A Quaint Town Offering Shopping, Dining and More
By Jennifer Rader, Contributing Writer
Many people across Prince William County and beyond recognize Occoquan as a quaint town on the river that has a massive arts and crafts festival twice a year. But how many come back on a monthly or even weekly trek to experience this eclectic destination and the magnitude of what it has to offer?
Photo by Jeff Owen
The Town of Occoquan was founded in 1734 as a trading post that became a bustling business center with a focus on river-related commerce. An immense ﬁre in 1916 left only the foundations of a majority of the 18th and 19th century buildings. A few originals remain like the Rockledge Mansion built in 1758 by industrialist, John Ballandine. This Georgian residence now hosts special events, weddings and community events. The Mill House across the street from the Rockledge Mansion was part of the original gristmill that operated from 1759 until 1924 when a utility ﬁre destroyed the larger portion of the mill. The Mill House now houses the Occoquan Historical Society’s Mill House Museum. The ﬁnal survivor of the 1916 ﬁre was the Hammill Hotel at 206 Union Street. The oldest brick structure in town, the hotel served as Confederate headquarters during the Civil War and is now home to Lil’ Bit of Posh, a woman’s accessory and custom jewelry retailer. With the foundations still available, the buildings were rebuilt; some maintained similar historical facades while others were completely transformed.
A walk through Occoquan’s history gives the impression that the focus on commerce has changed but never disappeared entirely. All roads and activity still lead to the waterfront, with construction, expansion and improvements continuing to this day. A current major project will provide two extensions of the riverwalk; one will reach out to the east under the Route 123 bridge with construction to begin this spring. Another will lengthen the riverwalk west to the end of Mill Street at the Mill House Museum. Occoquan’s mayor, Earnie Porta, Jr., states, “The latter is a long-term project for which we will soon begin raising funds.”
Photo by Jeff Owen
Occoquan is a microcosm of its historical roots and importance in American history that moves comfortably among contemporary housing complexes and businesses of diverse personality. Up and down the streets, Victorian, Georgian and Arts and Crafts architectural styles can be found. Porta believes that, at least from the time of the 1916 ﬁre, the town was largely unplanned, accounting for its diversity. But it’s this diversity that gives the town the right amount of character that is engaging.
Historic Occoquan’s events also represent the old and new. Historical reenactment events may be found in the same month as the Occoquan River Conservation Day or the Art Walk. The town continues to host a highly popular spring and fall craft-show. A Saturday morning farmer’s market kicks off in April and goes until early November. Growers from a 120-mile radius are invited to sell a wide variety of produce and goods. Another popular attraction is the Historical Occoquan Ghost Tour. The one- hour guided tour is available most Friday and Saturday evenings beginning at 7 p.m. Twenty-two historical sites are highlighted, with 11 said to be the homes or roaming places of ghosts.
“The town will also be sponsoring a number of activities related to the Civil War Sesquicentennial,” says Porta, who recently wrote a book on Historic Occoquan at the request of Arcadia Publishing for their Images of America series. One of the planned activities, in which the town is especially proud to be included, is the 2011 Tauck Civil War Event Tour created by documentary ﬁlmmaker Ken Burns. The tour will come to Prince William County May 22–26. Burns’ miniseries, The Civil War, is the inspiration of the tour, where he hopes to emphasize the war’s signiﬁcance and the meaning of freedom.The Town of Occoquan continues to show innovation meeting history. The town has several historical markers and register plaques throughout its streets, buildings and signiﬁcant sites. These markers can become expensive and information can change as more facts are uncovered. The town has recently begun testing the use of Quick Response barcodes to enhance independent historical tours while maintaining information and containing costs. People using smartphones will have the ability to upload a free application (app) that connects to the town’s website. The information will be loaded onto the website and will correspond to the barcodes posted at the various sites in town. Smartphones can then scan the barcode through its camera and information will be provided on their phone. Updates can be made easily through the website saving several thousand dollars to maintain Occoquan’s historical integrity. Currently four barcodes have been placed at designated sites.
And Occoquan continues to foster commerce. While not industrial, the more than 100 specialty shops serve a diverse clientele and purpose. Occoquan can be considered a one-stop gift shop- ping experience. From art galleries of various mediums to wine shops, jewelers, specialty accessories and home décor, it’s tough to leave empty-handed. There’s no need to leave town for lunch or dinner either, since there are 11 cafés and restaurants to satisfy most culinary wishes. An active and organized Occoquan Merchant’s Association (OMA) represents the businesses in town. The OMA exists to welcome new businesses to the close-knit community. They pull together for advertising purposes and create a common representative voice of the multifaceted town. Kristyn Gleason, president of OMA and co-owner of Polka Dot Divas, located at 416 Mill Street, adds, “The Occoquan Merchant’s Association allows the business community to become a stronger resource.”The OMA also sponsors special events in Occoquan. The Merchant’s Association initiated Military Spouse Appreciation Week and the Occoquan Buck program, among others. Military Spouse Appreciation Week takes place in May and all Occoquan businesses typically participate by offering promotions, discounts, or special events. The Occoquan Buck program has been a consistent program and gives the shopper a $1 discount off a purchase of $10 or more at 30 participating retailers. This program is about to get an upgrade, though. In the past, paper bucks needed to be downloaded and printed from the OMA website by the shopper prior to arriving in Occoquan. This month, though, participating retailers will be distributing a keytag with a scannable barcode eliminating the need to print the paper coupon. Just attach the keytag to your car key ring and you are ready.Gleason is looking forward to this offer from the OMA and anticipates it making the Occoquan Buck program, and the town’s business community, very popular. As a store-owner, Gleason points out that shopping in Historic Occoquan provides an escape from the mall while being encompassed in a protected moment in time. She and business partner Julie Marshall love the small town-feel. When asked how it is being a business owner in Occoquan, Gleason effusively replies, “Fantastic. This is our ﬁrst business, we visited the area and knew we were home.”It beneﬁts every resident within the county borders and beyond to spend a day in Historic Occoquan. The town appeals to every demographic, young and old, singles and families; everyone will ﬁnd a treasured store, shop owner, restaurant, event, historical site or story to embrace. Porta sums up the town simply: “… there is a great deal of history (and happenings) crammed into a very walkable six-square block area.” But, to truly delve into the Town of Occoquan’s interior is not just a day trip but also a jour- ney that will provide months of enjoyment, discovery and im- portant keys to Prince William County’s past, present, and quite possibly, its future. If you would like more information on the Town of Occoquan, there are several online resources available providing its history, photographs, upcoming events and merchant information, please visit www.occoquan.org,www.historicoccoquan.com,http://occoquanmerchantsassociation.com and www.occoquanhistoricalsociety. org. You can also “friend” Occoquan on Facebook (find them by typing “I<3 Occoquan, VA” into the “search” field on Facebook). For information on the 2011 Tauck Civil War Event Tour, visit www.tauck.com.
A nonproﬁt development director for 10 years, Jennifer Rader now works as a freelance writer and consultant. She lives with her son and husband in Manassas and can be reached at [email protected]