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Frying Pan Farm Park preserves Fairfax’s farming roots

Till the cows come home

Frying Pan Farm Park showcases progressive farming of the past

| BY NICOLE ZEMA

Prior to World War II, cows far outnumbered humans in what is now the most populous county in the commonwealth.

A bucolic capsule of that time is preserved at Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax County. Its 135 acres, tucked away from Northern Virginia’s dense suburbs and Dulles International Airport traffic, is a destination that welcomes 750,000 visitors annually. Admission is free, and the park is open year-round.

Guests can experience agricultural scenes and activities of the 1930s at its preserved working farm. The farm’s 40 acres of crops, pasture and farmyard are home to dairy and beef cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, rabbits, chickens, peacocks and ducks.

But the crops aren’t just for show, and the animals are not simply barnyard pets.

“Part of our mission is making people aware of where their food comes from,” said park manager Yvonne Johnson, who first volunteered at Frying Pan Farm Park in 1989 and never left. “We produce the crops we feed to the animals, and we produce the animals that we sell at market.”

Visitors can tour the grounds on foot or by wagon, watch sheep shearing at Spring Farm Days, have a picnic, walk the nature trail, relax on the farmhouse porch and peruse the museum exhibit in a converted 1876 Dairy Barn. A 1791 Baptist Meeting House and one of the oldest cemeteries in the county also are preserved at the park.

Interpreters bring past to life

Fairfax County was once the dairy capital of Virginia, thanks to its proximity to populated cities in the days before refrigerated trucks. The site’s historical interpretation is derived from stories about real farmers who lived and worked there.

“I didn’t know how to be an interpreter and teach people about farming, and I did not like learning history growing up,” said Johnson, whose background is in biology. “But when I started learning the stories of the day-to-day people who lived here, I was able to do a series of oral history interviews with them and capture their stories firsthand.”

The teenage sons of dairy farmer Mason F. Smith Jr. worked on the farm in the 1940s.

“You got up pretty darn early to help dad milk cows in the morning,” Johnson said. “They would find a place to hide in the hayloft where dad couldn’t find them so they could get a nap in. Dad would be running around the farm calling for them! Those are the kinds of stories that made me love history—the real people who built this county.”

Progressive farming backbone of park

Johnson said the second-highest producing dairy cow in the world, Sadie, was raised on the farm in the early 1900s. Sadie’s efficiency represented an innovative approach to farming in the last century.

“Farmers were progressive in this community, involving 4-H, FFA and Cooperative Extension and an active Dairy Herd Improvement Association,” Johnson said. “They were always looking for ways to improve and be progressive farmers.”

Frying Pan Farm Park is named for its unofficial designation scrawled on old maps, located in what is now known as the Floris community of Herndon. The park is part of the Fairfax County Park Authority and opened to the public in 1961.

Fifty employees and 50 volunteers work at the park to maintain dozens of features and attractions. The property hosts 4-H clubs and other groups at its event venue, indoor and outdoor equestrian arenas, meeting and classroom spaces and multiple playgrounds.

The site’s tradition of education continues today with a licensed preschool, and hosting nearly 10,000 school kids for field trips each year. In 1920 a Vocational Technical High School was opened on what is now the park’s land. Johnson said 32% of students from the school’s first graduating class attended college. “That’s tremendous for that era— country kids going to college,” Johnson said. “But it shows these people were extremely dedicated. And that’s the other part of our mission—farming isn’t for fun. It’s a business for people to feed their families, like your dad goes to the office. And like any business, you have to learn to be efficient and try new things to move forward in the industry.”

plan your visit

Frying Pan Farm Park Fairfax County

Frying Pan Farm Park is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and general admission is free. Facility hours vary.

For more information, visit fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/ frying-pan-park or call 703-437-9101.

The Country Store carries gift items and locally produced edible treats, cold drinks and farm-fresh meats and eggs.

While most animals are part of the working-model farm and are sold at market, the park’s award-winning Belgian draft horses are raised on site for visitors to enjoy.

Group visits can be scheduled through the website.

Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, owns the animals and covers the annual $30,000 for their care. To learn more, visit friendsoffryingpan.org.

An historic image shows a bird’s-eye view of the farm, barn and farmhouse owned by Floyd Kidwell circa 1920. Inset, a modern barn is in use at the site now.

Each year, up to 750,000 guests visit the park, where they can see the working-farm animals like sheep.