Quirky shops and restaurants, art galleries, two centuries
of history and - lo and behold! - seven feet of water await
the wandering boater in tiny Occoquan, Va., off the Potomac
River. [November 2010]
By T.F. Sayles
The little mill town of Occoquan, Va., just off the widening Potomac River about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C., is very different now. That is, it's very different than it was when I last saw it, some 40 years ago, back in my furniture-delivery days, which puts it in 1970 or 1971. Just before Hurricane Agnes. Some of the old infrastructure is gone-courtesy of Agnes in some cases, and courtesy of the relentless march of time in others. And the bridge isn't where it used to be. Ox Road used to cross into Occoquan and Prince William County at the very top of town, the upstream side. Now a much, much bigger bridge crosses the river about a quarter-mile downstream, just below town.
That said, Occoquan is also very much the same as I remember it. And I think that's because it is inescapably a mill town, a steep place, clinging to the rocky shoreline, a creature of gravity. It feels like a river-powered machine, not just a town. That's very much how it felt when I visited Occoquan in September--by boat this time, instead of furniture truck.
It's a long haul from Annapolis to Occoquan at 13 knots, so I broke the trip into three manageable pieces. Annapolis to Solomons for the first leg, then Solomons to Colonial Beach, and then finally Colonial Beach to Occoquan. It was a whole lot of rock and roll for those first two runs, with a cold front moving in, setting off small-craft advisories everywhere. But that's the kind of weather an Albin 28 is built for. Even in the infamously rough lower Potomac, where (as expected) I had a stiff and gusty headwind and two- to three-foot seas, Journey never broke a sweat. She just calmly mashed through it all. Slowly, yes, but she got me there in one piece and with all my teeth in place.
For my accommodations in Occoquan, I had a choice. I could stay at the new town dock in the shadow of Madigan's Waterfront restaurant, or I could let my new friends Al and Diana Gross arrange a guest slip for me at Prince William Marina--in which case, they said, I'd also be welcome to join their customary K-dock Friday night social gathering, as well as the next night's potluck party on the marina's barbecue deck. That, they said, would be topped off by the now-traditional Patriots Day (September 11) fireworks display sponsored by marina owner Carlton Phillips. So let's see, all by myself at the town dock, or socializing and sipping mint juleps in the warm embrace of the K-dock people? It was the very definition of a no-brainer; I would join the Grosses at Prince William Marina.
I had called ahead that third morning, so, after a long slow putter up the well marked Occoquan River (the last two miles of which, roughly, are a no-wake zone), I found Diana Gross waiting for me. She guided me to an empty slip on L-dock, one dock downstream from where she and Al keep their Sea Ray, Grosse Weinstube II. After a quick tour of the marina, Diana pointed me in the direction of town, less than half a mile northwest from the marina by way of Poplar Lane, just beyond the Route 123 overpass.
I untied my trusty bike and headed off, deciding along the way that my first stop should be the Occoquan Historical Society's Mill House Museum. That's at the very top of town, the last building on the river side of the main drag (Mill Street) before it dead-ends in a small cul-de-sac. This wasn't a dead end before June 23, 1972. Until that day, this is where the road turned north and crossed the river into neighboring Fairfax County (from Prince William County), over a steel-truss bridge that had stood there for nearly a century--until the roaring floodwaters of Hurricane Agnes unceremoniously ripped it off its pilings. If you want to see this for yourself, there's a photo album on the counter at the Mill House Museum with a remarkable series of crystal-clear black-and-white photos. They show the whole process in heartbreaking time-lapse clarity, the bridge being gradually overwhelmed by the rising water and then knocked down and carried away like so many matchsticks.
