lorton’s history, down on the farm

Lorton History: Down on the Farm
One of the few upsides to the prison was the agriculture it produced
By Irma Clifton

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Inmates stack corn stalks near where the dairy is located today. Credit: Orsinger Collection at the Workhouse Museum

The abundant open space, cheap meadows and woodlands that make Lorton such an
attractive place to live can trace this legacy, in part, to the agricultural mission that
established the D.C prison in our community. Sustainable, self-sufficiency was the
prison’s goal almost one hundred years before those words became fashionable.
Southeastern Fairfax County, after the turn of the 19th century, was the home to
mostly subsistence farming and fishing. The soil had been depleted by colonial farming
methods and many families found it difficult to maintain an acceptable standard of
living. In other words, Lorton had a depressed economy. Enter, the prison, bringing
jobs and a regular pay check to numerous local families. But the prison brought much
more—it brought modern (for that period) farming methods to what was worn out soil,
and a workforce large enough to make farming a viable industry in the area.

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A mule works with inmates in the orchard. Credit : Courtesy of the Orsinger Collection at the Workhouse Museum.

When the first D.C. prisoners arrived in Lorton in 1910 they immediately began to cut
timber and clear the land. With that harvested timber they constructed dormitories and
other buildings that would serve their needs for the next ten to twelve years until they
were replaced by brick. Over time, the more than eleven hundred acres acquired for the
first section of the prison known as the Workhouse, was cleared and crops planted. The
farming operation soon expanded to include dairy and beef herds. Fences were erected
and cattle grazed bucolically along local roads. Fields of corn and grain waved over the
countryside.

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A greenhouse was built and along with it a series of cold frames that were used to
cultivate seedlings to get a jump start on the growing season. As acreage was added to
the prison, fields of vegetables were cultivated which produced an abundant harvest;
so much so that a cannery was established to preserve fruits and vegetables for use in
the prison kitchens during the off season. A large orchard located along both sides of
Lorton Road served for many years to provide apples and other fruits. This led to the
locals calling that section of road “Apple Orchard Hill” and many still do today. A large
apple storage barn occupied a spot along Furnace Road until it was lost to arson in the
1970s.

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A swine ranch (aka hog farm) housed thousands of hogs raised for consumption by
the inmates. However, in the early 1950s disaster struck in the form of hog cholera,
which led to the destruction of over three thousand hogs to prevent spread of the
disease. The location of the swine ranch is on property that is now part of the
Occoquan Regional Park

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In 1946 the prison went into the fishing business and according to an article in the
Washington Post dated December 22, 1946, “The convicts will fish the waters of
Occoquan Bay, off District-owned property at Cherry Hill and in other legitimate fishing
grounds in the Potomac River.” Donald Clemmer, Director of Corrections said, “These
waters will yield a variety of fish, including herring, shad, yellow perch, blue perch, hard
rock, catfish and carp.” Photo records from the early 1950s show the enterprise still in operation.
Other farming operations carried out by the D.C. prisoners included raising chickens
and turkeys. The chicken houses were located along Furnace Road and the turkey
ranch was located near the barrel arch bridge also on Furnace Road.

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The dairy operation was by far the longest running agricultural operation at the prison.
At first it was located just behind the Workhouse but was moved to a new up-to-date
facility on Furnace Road in the 1960s where milking machines were used and milk was
processed and packaged. The dairy and supporting corn and hay crops were the last
farming operation to go and when the dairy closed in 1998 it was the last commercial
dairy operation in Fairfax County, as well.
At its height, the D.C. prison at Lorton covered almost 3,500 acres. The prison ran its
own cannery, slaughter house, meat locker, deep freeze storage facility and fish
processing plant.

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Although through the years many other industries were associated with the prison,
such as brick making, license plates, a foundry, print shop and sewing factory, none
had such an impact on the land as farming. Driving the winding roads and seeing cattle
grazing, watching hay balers traverse open fields or seeing corn shocks standing
ghost-like among the stubble, belied the turmoil growing inside the prison walls that
would lead to a whole new way of life for residents of Lorton