Dulles Airport Has Its Roots in Rural Black Community of Willard

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.
More Willard, Virginia at Wikipedia

The construction of Dulles Airport

The construction of Dulles Airport

On the airport's 10th anniversary, at a gala called "Transpo," one of the hostesses, a young African American woman, was asked, "Just where is Dulles?" She paused, smiled and said, "Why, at Willard, of course." I mention her race because Willard was largely a black community, and it's doubtful that a young white person would have given that answer. He, or she, most likely would have said Chantilly, for mail leaving the airport then bore a Chantilly postmark.

Willard's heyday had long passed by then, but old-timers could recall its store, which was run by Samuel Emerson Horn and postmasters Harvey W. Cockerille and Frederick W. Bohrer from 1900 to 1907. Joseph Edward Willard, for whom the village was named, was Fairfax County delegate to the Virginia General Assembly from 1893 to 1901. If you're wondering why a Loudoun County village was named for a Fairfax politician, Willard's main intersection was a scant 1,500 feet from the Fairfax line. More people from Fairfax than Loudoun traded at Horn's store and got their mail at the Willard post office.

Willard also was considered one of Virginia's richest men, and those who passed his 14-bedroom house on a 50-acre estate in the Town of Fairfax certainly believed that assertion. The money came from his father, Joseph Clapp Willard, who owned Washington's Willard Hotel. The younger Willard became Virginia's lieutenant governor in 1901, but after placing third in the three-way race for the governor's office in 1905, he had to settle for the post of state corporation commissioner.

The fortunes of Willard, the village, followed those of Willard, the man. Bohrer closed the post office window April 30, 1907, and Rural Free Delivery carriers from Herndon and Sterling took over. Ernest G. Beard was the Sterling mail carrier, and his buggy stopped first at Coleman's Corner, the main gateway to the Willard area from Sterling and Herndon. The Coleman graveyard marked this crossroad, and surrounding it in every direction was the 700-plus-acre corn, wheat and cattle farm of Philip J. Coleman. Coleman soon would achieve local fame as supervisor in the Broad Run magisterial district, which then covered all of lower Loudoun, west to Goose Creek and today's Route 15. Coleman also ran the Democratic Party in lower Loudoun.

As well known to lower Loudoun and western Fairfax as Coleman were the Blevins brothers. James Garfield Blevins was the area dentist, and Marion Blevins was the man who could soothe the pain after an extraction. Marion was a W.T. Raleigh agent, and Raleigh's concocted a variety of patent medicines, pills, extracts and powders for man and beast. Marion first carried them on horseback and then in a Ford pickup -- 50 years in all -- even after he moved to Lincoln in 1945.

Near the Willard crossroads were the small family spreads of former slaves and their descendants -- Nathaniel Corum, Joe Johnson, Joe Holmes, Charles Newman, Lafayette and Henry Robinson, Eldridge Smith and Arthur Thomas These men farmed on a sustenance level on their few acres, which included a patch of corn, a large vegetable garden, chickens and hogs, a milk cow, a heifer and perhaps a steer. They also cut firewood and fashioned the finer pieces into barrel staves, railroad ties and ax and hatchet handles. They worked as farmhands and sharecropped for Coleman, Will Creighton, Fred Keller, Arthur and Matthew Middleton and Phil Sowers, to name some of the big farm owners.

The focus of black Willard was Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church, a small weatherboard building built by its members in 1899. Elder James Farr, from Cub Run Primitive Baptist Church near Centreville, was Shiloh's first preacher. Few would recall Farr, because in 1901, Elder James Bailey from Occoquan in Prince William County became preacher. He was then 21 and soon would become circuit pastor for every black Primitive Baptist Church from Occoquan north into western Fairfax and lower Loudoun. His pastorate ended at age 95 in 1976.

Near Shiloh, usually called just the Willard Church, stood Willard School, an 1890s weatherboard one-roomer finely built with tongue-and-groove wood-lined walls inside. After lower Loudoun schools for black children consolidated at the brick Oak Grove School in 1948, Willard School was jacked up, hitched onto John B. Hornbaker's threshing machine and rolled three miles north to the place of Eugene Beard, no relation to Ernest G. It spent its last years there as an outbuilding near Coleman's School, the white children's one-roomer.

