Harvey Riley died in 1946 leaving the property to the University of Virginia with a life tenure clause for any remaining siblings. Riley had hoped to establish a chair in Vertebrate Zoology at the University. The City of Falls Church purchased the property from the University in 1956. Kathleen Riley Gage, the last of the Riley children died in 1968 and the City then took possession of the house.
Cherry Hill was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The house and barn were restored in 1975 and the house was dedicated in 1976 as a historic house museum.