Reagan National Airport and the Mother of All Weeping Willows

The way Benson Lossing tells it, the Abingdon willow really got around. Well, the fruit of her loins did anyway.

The remarkable tale of the promiscuous weeping willow of Abingdon Plantation isn’t as much the story of lost structures as it is forgotten lore. In fact, the scant remains of the plantation home on the grounds of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport are a heartening instance of preservationists winning out in the end. Somewhere along the course of Abingdon’s eventful timeline, though, a fantastic claim surfaced for a while, only to fade into the annals of forgotten history.

Long before harried travelers navigated the terminals there, Reagan National’s sprawling riverside acreage was Abingdon Plantation. For better than two centuries, the land witnessed both the mundane and extraordinary happenings of a Virginia plantation. One antebellum owner managed cattle he’d named Suckey, Nimrod and Pretty. New Jersey troops occupied the estate during the Civil War.

The big house–a substantial two-story colonial built in the 18th century–stood until a brush fire left nothing but the foundations in 1930. Eleven years later, Reagan National opened to serve the rapidly-growing capital city. In fact, growth continued so briskly in the decades afterward that in the early 1990s the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority decided it needed the quarter-acre that the house’s foundation occupied for a multi-level parking garage. There was a years-long and bitter fight to save the site. The Airports Authority relented in the end and built new garages around the ruins.

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You can see the well-preserved foundations today whether you’re catching a flight or not. Millions of people pass by them without a second thought. On the day I dragged my family there, a couple disinterested travelers were taking a smoke break at the base of the ruins’ knoll, oblivious that the land under their feet once sold for 6,000 pounds of tobacco.

But nowhere does the interpretive signage mention a weeping willow. Not outside at the foundations. Not in the small exhibit on Abingdon inside the airport’s Historic Terminal A. Not a single mention anywhere.

Odd, since a tree that once stood there was the mother of all weeping willows in the United States.

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OK, maybe. According to a fairly respected 19th century scholar. The claim buckles quickly under scrutiny, but in the end is still standing and deserves, perhaps, a deeper investigation.

The legend originated with Benson J. Lossing (1813-1891), a prolific historian who wrote volumes on American history. The Revolutionary War and George Washington were among his favorite fields of study. He penned the story of the Abingdon willow at least twice.

Here are the rough details Lossing described: the renowned English poet and translator Alexander Pope (1688-1744) had an estate at Twickenham west of London. On a whim, Pope planted a twig he found in a box of dried figs from the near-eastern city of Smyrna. That cutting, nourished by the damp banks of the River Thames at Twickenham, grew into a stately weeping willow–the first in all of England. Soon every Englishman wanted a cutting from the tree and Pope obliged. Lossing claimed that all other weeping willows in the British Isles grew from twigs taken from Pope’s tree.

One such cutting taken directly from the Twickenham willow happened to make its way to America with a British officer who hoped to plant it on the estate he’d be given there after swiftly crushing the rebellion in 1775. Only things didn’t work out as planned for the redcoats, so the officer gave the willow twig to an American he’d befriended (you know, back in the war-as-a-gentlemanly-escapade days).

That American was none other than John Parke (Jackie) Custis, stepson of George Washington. The story goes that Custis, on a visit home after the Siege of Boston, planted the willow twig at his estate in Virginia, Abingdon Plantation.

Like the parent tree at Twickenham, cuttings from the Abingdon weeping willow sprouted all across the land: at the adjacent Custis plantation of Arlington (now Arlington National Cemetery); at the Rose Hill Farm estate of General Horatio Gates at Third Avenue and Twenty-Second Street on Manhattan Island. Lossing said that the Abingdon willow was the progenitor of all the weeping willows in America.

That statement would be pretty remarkable were it accurate, but this tale may be some degree removed from the whole truth.

That’s because Jackie Custis received the cutting in early 1776, according to Lossing. Yet he didn’t buy Abingdon until 1778. The British officer reputedly managed to keep the willow twig alive wrapped in oiled silk. Did Custis manage to store and preserve the cutting for two years beyond that?

