In 2019, we published a series of recollections by Fred Rhodes (1913-2001), a federal worker whose long and varied resumé included the Manhattan Project and the Nixon administration. But a century ago, he was just a kid in Forest Hills, and the Soapstone Valley was his playground.
His memoir Four Seasons in the Soapstone Valley, shared with us by the Historical Society of Washington and Ann Kessler, cover the first 12 years of his life. These are his memories of summer in Forest Hills:
Of the countless thousands of people who go back and forth to the city on Connecticut Avenue only the barest fraction of them would know that their route takes them over the Soapstone Creek. This creek has formed the Soapstone Valley which is a part of the Rock Creek Park. It is virtually undeveloped and as unexplored as any mile long strip of land in the District of Columbia.
Many of my associations with the valley have to do with running because the Shipleys – the Ludewigs – the McDonalds and the Rhodes boys built a track in the valley which was about one-third of a mile long. They labored hard building the track, but no less hard did they run to condition themselves after it was finished.
Another area which involved running was a favorite local game called “fox and hounds.” Participants would secure a burlap feed sack from our stable [the Rhodes had cows, horses and chickens] and tear up large quantities of newspaper in it. The foxes would be given the sack and allowed a timed start to lay out the paper trail. Good foxes would always run off a number of blind trails as they went. The rule was the foxes had to stop when they ran out of paper and wait to be caught. On after thought this makes good sense since by this time they’d be exhausted anyway.
A warm community spirit existed in the area in those days evidenced by neighborhood gatherings. There was a circle of stones which were laid in a clearing near where the track passed. Often my father would build huge bonfires there and invite the neighbors for weenie roasts. For young and old this was a very special time to load up on hot dogs and other picnic goodies. After the meal we’d sit around the camp fire and listen to grownups talk. Nearby there stood a stately old beech tree which from time to time came into the discussions.
The older folks would talk about an inscription it bore at a height of perhaps twenty feet. It read, “W.T. Holt, Co. “C” – 53 rd Ind. Vols. June 6, 1865”… Holt was born on September 18, 1844. His place of birth is not disclosed in the available records. He died in Pittsburg, Kansas, February 1, 1906… According to his daughter he served during the Civil War in General Sherman’s Army. It appears that Holt was encamped in the Soapstone Valley with his outfit. They were in the area for the Grand Review following the Civil War. This took place in June of 1865 and shortly afterward he was discharged from the service. [By 1979, Rhodes writes, the beech tree had fallen and rotted away, but he and Walton Shipley placed a stake marking the spot. He had hoped the Park Service would place a historic marker there.]
A summer memory which lingers with me is of this neighborhood whose playground was centered around Soapstone Creek. One of the pastimes of the kids in the area was to play in new houses. The games were of a hide and seek variety mostly. One popular follow the leader type game today might be called “chicken.” Its leader was usually the most daring youngster who would take the others over precipitous areas of the new structure and always at a climax of the game the leader would jump from the highest point he could find into [a] pile of sand. [Rhodes said there were “mountainous piles of sand” at every building site because cement and plaster had to be mixed on the spot.]
One of the results of summer which was certain to befall us was that the pasture would get eaten down to a nub and the stock would have to be fed hay as a supplement to the meager grass they were getting. We had one particularly mean cow whom my father called “Baby” – who was a notorious fence breaker. She had a way of putting her rump against the fence and pushing it until she had made a hole in it large enough for her and others to escape. They would take off for our neighbors’ lawns or other grassy places they could find. This put us in an extremely bad light with our neighbors. One particular resident took us to court on an occasion or two.
Perhaps the most annoying habit the stock had was to wander down on to Connecticut Avenue and eat the grass which grew up between the streetcar ties. This pasture source results from the fact that from the Bureau of Standards (Van Ness Street) to the top of the hill above Grant Road there were open car tracks with the auto traffic moving on asphalt paved lanes on either side of the car tracks. The usual routine was for the street car conductor to issue a transfer to a workman-passenger and ask him to go to the Rhodes’ house and have them come and get the cows and ponies off the car tracks.