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Piscataway Park, rooted in farming of past, sows seeds for future

  • By Lara Lutz on November 01, 2005
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A 17th-century farm comes to life along the Potomac River at Piscataway Park in Accokeek, MD. Skilled interpreters, as well as heirloom crops and heritage breed animals, help visitors explore a time when even the smallest daily tasks relied on an intimate relationship with the area’s natural resources. 

 (Accokeek Foundation) Piscataway Park is on the shore of the Potomac opposite Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington. The land that became the park was protected to preserve the rural landscape that Washington once viewed from his estate. (Accokeek Foundation) The Ecosystem Farm, an interesting counterpart to the National Colonial Farm, grows organic produce, right, that is sold in shares to members of its Community Supported Agriculture program. (Accokeek Foundation) Amelia, below, Piscataway’s resident Ossabaw hog, is a heritage breed animal of hearty stock that once was a valuable addition to colonial farms. Ossabaw hogs are not a top pick for today’s farms, but their genetic stock is valuable for breeding and research. (Accokeek Foundation)

In 1955, it looked as if visitors to Mount Vernon would soon be standing on the grounds of George Washington’s historic estate and gazing across the Potomac River to the churning grounds of an oil tank farm or sewage treatment plant.

The passionate people who preserved and maintained Mount Vernon were appalled at the plans. Frances Bolton, a vice regent at Mount Vernon and U.S. congresswoman from Ohio, was among them. The loss of nearly 500 rural acres opposite Mount Vernon would drastically alter its tranquil, historic setting.

Mount Vernon’s director tried to secure the land through government and private resources, but failed. Bolton, alarmed by the lack of options, stepped up to the plate. She bought the land herself.

Bolton’s $333,000 purchase marks one of the earliest efforts to preserve a “viewshed” and launched a series of land acquisitions that grew into a national preserve known today as Piscataway Park.

Piscataway Park, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, covers nearly 5,000 acres and reaches along six miles of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, MD. Approximately 200 of those acres are cared for and interpreted by the Accokeek Foundation, which Bolton created in 1957.

“The story we tell here is how the land shapes the people, and the people shape the land over time” said Annmarie Buckley, education manager for the Accokeek Foundation.

Indeed, Bolton’s legacy is not just a scenic view from Mount Vernon, but a landscape in which history comes alive and visitors are invited to consider the long-term effects of land use choices.

Piscataway Park is an oasis of greenery and wildlife, just 10 miles south of the nation’s capital. Fields and meadows are interspersed with upland and lowland forests, a tidal wetland and riverfront vistas. Beavers, deer, fox, osprey, bald eagles and many species of ground-nesting birds make their homes here.

Along with several nature trails, the park offers a public fishing pier, a free launch site for canoes and kayaks and, of course, a view of Mount Vernon.

One of the most popular areas of Piscataway Park is the National Colonial Farm, which recreates middle class farm life in the 1700s. Pumpkin Ash Trail leads visitors across a wetlands boardwalk to its sist–er site, the Ecosystem Farm. Here, the Accokeek Foundation operates a small working farm to demonstrate sustainable agricultural practices on a worn-out tobacco field.

“The farms help to show that the way things were done centuries ago affects the land today, and the choices we make today will affect the next generations,” Buckley said.

The earliest people to touch this corner of the Potomac River watershed were the Piscataway, a Native American tribe. The Piscataway flourished on the peninsula between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, and northward to the Patapsco, including the area of the District of Columbia.

Their many settlements included Potopaco (Port Tobacco), Patuxent, Mattapanient (Mattapony), Mattawoman, and Nachochtank (Anacostia). Their principle village and residence of the tribal chief was a palisaded fort known as Piscataway, located within the vicinity of today’s Piscataway Park.

As European settlers spread into the area, they coexisted with the Piscataway for more than 50 years until violence between the native tribes—as well as between tribes and settlers—increased. By 1675, an armed force of settlers drove most of the tribe away from the local area.

Intensive farming became the main use of this productive Potomac shoreline.

Today, wooden rail fences, known as “zigzag” fences, mark quaint pathways along the perimeter of the National Colonial Farm, which provides a glimpse into the lives of early Maryland settlers. On weekends, and for scheduled tour groups, skilled interpreters demonstrate daily farm activities and seasonal tasks such as wool spinning and candlemaking.

“We call the farm ‘Bolton’s Bliss,’ in part to honor Frances Bolton and in part because the area was once known as Bliss Farm,” Buckley said. “It shows what life was like for a middlin’ family—that is, a poor landowner, in colonial times. That’s important because most preserved sites show life for families that were well off. We portray how the majority of people lived at that time.”

Two period buildings are the structural focal points of the farm. The modest farmhouse, built in the 1700s, arrived in Piscataway Park from its original site in Charles County, MD. The mortar and plaster on its walls were made from a mixture of burnt oyster shells, sand, water and horse hair. Outside, the house is flanked by a kitchen garden, a log out-kitchen and a smokehouse.

The tobacco barn, also dating to the 1700s, came from Anne Arundel County, MD, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, sheaves of tobacco hang on tiers of beams that span the barn’s interior. To promote drying, the barn is raised one foot above the ground and has four large doors that invite a cross breeze.

“Our story revolves around tobacco, because that took up most of the family’s time,” Buckley said. “It was hard on the land, and depleted the soil of nutrients. But it was a way of life.”

Livestock and plants are more than scenic dressing at the National Colonial Farm—they are living history. Bordering the inland side of the farm is the Native Tree Arboretum, which was planted in 1988 with 85 varieties of trees and shrubs documented in the Bay region by early the European settlers.

