Some memories of Petworth and the Old Soldiers’ Home in DC
The other day, the Washington Post Magazine had a great article about the rebuilding of ties between the Old Soldiers’ Home (a.k.a. Armed Forces Retirement Home) in Washington, DC and the surrounding neighborhoods of Petworth and Park View. The article is well worth a read for a historical perspective of the Home, an example in community building, and a reminder of the effects the race riots had on DC.
But what I liked the most was the memories that people had posted in the comments section, which I’m going to repost here. Many times, comments don’t get as much notice, or they may get lost when systems/databases are changed, so I wanted to archive them for others to find easily.
3/2/2013 9:37 AM GMT-1000
Wow, the Old Soldier’s Home finally got some space here. I worked at the cemetery there during the 70’s for a couple of summers while in college. I believe that is the oldest federal cemetery in the country. Back then, the whole scene there was rather depressing. Most of those who ventured out beyond the gate went to one of two bars: Kenny”s and Ethel’s, which were practically right next \door to each other.
The cemetery opened during the civil war and buried there are both confederates (i.e., traitors) and union men. Before Gettysburg.
3/2/2013 11:17 AM GMT-1000
Ms. Wax, this aging veteran has tears in his eyes after reading this engaging story of renaissance. I watched the city burn just before I joined the US Navy, so 45 years is a long time to wait. I hope that any development there mostly benefits the veterans and their neighbors’ interaction with them. Everyone wins, and how often does that happen in DC? Thank you!
3/2/2013 2:13 PM GMT-1000
I remember back in the1950’s my grandfather taking me to the Soldier’s home and watching cows- there must have been some sort of dairy operation there at the time.
3/2/2013 2:25 PM GMT-1000
Well let me share this. Its great to see the relationship with the Old Soldiers Home and the community being reforged. Its disappointing however to hear it being implied that those relationships had ever been completely severed . Many generations of Washingtonians have worked there, taking care of the solders and the grounds or had relatives staying there. The reality is the “Home” shut itself off, even in the the most foreboding times there were always individuals and families in the neighborhood who could have been welcomed to associate with the veterans.
My interest in the site goes back even further than the establishment of the Home, having finagled my way on to the campus several times. The native Indians in this area once regarded the area as sacred. If you look at a Army Corp of Engineers topographical map, its conjectured this is where the headwaters of Washington’s “Third River” originated-Tiber Creek or Goose Creek. No doubt the native Indians had another name for this sacred place. I suspect the cistern that feeds the ponds now was the original font.
Water from the head of Tiber Creek was once taken down to the White House by wagon train. The creek meandered down to the plains feeding into the old canal system, which eventually became so polluted it was covered over and became part of the cities sewer system. What could be more symbolic of what was done to this once beautiful land, A sacred river turned into a sewer. Profoundly shameful.
3/3/2013 3:49 AM GMT-1000
Growing up in my granmother’s house on Varnum St just a few yards away from the Soldiers Home gates in the 1960’s and climbing over those iron spikes to play football before they put up the barbed wire was very interesting to say the least! Ms Wax you just don’t all the stories in my head for the last 50 years about that neighborhood and the curious little boy who hung on to that neighborhood as my roots to where I’m at now? I used to go Senator’s games at RFK with a couples of Soldiers who rented a room from us There were 3 beer taverns on Upshur St just outside of the main gate,and alot of alcohol consumed.The pharmacy had a lunch counter and had great milkshakes and ham sandwiches! Tico’s variety store had several pinball machines and a bowling one.Ray’s had half smokes and twist doughnuts next to Barnes barbershop! I Anyway thanks for bring back some cool memories and inspriing me to contine on with my story of the little white kid on the block! I can still see tanks driving up the street in 68 riots! Sincerely,Herman
3/3/2013 11:17 AM GMT-1000
Thank you for a great story. I am a resident of the AFRH-W (Soldiers Home).
I have known Mr. Jessie James for about 10 years. He is all you wrote about him and much more.
He is courteous and assists his fellow residents in many ways.
Regarding the relationship with our outside the fence neighbors.
I am a Caucasion (don’t like to use black or white – snow is white and I have never seen a snow
white person) and when I first arrived at the home in 2002 it was African American Residents who warned me about the neighborhood. Coming from California you can imagine the effect this had on me.
As someone else already mentioned, most of the employees at the home are African Americans.
They do an excellent job and we all get along fine.
I have since lost my fear or apprehension about the DC area. To me it is a place like any other place. People are people, no matter where you live.
3/4/2013 12:04 PM GMT-1000
My husband’s paternal grandfather was an army doctor during WWII and was stationed at the “Old Soldier’s Home” in DC. His son, my husband’s father, spent many of his boyhood years there, visiting with the veterans and listening to their stories. My father-in-law still has the uniform patches and other small but meaningful memorabilia that some of the soldiers gave him. I did not realize the Soldier’s home was still open. Thank you for this article.
In addition to the Post article, I was reminded of a blog article I read last year. Prince of Petworth/House History Man did a feature on an old corner store (District Grocery at 234 Upshur Street NW) that used to service the Old Soldiers’ Home, and a couple old residents made comments as well regarding their memories:
The NeighborHood Reporter
April 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm
Wooo this takes me back, I grew up around the corner on Webster St and that place was wonderful . I remember one Easter back around 1962 my parents took me there and we purchased a live chick and brought it home and it only lived about 5 days . I also remember my father took us there,me and my sister and we bought my first kite. We took the kite over to Solders Home to fly but soon a security guard there told us that we couldn’ t fly it there so we had to bring it down. That was a wonderful place you could by toys candy everything a child my age (6yrs old) could want. Believe it or not I was just thinking about that store about a week ago. Pleasant memories forever THANKS POP for this trip down memory lane
May 2, 2012 at 12:10 pm
Thank you SO much for posting this! I lived in a house at 3rd and Varnum when I was a kid — and continued to maintain ties to the neighborhood long after that. In many ways, it was a perfect neighborhood in which to grow up. We had 3 corner stores — the one I went to was “Ben’s” which I think is/was directly across the street from the one profiled above. There was also “Tico’s” about a half a block away. That block of Upshur had a dry cleaner’s, a small variety store, a small grocery store, and when I was VERY young, a drug store — that actually had a soda fountain.
This picture and the accompanying history brought back a lot of great memories for me! Do people still by pickles from huge glass jars (“No, not that one… THAT one!”) while the patient store owner fishes for them with a giant fork? I remember Ben’s as a family business, with a tiny deli counter in back, an open “freezer” full of ice for bottled sodas, and a separate one for popsicles and such. It was kind of store and the kind of neighborhood where small kids would be sent with a scribbled note and a dollar bill from a harried parent — and come back with the bread or butter or whatever was needed for a meal — when there was no time to do the “real” shopping at Safeway. Ben’s was the first place I was allowed to go to on my own — when I was considered old enough to cross the alley — but not the street — so I have few specific memories of what we called “the store across the street”, because I only went there when ALL of the other stores on “our side” of the street were closed, or didn’t have what I’d been sent to purchase.
LOL! Seeing this picture has clearly sparked a LOT of fond childhood memories for me! Thanks PoP and Paul!!!!!