Children of Willard, white and black, would have remembered Gussie and Edward Neman Fitzhugh. They married at Eugene Beard's house in 1913, took over Horn's old store and lived upstairs and in back of the frame L-shaped building. Childless, they became parents to all the neighborhood children, giving them extra penny candy and letting them stay in their home. That ended in 1930, when the Willard store became a Depression casualty. Across from the store lived Annie Middleton. "Miss Annie," as everyone called her, was also known as the "Angel of Willard." She was the soother of a hurt finger, the preparer of a school-day lunch for a child who forgot to bring one or for the child whose parents couldn't afford the extra meal. Late in life, Annie married a Mr. Brogden.

Flora Croson lived about a half-mile west of the Willard Church. Miss Flora was the last of the home switchboard operators of Gales Hutchison's Prince William Telephone Co., which also served lower Loudoun and far western Fairfax. Flora's house was called "The Central," and one ring brought her to the switchboard. Then she connected the caller to the subscriber, who paid S5 a month for the service. Each subscriber had a special series of rings -- perhaps two shorts and a long -- that brought him or her to the phone. But every subscriber heard the rings. To eavesdrop, one had to remove the phone very gently so as not to create noise on the line.

Black and white Willard came together each summer when the "medicine show" and minstrel men came to the crossroads. They set up on a field, built a planked platform and draped it and a backdrop with canvas. Holding sway on stage was the medicine man, who was sometimes a singer and comic and sometimes a pitchman for patent medicines, often laced with alcohol. Between acts, minstrels strolled among the crowd, playing fiddles and banjos and hawking "New Life" and "Golden Oil," names for pills and elixirs extolled by the pitchman.

Willard changed with the coming of the airport – Blue Ridge Airport, that is, in 1938. It was the first airport in Loudoun County to receive a Virginia charter, granted to its founder, Harry A. Sager Jr., who learned to fly when he was a student at Herndon High School. Sager chose the name because the airport was the first place from which the mountains could be seen. Sager leased land about a mile north of the Willard crossroads for $50 a month from Otho Kirkwood and made two grass strips in the shape of an X. He had three planes at the airport, first a Piper Cub J-2 bought for $300, then a Piper J-3 and then a Stinson MS8-A. The field sported two hangars and sometimes five other planes, whose operators belonged to the Blue Ridge Flying Club.

Blue Ridge was then one of two airports in Loudoun. The other, Wallace George's field, along Edwards' Ferry Road just east of Leesburg, was not chartered by the state. The other Washington area airports, from north to south, were George Brinkerhoff's College Park, where Sager learned to fly; Hoover Field, the commercial airport at the site of the Pentagon; Franklin Reid's Beacon Airport at Alexandria; and Hybla Valley, north of Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County. National Airport opened in June 1941.

Blue Ridge Airport was forced to close in early 1942. World War II decrees specified a 24-hour guard over all operable airplanes or removal of their propellers at night. Sager, soon to be with the U.S. Air Transport Command, couldn't afford the manpower.

The success of air power and abundance of pilots and planes after the war were factors leading to a search in 1948 for a second international airport for Washington. The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) began exploring three sites in earnest: Burke and Annandale in Fairfax County and Willard, which it called Chantilly, on the Fairfax-Loudoun border.

In summer 1951, Burke was chosen, and property acquisition began. But protests from local residents and the growing realization that the suburbs were expanding more rapidly than expected led the CAA to rethink its decision. During the next six years, Andrews Air Force Base, the Pender area in Fairfax County five miles southeast of Willard and today's Baltimore-Washington International Airport were the CAA's alternative sites, with Chantilly still in the running.

Finally, in January 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower selected Chantilly. In reality, the site was chosen by his special adviser on aviation, retired Lt. Gen. Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada. Eisenhower valued the judgment of the former World War II fighter-pilot commander.

Without public hearings, the federal government sent condemnation letters to all 87 Willard area landowners early in September 1958, and the letters came like a bolt. Many landowners formed a citizens association, but it disbanded, and everyone followed separate courses. Several hired lawyers, who took one-third of anything over the condemnation price.

The government paid an average of $500 an acre, and more than 300 buildings were bulldozed. Between January 1959 and April 1961, the 87 property owners deeded 9,800 acres to the government. Shiloh Church received $4,000, and the congregation and church graveyard were relocated to the present location near Conklin, to which several other black families from the Willard area had moved.

In June 1959, the 9,800 acres had a name. Sager, then a senior pilot with Eastern Airlines, had written Quesada and suggested that the airport be named Blue Ridge. But Quesada chose Dulles to commemorate Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had died a month earlier and had been fond of flying. To forestall further name suggestions, the late secretary's staff took pains to research his travel logs, citing 559,988 miles, 400,000 of which were out of the country.

