During the Civil War, an alluring Fairfax City resident named Laura Ratcliffe provided Confederate officers with clandestine aid...
The rumblings of bulldozers and front-end loaders clearing a nearby property of its trees rattle the photographs and paintings hanging on Merrybrook’s walls, causing them to tip at odd angles. However, the many photos on the mantelpiece in the 200-plus-year-old rambling white house, the jewel of what was once a landed estate in northern Virginia, are unmoved. The most commanding photograph of them all is the one just to the left of the chimney. The gaze of Laura Ratcliffe, Merrybrook’s original owner, is direct, calm; and while her portrait is formal and exudes propriety, it is not hard to believe that this beautiful woman was one of Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby’s most trusted spies, and a woman who earned the admiration of Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart as well.
Laura Ratcliffe was born May 28, 1836, in Fairfax City to Francis and Ann Ratcliffe. The blood of such legendary Southern families as the Lees, Fitzhughs and McCartys flowed in her veins. It was a Ratcliffe who founded the City of Fairfax. The land up and down what is now Centreville Road, a main artery connecting Herndon and Centreville, was once owned and farmed by Ratcliffes.
During the Civil War, northern Virginia was rife with Union and Confederate activity, especially along the Potomac. Skirmishes and full-fledged battles, midnight raids and daytime maneuvers were the stuff of daily living for soldier and civilian alike. Laura and her sister served as nurses at Jeb Stuart’s Camp Quivive in Fairfax in the winter of 1861. After meeting Laura, Stuart began a correspondence with her. His letters, along with a poem he dedicated to her, reflect his respect for her. He also gave her a gold-embossed brown leather album that was inscribed, “Presented to Miss Laura Ratcliffe by her soldier-friend as a token of his high appreciation of her patriotism, admiration of her virtues, and pledge of his lasting esteem.” The album was also signed by many other soldiers who fought with Stuart, including Mosby and Brigadier Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. (After Laura’s death on Aug. 8, 1923, at Merrybrook, relatives and friends found that Laura had kept these mementoes, as well as Stuart’s gold watch chain.)
During the war, the Ratcliffes were among those who chose to walk the tightrope of pragmatism. While loyal to the South, they were not averse to selling food and supplies to the Union troops who often controlled the area. According to historical documents, it was the braggadocio of one Union lieutenant who came to buy milk from the Ratcliffes that thrust Laura into the role of spy. He made the mistake of gloating to Laura that a trap for Mosby, the elusive Gray Ghost, was in place near her home. “I know you would give Mosby any information in your possession,” the lieutenant told Ratcliffe, “but, as you have no horses and the mud is too deep for women folks to walk, you can’t tell him; so the next you hear of your ‘pet’ he will be either dead or our prisoner.”
Wrong. That very afternoon, Feb. 7, 1863, Laura and her sister started across the freezing, muddy fields toward the home of a cousin, George Coleman, intending to have him warn Mosby. Fate stepped in, however, and the two women encountered Mosby as he rode across those same bitterly cold fields. An entry in Mosby’s memoirs shows his belief that Laura’s warning saved him from capture: “… I observed two ladies walking rapidly toward me. One was Miss Laura Ratcliffe …. But for meeting them, my life as a Partisan would have closed that day.”
Afterward, Mosby sometimes used the Ratcliffe home as his headquarters. A large rock at the top of Squirrel Hill, just up the road from the house, became the site of clandestine meetings between the two. Laura would also hide messages and money there for Mosby.
The war finally ended and, ironically, Laura eventually married a Northerner, in 1890—Milton Hanna, a businessman who had been living in the South for several years when they met. Another irony is that Mosby and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant became great friends, with Grant finding the Southern soldier employment with the federal government after the war. After Robert E. Lee surrendered, Mosby declined to formally capitulate and simply disbanded his troops, Mosby’s Rangers. However, the Rangers carried the surrender orders and documents to Appomattox Court House.
In 1971, Winifred and David Meiselman were preparing to move from Minnesota to northern Virginia. Virginia Tech had asked David to start a graduate economics program for the university at its satellite campus in Reston, and he accepted the job—leaving his wife, Win, and their three children in Minnesota until he found a place for them to live. Win’s orders to her husband were to “find an old house,” she recalls. “He came here and fell into the hands of a real estate agent who told him there were no old houses in northern Virginia. After David called and told me this, I came out and I was taken in hand by the same real estate agent, who started showing me houses in Reston. She told me, ‘Here’s a really old one; it was built 10 years ago.’ I threatened her with finding a new agent.”
The couple kept looking—until they first saw Merrybrook, on a cold and rainy March day. “The entrance was by a beautiful old bridge. It was a little wooden bridge, nothing fancy. It crossed from what was then a two-lane road to what looked like paradise to me. The first things I saw were the huge old trees. The twin oaks at the entrance were so magnificent. Being a great negotiator, I immediately said, ‘I love it.’” The property included a white clapboard house, a swimming pool and a spacious back yard with several outbuildings, including a barn and a well that are both still in use.