There's a wealth of information at the museum, especially if you go there when someone as chatty as volunteer docent Stewart Christiano is minding the store. While the town was not formally laid out until 1804, I learned, among many other things from the jolly Mr. Christiano (some relevant, others interesting but wildly off topic) that the milling operations here date back at least to the 1740s. The museum building itself, a small stone single-story affair, is in fact all that's left of the towering stone gristmill that was built here in the late 1750s. It was one of two gristmills built by the town's protofounder, entrepreneur John Ballendine, who saw oodles of commercial potential in this little village at the foot of the falls, with its virtually unlimited hydropower and easy access to the Potomac. According to Martha Lynn's "A Brief History of Occoquan" (a slim monograph on sale at the museum), there was already a mill, storehouse, residence and two tobacco warehouses on the 230-acre tract that Ballendine purchased in the mid-1750s. To that he added the two flour mills, as well as a pair of sawmills and, along the falls upriver, an iron foundry.
For his house Ballendine chose the rocky high ground on the other side of what is now Mill Street. There, on a rock ledge, he built Rockledge, a handsome two-story stone mansion that stands there to this day, with a commanding view of the town and river. There seems to be little known or written about Ballendine, aside from the fact that he had a hand in a number of canal projects in the middle Colonies and that he was an acquaintance of both George Washington and Bill of Rights co-author George Mason. That latter connection gave him access to William Buckland--the now famous architect of Mason's Gunston Hall and Annapolis's Hammond-Harwood house, among many other architectural landmarks in Maryland and Virginia. Buckland, then a 20-something indentured servant, designed Rockledge for Ballendine. The house, still privately owned, was badly damaged by a fire in 1980, but it has since been completely refurbished and is now a reception hall, very popular on the wedding circuit, says Christiano.
Ballendine's commercial enterprises in Occoquan, however visionary, were quite short-lived. By 1765, according to one account, he had fallen deeply into debt and was forced to sell his business interests in the town. According to Lynn's "Brief History," he left Occoquan and settled in Maryland, where he turned his entrepreneurial eye toward canal building. The gristmills continued to thrive, but beyond that not much is known of the goings on in Occoquan over the next quarter century--until the arrival of one Nathaniel Ellicott (son of Andrew Ellicott, founder of the eponymous mill town on Maryland's Patapsco River), who had not only purchased and modernized Ballendine's mill, but also had taken up residence at Rockledge. Ellicott and merchants James Campbell and Luke Wheeler are considered the founders of the town, having laid it out in streets and plots in 1804. By the 1830s Occoquan was humming right along, as you might expect from a town with a bridge that led to the nation's capital--a toll bridge, built by Ellicott in the 1790s, which put the town on the "great mail route" from Washington to Richmond. Occoquan remained on the beaten path, and continued to thrive, accordingly, until the late 1920s, when the north-south thoroughfare (U.S. Route 1) shifted a mile or so to the east. Enter Woodbridge; exit Occoquan, stage left. Or, rather, upstream left.
And that's a good thing, according to most devotees and denizens of Occoquan. Just ask Kristyn Gleason, co-proprietor of the Polka Dot Divas gift shop and one of the several merchants I chatted with the following day. "It's Mayberry. We all know each other," said Gleason, who only a few weeks earlier had become president of the Occoquan Merchants Association. "I always say it's like a protected moment in time. It really has that feel, even though we're really part of [metropolitan Washington]." Polka Dot Divas is easy to spot. It's at the very top Mill Street, on the south side, across the street and a bit downhill from the Mill House Museum; it's the store with the distinctive bulging window, like something taken from the stern of a 17th-century galleon.
Actually I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, because I had in fact started my explorations that second morning on the other end of Mill Street, working my way up the hill as the day unfolded. And before that, indeed, I had had to prepare for the Great Boat-Car Switcheroo with senior editor Jody Schroath, who was driving down that very morning from Annapolis. This would be the critical juncture in our bold and, dare I say, ground-breaking experiment in tag-team destination story reporting. With my half of the mission all but accomplished, Jody would now take the boat, first to the Lower Machodoc Creek off the Potomac and then to Virginia's Pamunkey and Mattaponi River, which converge in West Point, Va., to become the York River. Much could go wrong in this daring scheme; I could inadvertently leave my iPhone or wallet on the Albin; Jody could inadvertently leave her dog Skipper or husband Rick in the Volvo. It would require concentration and precise timing--i.e., meeting at the Prince William Marina fuel dock at 0900 . . . or maybe 0930, or, actually, it'll probably be closer to 10 or 10:15 . . . ish.