Mobiles made from oyster shells adorn the gates of the Museum Garden, which showcases herbs, flowers and crops from three different cultures. The garden demonstrates how European, African and Native American cultures mingled and created a plant base that met many needs, including nourishment, medicines and dyes for textiles.

“Because of Maryland’s climate, all of these different plants could acclimate here, allowing for a longer growing season. It’s one reason why this area was such a great place for the colonists to live,” Buckley explained.

Visitors will also encounter a variety of heirloom vegetables and heritage breed animals that were common in colonial days but much harder to find today.

Heritage breed animals serve many purposes well and offer special hardiness. These traits are less valuable today as agriculture moves away from family farms and favors specialized breeds over generalists.

Devon cattle, for instance, became nearly extinct in the 1950s but were very valuable to settlers because of their tolerance to hot weather. The farm’s friendly Ossabaw hog, Amelia, is a rotund example of a breed that roamed wild for almost 400 years on a Georgia barrier island. Ossabaw hogs develop enormous fat reserves, which allow them to survive when food is scarce. The Dominique chicken was reduced to only four small flocks in 1970, but it was a top choice through the 19th century for meat, eggs and feathers. Like the black turkey, it also helped to control pests in the fields.

The Accokeek Foundation keeps heritage breed animals for public education and to preserve the species’ valuable genetic stock for breeding.

“Most heritage breeds are endangered because they aren’t commercially viable,” Buckley said. “But it’s important to preserve these strains because they typically have healthier traits than the commercial breeds. The wool from Hog Island sheep isn’t top choice, but the sheep are very resistant to parasites and can be very useful for research.”

The Ossabaw hog has unique genetic traits that have made it useful for studies of obesity and diabetes.

While the National Colonial Farm offers a window on the past, the Ecosystem Farm promotes a sustainable future.

“We organized the farm to show that depleted land could be made productive again, in harmony with the environment,” Buckley said. “One thing we discovered was that a more intense, market-driven garden means planting less space and getting just as much revenue.”

The 8-acre farm produces a wide range of organically grown produce that is sold to local residents through a Community Supported Agriculture program. The CSA provides weekly shares of its harvest to approximately 50 members who pay in advance for the season and reap the benefits of fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Buckley said that agricultural practices on the Ecosystem Farm are good for the land and good for the community.

“Part of the message here is to eat local, eat fresh, eat in season,” Buckley said, “and to know who is growing your food.”

Farm managers make active use of composting and cover crops to keep the right nutrient levels in the soil. Solar panels drive the modest energy needs of the Ecosystem Farm, bringing water from the river for irrigation and running an electric fence to deter deer.

The Ecosystem Farm demonstrates a close working relationship with the land in very different ways from those of the National Colonial Farm, which hearkens to a time when survival was uncertain, labor consumed the family’s life and the land’s tolerance for human usage seemed unending. The two farms stand as interesting companions at Piscataway Park, woven into a tapestry of fields, forests and trails that reflect the outcome of one woman’s very bold stewardship decision. And, the view from both sides of the river is green.

Trails at Piscataway Park

  • Blackberry Trail: Journey through a flood plain forest that provides habitat for moisture-loving plants and animals.
  • Bluebird Trail: Stroll past the Native Tree Arboretum and chestnut grove to the Potomac River.
  • Pawpaw Trail: Discover a breathtaking view of Mount Vernon while traveling through an upland forest.
  • Persimmon Trail: Walk the banks of the wildfowl pond, a favorite nesting spot for many water birds.
  • Pumpkin Ash Trail: Enjoy the Potomac River shoreline and explore a tidal wetland.
  • Riverview Trail: Explore a newly planted riparian forest buffer and see the diversity of a riverside forest.

Piscataway Park, National Colonial Farm & Ecosystem Farm

The trails, fishing pier, boat access and picnic areas of Piscataway Park are open dawn to dusk year-round.

The Visitors Center and National Colonial Farm are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from mid-March through mid-December and are closed Nov. 11 and Thanksgiving. Mid-December through mid-March, the sites are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.

Guided tours of the National Colonial Farm and Ecosystem Farm are available on weekends and for groups by appointment. Admission to the National Colonial Farm and Ecosystem Farm is $2/adults and $.50/children, with a maximum $5 charge per family.

Special Events

Winter’s Eve Celebration: 5–8 p.m. Dec. 3, 2005. The National Colonial Farm celebrates winter. Candles and lanterns light up historic buildings and paths. Enjoy a cup of hot colonial cranberry tea, cookies and popcorn, with musical by the fire. Free.

Annual Presidents Day Shoreline Walk: February 20, 2006. Time TBA. Hikers, ages 6+, on a guided two-mile walk along the Potomac River will learn about the river’s history and take part in a scavenger hunt. Meet at Marshall Hall in Piscataway Park. Free.

Directions

Piscatway Park, on the southern tip Prince George’s County, MD, is about 35 minutes from Washington, D.C.

From Interstates 295/495 South: Take the Indian Head Highway/MD Route 210 South exit. Go about 9 miles. Turn right on Livingston Road. Drive one block and turn right on Biddle Road. Turn left on Bryan Point Road and follow to end.

From Route 301, Crain Highway: In Waldorf, MD, turn right onto Route 228 and follow 7 miles to end. Turn right (north) onto Indian Head Highway and move into far left lane. Make next left turn onto Livingston Road. Drive one block and turn right on Biddle Road. Turn left on Bryan Point Road and follow to end.

For information about Piscataway Park, visit http://www.accokeek.org/, call 301-283-2113 or write 3400 Bryan Point Road, Accokeek, MD 20607.

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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