The Meiselmans did not know the history of the house before the move that long-ago July. Win recalls that the previous owner, Harriet Davis, had invited her to a meeting of the Herndon Fortnightly Club. Founded in 1889, this club was responsible for Herndon’s first library, and, together with the Herndon Historical Society, remains dedicated to preserving the area’s history. “In her note, [Harriet] had told me, ‘They will tell you about Laura.’ I didn’t know who Laura was,” Win says. Still in Minnesota, she couldn’t attend.“
The first indication I had that there was something special about the house happened the first night. We were sitting in the dining room and all of a sudden there was a very loud tramping on the roof. It sounded as if someone was running across the roof with their boots on. We ran outside and there was nothing. We came back in sat down again. A second time we heard this noise, and the noise was louder. We were pretty puzzled and a little scared. [My son] Sam said, ‘It’s ghosts. It’s ghosts.’ My husband, joking, said, ‘Oh, it’s squirrels.’ I said, ‘I don’t know any squirrels that wear boots.’ It happened a third time. Who was it? What was it? We went to bed spooked.”
A week or so later, Win asked a neighbor about the incident. “Oh, Mosby was just checking you out,” the neighbor said. Her curiosity took her to the library. “Little by little I began to understand that a woman of some accomplishment had lived in the house.”
Over time, the couple learned more and more about Ratcliffe and Merrybrook. Early documentation is sketchy, Win says, but a deed of sale indicates a log cabin on the property as early as 1793. Laura lived in the present house from 1869 to 1923.
Win explains that before the war, Laura, her mother, sister Cora, and her brother, John, had moved from Fairfax to the area just south of Frying Pan (now known as Floris) on Centreville Road. There is some uncertainty as to the exact dwelling, since the two most likely homes were destroyed by 1991. However, the most reliable reports describe the home as a modest one-and-one-half-story bungalow with brick facing.
After the war, Laura’s mother purchased Merrybrook (then known as Brookside). At that time, Brookside was not much larger than the house near Floris, with two main rooms on the first floor and two bedrooms above. The oldest section had been built in 1824 adjoining a log shed dating from around 1793. The bedroom above it could only be reached by a hidden stairway. An adjoining kitchen had been added sometime after 1840. The second section was built in the 1850s, with a second (visible) stairway to both the original bedroom and the newly added second bedroom. A bay window was installed on the south side of the new parlor. All this and two more rooms dating from 1893 comprised the home in which Laura lived. In the 1940s, four more rooms and an additional staircase would complete the house as it stands today.
Win has also learned much about Merrybrook from a few of the owners and employees who came after Laura.Mabel Newman, who was employed for years by previous owners, has talked to Win about her ancestors who were slaves at Merrybrook. She once pointed out a feature of the shed in the back yard—it could only be locked from the inside. Mabel said her great-grandfather and other slaves had lived in sheds like it, and that, given the presence of the inside wooden lock, this shed had probably been slave quarters as well.
In the 1980s, as northern Virginia’s suburban boom was in full swing, new developments began to encroach on rural Herndon properties. By the decade’s end, 16 of the 17 old houses along Merrybrook’s stretch of road had been destroyed, leaving Merrybrook the only antebellum house still standing amid strip malls and new subdivisions. The latest addition is an enormous complex of soccer fields that will be dedicated to the Fairfax County Park Authority upon completion this summer. The site comes right up to the edge of Merrybrook.
The Meiselmans sold the house to the Launders Charitable Trust in 2007. Win explains that this trust was established at the time of the death of Mr. H. Launders, a neighbor. Its purpose is to dispose of the assets of Mr. and Mrs. Launders and to donate yearly to charitable causes. The sale included a life estate proviso that allows the Meiselmans to live there until their death or until they opt to move. They have decided to stay, and this decision has led to difficult times as the two watch the pastoral area around their home steadily disappear. “When I saw all of this construction, I felt sick,” recalls David. “They just came and tore up the land on the western edge of the property. One morning, they came and knocked down every tree along the fence line, every last one of them. …When we moved in here, that area was for cows, and we’d look out and see them grazing.”
There have been other bad surprises. Two years ago the couple learned that when the life estate designation expires, Launders must proffer the house and land to the Fairfax County Park Authority. Win says, “The Park Authority has already said that they are happy to have the land, but they do not want ‘another old house.’ That means that the fate of Merrybrook must be decided by the Launders Trust. The Trust has said they do not see any need to preserve or maintain this historic home and would rather demolish it.”The trust’s reaction surprised the Meiselmans. To save the house, a nonprofit group, The Friends of Laura Ratcliffe, was set up in 2007. That same year, the group got the house and property into the National Historic Register and has since gathered widespread support for the preservation of Merrybrook. It has also begun a fund-raising campaign to attempt to meet the costs of preservation. “It seems the only sure way to save Merrybrook from the wrecking ball,” says Win, “is to raise enough money to set up a preservation fund.”
Estimates of how much it would take to ensure preservation of the site have ranged from $600,000 (for converting the whole house into offices—not an ideal option) to $1 million. The latter is the Fairfax Park Authority’s estimate for long-term protection of the house, says Win. However, since the house itself is in good repair, other sources estimate that $1 million could be the basis for securing the future not only of the house, but also the outbuildings and remaining beautiful grounds. As Win puts it, “We are asking help from people who are dedicated to preserving history and, in this particular case, the one, lone remaining place where Laura once lived.” •