Nearly every spot of Northern Virginia is rich with history. But one relatively obscure 18th century home has ties to Methodist founding Bishop Francis Asbury, George Washington’s buddy Bryan Lord Fairfax, Confederate ranger John Mosby, Hubert Humphrey, and a New Republic editor and Soviet spy who exposed Queen Elizabeth’s art curator as the “fifth man” in the infamous British KGB spy ring. Also included is a key Watergate figure.
Green Spring is a relatively modest brick colonial superbly maintained as a tranquil estuary and park amid Fairfax County sprawl. It was built in 1784 by John Moss, an early Methodist leader and member of the lower gentry. Inevitably the great circuit riding Bishop Francis Asbury, virtual founder of American Methodism, visited and preached at Moss’s home. On New Years’ Day 1787 Asbury, whom President Calvin Coolidge would describe as one of America’s founding fathers, recorded preaching at Moss’s on “2 Chronicles xv, 12, 13, on the people’s entering into covenant with God.”
Another famous Methodist circuit rider was John Littlejohn who preached at Green Spring in 1778 (before construction of the current house) and met with Bryan Fairfax, later Lord Fairfax, an Anglican clergy and close friend to George Washington. “We found our trials as to preaching were very similar, he is very serious but his religion is a mystery to me,” Littlejohn journaled. “Lord help us both.”
Fairfax, a scion of the Virginia Tidewater gentry, likely would have been more restrained in his religious expression than the Methodist circuit riding enthusiast. Later inheriting the title of Lord Fairfax from his cousin, Bryan and his wife were close friends of George and Martha Washington and were among the last to be entertained at Mt. Vernon before Washington’s death and the very last to host the Washingtons at their own home in 1799. The former president left Fairfax a Bible in his will. Washington as a young man was infatuated with Bryan’s sister in law Sally. Bryan’s father, Colonel William Fairfax, was Washington’s patron and mentor. And William’s cousin, the great Lord Fairfax, by royal grant was proprietor of over 5 million acres. A teenaged George Washington surveyed for him, learning the frontier wilderness, earning his first income, and purchasing his first lands.
Green Spring hosted key figures in America’s founding. It remained relatively unmolested during the Civil War, though in the heart of contested and often occupied territory. After the war its new long-time owner was one of Confederate Colonel John Mosby’s chief subordinates, Fountain Beattie. Mosby was known often as the “Gray Ghost,” which was the title of the 1950s television series about his exploits as an audacious partisan behind Union lines. Mosby and Beattie joined the Confederate Army together in 1861 and remained close until Mosby’s death in 1916. One of Mosby’s closest war time escapes was at Beattie’s in laws’ estate outside Middleburg, Virginia, when he scampered out a window onto a tree branch while Union soldiers rifled the house.
A frequent visitor to Green Spring, Mosby loved to tell war stories, while Beattie preferred other topics. They both enjoyed talking politics, and both were, unusually for Southerners and ex-Confederates, Republicans. Mosby had become friends with President Ulysses S. Grant and gained appointments in several Republican administrations, also getting a federal job for Beattie. Beattie was Roman Catholic, as was Mosby’s wife.
The next noteworthy owners were New Republic publisher Michael Straight and his wife, who bought Green Spring in 1942. He entertained renowned guests there such as Aldous Huxley, Saul Bellow, Justice Hugo Black, and Senator Hubert Humphrey. These guests presumably didn’t know their host was recruited as a Soviet spy while attending Cambridge in the 1930s. He served in the Roosevelt Administration and later appointed former Vice President Henry Wallace as magazine editor.
In the 1960s Straight revealed his communist past to JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger while seeking a federal security clearance. The revelation included his recruitment into espionage by Anthony Blunt, art curator to Queen Elizabeth. Blunt’s treason was later publicly outed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Straight was from a wealthy family and moved easily in high society. His second wife was related to Gore Vidal and Jackie Kennedy. Straight donated Green Spring as a park in 1970 and died in 2004. President Nixon’s legal counsel Leonard Garment, a prominent figure during Watergate, was the last resident of Green Spring, which he rented from Straight.
From early Methodist worship involving Lord Fairfax, to Republican politicking by old Confederate partisans, to Soviet espionage and upper crust Washington social life, concluding with Watergate, Green Spring encapsulates 200 years of admirable and sordid American history. Well off the typical D.C. tourist path, Green Spring is worth a visit this Summer.
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