By Audrey Harman
As you drive down Bristow Road, it’s easy to overlook Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre if you don’t know you’re passing it. However, it’s hard to forget the history of the site once you do visit.
“There are a lot of stories in one neat site. It’s a preserved village in a suburban area that’s very popular with the local community,” said Historic Site Operations Supervisor Rob Orrison.
Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, located in Bristow, is a reminder of how life was in Prince William during the 19th century. As the fourth county seat from 1820 to 1893, the year Manassas became the county’s seat, Brentsville and its courthouse hold significant historical importance for Prince William.
Construction of the Brentsville Courthouse and jail was completed in 1822, two years after the town of Brentsville was created on 50 acres to serve as the county seat. Prince William County moved its courthouse from Dumfries to the site of Brentsville because the area was more centrally located along the major east-to-west road leading from the port of Dumfries out to the Shenandoah Valley.
Throughout the 1800s, everyone in the county visited the courthouse at least once a year, not necessarily for court, but to visit the farmers market in the court lot or to attend a trial for entertainment, according to Orrison in the 2011 “Brentsville Historic Complex” virtual tour (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baXazCOiXPY).
The town historically contained a jail, courthouse, clerk’s office, tavern, dairy, laundry, smokehouse, housing, a church and an area for gallows and a whipping post. Today on the 28 acres of the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre complex sit five buildings: the courthouse, the jail, a circa 1928 one-room schoolhouse, the circa 1850 log cabin Haislip-Hall House and the Brentsville Union Church, built about 1875.
The Brentsville Tavern is one of various archaeological sites on the complex, and a mile-long nature trail throughout the historic center highlights the area’s natural resources. “A lot of people from out of town visit the site, but our main support comes from our community,” Orrison said.
The jail was in constant use from 1822 until the county seat moved to Manassas, according to information from local Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre volunteer Morgan Breeden in the virtual tour video. During the Civil War, Brentsville was along the main drag used by the troops moving to Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, he said. Whichever army was moving through— the Union or the Confederacy—camped out in town and took over the jail. During the war, soldiers burned down and destroyed several of the town’s buildings, including the county clerk’s office.
Once the county seat was moved to Manassas, Brentsville, now Bristow, became a rural community, which helped it maintain its historical appearance.
Today the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre is used for educational purposes and is open for scheduled tours or self-guided walks through the complex. Tours are offered Thursday through Monday from May 1 to Oct. 31 at 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment. House tours are $5 per adult and free to children younger than age 6. Special prices are offered for active military, groups of 10 or more and student programs.
Visitors can learn about families and farm life during the mid- 1800s at the Haislip-Hall log cabin home, which is a participating member of the Historic House Museum Consortium of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. The Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre also hosts student programs to teach children about court in the 1800s, school in a one-room schoolhouse and farm life. Call 703-365-7895 or visit www.pwcgov.org/brentsville to learn more about events at Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, located at 12229 Bristow Road.
Audrey Harman has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Spanish from Hollins University in Roanoke and is finishing her Master of Arts degree in publication design at the University of Baltimore. She lives in Woodbridge and can be reached at [email protected].