So much for precise. But the swap went smoothly. After taking Journey upstream to get a river view of the town waterfront and the new town docks, I fueled her up, gathered my gear and turned the keys over to Jody. Off they went, and off I went, wondering (too late) if my bike would actually fit in Jody's car without being disassembled.
After a very civilized cup of coffee on the deck of Madigan's Waterfront, a restaurant that looks out over the town dock and the dozen or so boats of the Occoquan chapter of the Carefree Boat Club, I set out on what turned out to be a four-hour browse-a-thon. I don't ordinarily have that kind of stamina as a browser, but I had it that day, for whatever reason. It went as follows: All Christmas all the time at the Golden Goose; ceramics and knickknacks and painted furniture at Glory Be; bizarre gifts and vibrant, folk-arty pottery at Elements; oodles of country-crafty-woody-primitive-baskety things at both Simply Country and Personally Yours; and a remarkable gourmet shop, Tastefully Yours, that has everything from homemade pastries, smoothies and gelato, to exotic beers, marmalade, tapenade and cake mixes.
After a quick browse of the very upscale inventory of Occoquan Antiques, I found myself more or less surrounded by art galleries. For a town this small--barely a quarter-mile long and two-and-a-half streets deep--there's a remarkably healthy arts community. Within shouting distance of one another in the center block of Mill Street are three thriving artists cooperatives: the Artists Undertaking (so named because it occupies a former funeral home), Art A La Carte and the Loft Gallery.
"It's really pretty remarkable, the number of artists per square foot in Occoquan," says "Bob the Woodturner"--aka Bob Horowitz of Falls Church, Va., whose delicate wood bowls, vases and platters are on display year-round at the Artists Undertaking. Across the street at Art A La Carte I met the very charming Betsy Cary, a potter and mosaic artist who is among the 20 or so artists represented there. Small world that it is, she grew up not far from my childhood home in Northern Virginia and in fact attended J.E.B. Stuart High School--a name that lives in infamy for Annandale High schoolers, who, in 1969, my senior year, saw their football team's 36-game winning streak come to a cruel end at Stuart High. I assured Betsy that I did not hold her personally responsible for this painful chapter in my life. She seemed relieved, but maybe only because it was clear I was about to leave.
Whatever the case, I needed pie. What had put that idea in my head was an earlier spotting of Mom's Apple Pie on Commerce Street. But I didn't have to go that far. A bit farther up Mill Street from Art A La Carte, just past the Town Hall, was the Garden Kitchen. That's where the sign is, anyway; the restaurant itself is a beautiful, terraced, wraparound garden alongside and behind a 150-year-old house, accessed through a narrow alley that spills onto the sidewalk. It must have been my pie-radar that made me choose this place. How else do you explain that I went looking for a sandwich and ended up with homemade cherry pie a la mode? Pie instinct is a powerful thing, and I've learned not to question it.
Thus fortified (pie covers most of the important food groups, don't you know), I crossed Mill Street to have a peek at a store called 13 Magikal Moons, an intriguing second-story enclave above the Persian rug store, sporting a very New Orleans-esque wrought-iron balcony. As the name suggested, it turned out to be a wonderfully freaky-deaky shop devoted to . . . well, to several things, it would appear. Namely paganism, mysticism, witchcraft and herbal remedies. Every town needs a shop for pagans, witches and herbal healers, I say, especially if said shop has a big, sleepy orange tabby lying on the counter next to the cash register, purring up a storm.
Then it was on to Olde Dominion Wine Shoppe, specializing in the ever-growing category of Virginia wines. And finally, back to the Polka Dot Divas, the aforementioned cute-funky-ritzy-frilly shop with the bulging window. Too girly for my taste, but, as the quick-witted Kristyn Gleason pointed out, "It's supposed to be girly. What part of that do you not understand?" She had a point; they probably didn't have me in mind when they ordered the zebra-print drink cozies wrapped in black feather boas, or the book How to Tell if Your Boyfriend is the Anti-Christ, or the hot-pink fleece bath wrap with plaid trim. The latter was adorable, mind you, but not really my color.