While land was being acquired, the Federal Aviation Agency (successor in January 1959 to the CAA) interviewed companies to plan, design and build Dulles as the world's first airport to handle only jets. James A. Wilding, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority since 1979, was a junior member of the hiring team, which he told me recently was dubbed "the three H's," for architect Herbert Howell and engineers Earl Heist and Merle Hemphill.

Wilding, who had just graduated from Catholic University, was not one of the interviewers but recalled his colleagues describing "the incredible impression" made by the New York City civil engineering firm of Ammann & Whitney, builder of the George Washington and Verrazano Narrows bridges. Wilding told me that Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, a member of the Ammann team, was the last person to speak during the interviews. Whiting paraphrased Saarinen as saying: "Boyd Anderson [an Ammann partner] has told you everything about the engineering and structural aspects, its bones. Robert McDonald [another partner] has talked to you about the mechanical and electrical aspects, the heart and nervous system. And I am going to talk to you about its soul."

Dulles's soul was Saarinen's terminal, described by many as similar to a bird in flight, as the high control tower between the building's wings appears to change position while one approaches the terminal. Saarinen also created an interior "sky" in the terminal as its concave ceiling simulates the takeoff path of an plane. Wilding said that "for the first time in this country, Saarinen separated the 'airside' and 'landside' functions of the airport," with landside denoting ticketing and baggage checking.

"Saarinen and the Ammann firm had the idea to use mobile lounges to carry passengers to the airplanes," he said. "If the terminal had long fingers on it [to take people to the planes], it wouldn't have been as powerful." Saarinen, who did not live to see the airport open, called the terminal "the best thing I've ever done."

Overseeing landside functions during the early years was Charles Waddell, who at various times handled crew and flight schedules and passenger relations for American Airlines. Waddell would become a Democratic state senator, serving Loudoun and Western Fairfax from 1971 to 1998. Waddell came to National Airport in 1951, fresh out of Braselton (Ga.) High School where at 6 foot 3, he was star forward on a state championship basketball team. Waddell transferred to Dulles when it opened Nov. 17, 1962, and the first commercial flights landed two days later.

Waddell's brother, Myron "Rube" Waddell, named for the Philadelphia Athletics left-handed pitcher, had worked at National and lived in Sterling. "He wanted to get out of the hustle and bustle, and so Rube moved to Sterling and carried the rural mail through the Willard neighborhood," Charles told me. "They built Dulles on his mail route." The brothers were close, and so Charles also moved to nearby Broad Run Farms. "We had three [flights] in and three out each day: Flight 58 from Dallas, 76 from Los Angeles and 77 from L.A., that's the flight that hit the Pentagon [on Sept. 11, 2001." Its number has been retired.

"The other airlines first operating out of Dulles -- I recall Braniff, Eastern, Pan American, Piedmont and United," Charles said. "They're all gone except United. "I remember sitting with the guys out in one of the blockhouses," he said, referring to the operations offices on the runways. "Here comes this pickup pulling a house trailer across two active runways. He had West Virginia tags. He stops in front of us and says, 'Say fellows, can you tell me how to get to Chantilly?'

"So we told him to go out Gate 4 and then turn right. The control tower raised Cain, but there wasn't any [air] traffic then, and it was either Gate 4 or going back over the runways again."

The name Dulles caused problems. Charles recalled rerouting passengers to Dallas, who had mistakenly gotten off at Dulles. One passenger appeared at my wife Annette's office at the old Leesburg Elementary School one May day. "She walked up the steps in bare feet and with her high-heeled sling-backs in her hand," my wife recalled. "How she had gotten to a random location like Wirt Street I'll never know. She had gotten a lift from Dulles where her plane had landed after the stewardess announced the airport name. My door was open to the street as it was a hot day, and this ditsy young lady told me she had flown from Newark."So I called her mother in Jersey who told me what should have happened, then drove her back to the airport and directed her to Travelers Aid."

Similar incidents led to my naming the airport "Washington Dulles International Airport" on a map that I prepared of the airport for its 20th anniversary. Winn Porter of Paeonian Springs, a member of the Committee for Dulles, a group of business executives who oversaw the airport, told me to think of a new name. In 1984, Congress officially adopted that name.

One quote always sticks in my mind when the airport's early years are discussed. Two days before President John F. Kennedy's dedicated Dulles on Nov. 17, 1962, J. Terry Hirst of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors summed up feelings of much of rural lower Loudoun, western Fairfax and upper Prince William. Hirst spoke of the commerce and industry that soon would join the airport: "Yes, industry pays taxes, big taxes to the state and federal governments. It'll be the county that pays for the population boom."

November, 2002
Copyright © Eugene Scheel