Lossing’s story seems first to have appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1862, then again in Scribner’s Monthly in 1871. It’s all curiously coincidental with a surge of reverence for all-things-George Washington ahead of the nation’s centennial in 1876.

Nothing of the Abingdon willow remains. Jackie Custis, who received and planted the original cutting, was dead by 1781, Abingdon returned shortly afterward to the Alexander family from whom he purchased it. There’s scant mention of the illustrious weeping willow after the late 19th century.

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At first glance, Abingdon’s willow seems a good fit for History Myths Debunked. Even so, there are faint traces that Lossing may have been onto something.

For one, Lossing supposedly had the story on good word; his source was George Washington Parke Custis, son of Jackie Custis, who received the original cutting in Boston. George Washington Custis told Lossing of this lineage under the gently swaying branches of the Arlington weeping willow (the one grown from the original specimen at Abingdon).

It appears also that transplanting weeping willow cuttings was common then. Officials at Penn State University planted a cutting from the Twickenham willow (which was the parent and, thus, a genetic replica of the Abingdon willow) in the 19th century and propagated its descendants on that spot until 1976. This, of course, refutes the claim that all weeping willows in America came from Abingdon, but does provide evidence that people shared willow cuttings.

George Washington himself offered proof that cuttings from weeping willows were making their way to distant landscapes as early as the 18th century.

“I have ordered my Gardr [sic] to furnish your Servant with Six of the Weeping Willows that have roots and as many cuttings as he pleases to take,” wrote Washington to a friend from Mount Vernon 1786. “If he does not bring enough for your purposes–or if these should not succeed, you may have a fresh supply at anytime.”

Were these cuttings taken from a tree that had grown from the original twig that Jackie Custis received ten years earlier? No telling. But it’s a heck of a good story, even if it was buried by terminals that grew on what was once Abingdon Plantation.

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About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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5 Responses to Reagan National Airport and the Mother of All Weeping Willows

  1. Chris Di spigna says:

    Hey Ben, very interesting stuff. Looking forward to reading some of the older posts.

  2. Bernard H. Berne says:

    This page states:

    “That American was none other than John Parke (Jackie) Custis, stepson of George Washington. The story goes that Custis, on a visit home after the Siege of Boston, planted the willow twig at his estate in Virginia, Abingdon Plantation.”

    However, no biography of John Parke Custis states that Custis was present at the Siege of Boston. It is likely that George Washington would have recorded John’s presence and activities at the Siege if John had been there. However, biographers of Washington and Custis have not reported any documentation of Custis’ presence at the Siege. Without corroboration, Lossing’s story is suspect.

    This page states:

    “For one, Lossing supposedly had the story on good word; his source was George Washington Parke Custis, son of Jackie Custis, who received the original cutting in Boston.”

    However, George Washington Parke Custis was less than one year old when his father died. He therefore was not a reliable source for any information about his father or the origin of the willow tree. He may have received this information from a family member, but this would have been hearsay.

    This page states: “The big house–a substantial two-story colonial built in the 18th century–stood until a brush fire left nothing but the foundations in 1930.” However, the house that burned in 1930 was most likely not the one that was built in the 18th century at Abingdon.

    Alexander Hunter, an owner of the Abingdon estate, described the Abingdon house on page 40 of his 1905 book, “Billy Yank and Johnny Reb”. His book states on page 41 that, when he returned from service in the Confederate Army at the end of the Civil War, “The land was there after the war, but that was all.” See: http://books.google.com/books?id=g_CYl48uMbQC&pg=PA41#v=onepage&q&f=false .

    This page states:

    “You can see the well-preserved foundations today whether you’re catching a flight or not.”

    This is not correct. The Metropolitan Airports Authority buried the foundations of the house and other structures that burned in 1930. The foundations that you can see are reconstructions that the Airports Authority built. See: http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?MarkerID=8386 .

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