Whatever the case, I needed beer, and I was determined that afternoon to find the "Belgian beer bistro" that one of the K-dock folks had mentioned the previous night. That, it turned out, was the Cock & Bowl, a charming little mostly outdoor bistro that has new owners and a new name (it used to be Belgique Gourmande). But it's very much the same idea: "Belgian beer, good food," as it says right next to the restaurant logo--a red rooster holding a mug of beer in one hand and a bowl of mussels in the other. New owners Michael and Jacquie Lopez were kind enough to sit down and chat with me in the sun-dappled courtyard that provides most of the restaurant's seating, and of course, I didn't surprise them by asking for an explanation of the name. "The rooster of course is the emblem of the French part of Belgium [Wallonia], said Michael, so that's where the "cock" comes from. And the bowl signifies hearty, nourishing food. . . . But, yes, of course, we were also going after the giggle factor with 'Cock and Bowl'--we wanted it to be something people would snicker about and remember."
The food and beer, though, is no joke to them. Both career restaurateurs, though on separate paths until now, they're quite serious about the working-class Belgian gustatory ethic. "We're both of the mind-set that you either do it right or you don't do it at all--and of course it's been a really great adventure for us too," Jacquie said, adding that earlier that very day they had been nailing down some of the details of an eight-day "Beers and Cuisine of Belgium" tour they'll be hosting in mid-January--Brussels, Ardennes, Trappist breweries, Bruges, Ghent. . . .
I suggested that they call the tour "Mussels in Brussels," which they promised to consider, before quickly changing the subject to beer. And if the beer list is any indication, there was a lot to talk about. The beer list, constantly updated (the one I was reading had been printed two days earlier), was five pages long, with 54 Belgian beers--scrupulously described and divided (somewhat arbitrarily, they say) into five categories: fruit, white, pale, amber and dark. From that, somewhat arbitrarily, I chose the Dupont Saison, one of the whites, charmed by the description of saison-style beers, designed to "quench a farmworker's thirst." It was, in a word, fameux, and I could quite nearly picture myself in overalls, leaning sleepily against a haystack, quenching my hard-earned farmworker's thirst.
Central to the food menu, of course, are both mussels and Belgian-style pomme frites, usually abbreviated to moules frites--ubiquitous in Belgium, the Lopezes say, not unlike fish and chips in England or burgers and fries here. The mussels come five different ways, not counting specials, from straight mariniere style (white wine, garlic, shallots, parsley and butter) to Provencale style (tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper); and the frites are authentic Belgian style--fresh cut, fried twice and served with mayonnaise.
Had it been earlier in the day, I'd have certainly had a crack at the moules frites, Cock & Bowl style, but since I'd be joining the Grosses, et al, that evening at the K-dock barbecue, I decided to hold off, to save my farmworker's appetite for the potluck wonders that were bound to show up there.
Good decision. By the time I made it to the party (after a much-needed shower at the marina's immaculate bath and laundry facilities), the party was in full swing and the potluck dishes were fighting for space on the picnic tables--roast beef, burgers, kabobs, veggie platters, potato salad, pasta salad, green bean salad, macaroni salad and, yes, pie--to name only the things I specifically remember consuming.
And of course the most delicious thing of all was that great big slice of hospitality and Americana served up by the K-dock people. Nice folks, nice kids, nice dogs, great fireworks, good pie, authentic "hand-crafted" mint juleps. What more could a guy ask for on a cool September evening, after a long hard day of . . . browsing and drinking beer?
"This is such a great little family we have here, our K-dock gang," Alan Gross told me, after making sure for the fourth time that I'd gotten enough to eat and drink. "We have great times out on the Bay, of course, but this is a big part of it here, too. Just getting together on a weekend night and relaxing and having fun. And you won't find a nicer, closer group of people than this. That's really what it's all about."
Thinking about that on the way home, feeling very good about the tag-team experiment (the bike did fit in Jody's car, barely) and about the Occoquan experience in general, I had to agree. That is what it's all about. That and good Belgian beer. And of course pie.