by Ann Kessler
Some of Fred Burnett Rhodes’ descriptions of springtime in DC sound familiar – the brilliance of the azalea blooms, the minnows in Soapstone Creek. But he’s describing a childhood that began in 1913 on Albemarle Street. And his recollections include his father’s encounter with Prohibition agents, and bringing home a pony he’d won at a Wild West show.
Forest Hills Connection has received permission from the Historical Society of Washington to reprint excerpts from Rhodes’ memoir, Four Seasons in the Soapstone Valley. Fred wrote this charming story of his youth in 1979 and gave the copyright to the Society so that they could share it with those who care about the past of our neighborhood. Excerpts of his spring remembrances are below, and FHC will publish more as the seasons change.
So who was Fred Burnett Rhodes, Jr.? When Fred was born December 17, 1913 at 3006 Albemarle Street, the area was rural. His was an idyllic life for an adventurous boy: playing games with his friends in Soapstone Valley, going to school at E.V. Brown School (located at the site of the Chevy Chase Library and Community Center) and taking the Capital Traction streetcar down Connecticut Avenue to explore other parts of DC.
Rhodes would go on to lead an exemplary life that had several career twists. He graduated from Central High School (now Cardozo High School) in 1932 and went on to Colgate University. In 1941, while working as a claims adjuster for the Maryland Casualty Company, he completed law school at the University of Maryland. With the outbreak of World War II, Rhodes joined the staff of Lt. General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project which created the first atomic bomb. Rhodes served as the intelligence officer in that effort. He would eventually rise to the rank of colonel.
After the war, Rhodes started his long career of government service. His first job in 1947 was as the executive director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. He left that position in 1949 to become the liaison officer at the Central Intelligence Agency and subsequently chief counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1955, Rhodes took a short break from government service and was in private law practice until 1960.
In 1960, Rhodes went back to work for the federal government as general counsel for the Veterans Administration and then minority counsel of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He left the VA in 1964 to join the Republican Policy Committee as staff director. President Richard Nixon then appointed Rhodes to the post of Deputy Administrator at the VA from 1969 through 1974. President Gerald Ford selected him to be chairman of the Postal Rate Commission in 1975.
It was at this point, in 1975, that Rhodes’ career focus was permanently changed. He had decided to leave the federal government and follow a different path, one that allowed him to fulfill his commitment to his Baptist religion which he had practiced since birth. In 1962, while serving as the minority counsel on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, he was elected vice president of the District Baptist Convention. He was later elected president of the D.C. Baptist Convention (1964-1965), vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1970), and then became a member of the Executive Committee of the Baptist World Alliance (1975-1980). In March 1972, Rhodes, then deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, officiated at Sunday morning worship services for President and Mrs. Nixon at the White House.
In 1975, he began a correspondence with Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, who was then serving a seven-month sentence for his guilty plea in an obstruction of justice charge. Upon Colson’s release, Rhodes worked side by side with him in Colson’s basement to found the Prison Fellowship Ministries. Colson is quoted at the time of Rhodes’ death as saying, “Fred Rhodes was my earliest confidant in the ministry. He helped organize it, encouraged the ministry and me, and really provided the most significant, formative influence.” (Washington Post, November 10, 2001)
In 1980, Fred followed his new calling and was ordained a Baptist minister. He was first the interim minister at Briggs Memorial Baptist Church in Bethesda and then led the Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington. He retired to Anderson, South Carolina in 1983 and died there in November 7, 2001. He was predeceased by two wives, Anne Brown Rhodes and Winona Henderson Rhodes. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
From his roots in the Soapstone Valley, Fred Rhodes grew into an accomplished lawyer and Baptist minister who dedicated his life to serving the government and serving his God. A dedicated man to be highly admired.
Excerpts from Fred Rhodes’ Four Seasons in the Soapstone Valley (1979)
His memories of growing up at 3000 Albemarle from 1913 to 1926
The coming of spring could be forecast by my impatient father pressing his nose against the window asking if we did not think the days were getting noticeably longer. This meant he was anxious to get out and dig up his garden. This activity he loved – to see things grow gave him a sense of pleasure that is hard to describe. There were many outside chores to be taken care of such as final pruning – spraying of fruit trees and setting out the bee hives in their spring-summer locations. He used to say that he had a way to beat the Volstead Act if he ever decided to go into boot-legging. The idea came to him as he was bringing a hive of bees in from Uncle Charlie’s farm in Hyattsville. At the District Line he was stopped by the Prohibition Agents to search his car. When they saw what he had in the back seat they waved him one through without so much as a casual look – even though the bees were securely trapped in the hive. He was sure he could have hidden gallons of contraband booze in his hives. Being a staunch Baptist it was nearly heresy for him to harbor such a thought.
The spring also meant that we would have pony colts born and cows would have calves. This was an exciting time. Silk – our first pony always managed to have her colts arrive on the day of the circus parade. This special day kids were usually let our of school for the parade, as I recall. There was another circus and another pony which I will always remember… I won Ponca through the joint generosity of the 101 Ranch and Hahn’s Shoes. My family never forgave either of them. The day after the presentation I went to the circus grounds near where the market is now at New York and Florida Avenue – claimed my prize and rode him home. The next day the photographer from Hahn’s came out and took my picture on him.
From then on I was never on his back. My brother Wally made it on one occasion…. Many tried and failed. It used to be a fairly regular Sunday afternoon gathering to see some would-be rider try to master our bucking horse. These events would be held in the Valley which then lay between 3000 and 3006 Albemarle. There the ground was soft and made the falls easier. One time my father went in the stable to feed Ponca who to show his appreciation reached out and bit my father across the back of his hand causing a scar which he wore to his grave. Finally it became impossible to keep Ponca at Albemarle Street….
No description of the Soapstone Valley would be complete without a word painting of the flowers which grew wild in the area. The woods were carpeted with bluets, blood roots and wild geraniums, Jack in the pulpits – may apples, and many other wonders were to be found in this unique valley. A combination of flowering trees made a display that one could never forget. At a time when dogwood was about to become extinct there were many trees which bloomed in this more or less protected environment. Also the blooming of the mountain laurel and the wild azaleas would equal the National Arboretum in beauty. One of the flowers which was unique to the area was a long stemmed pansy violet which when picked in bunches would rival any corsage that a florist could assemble out of hot house violets. When these bloomed we would pick them and take them over to the Bureau of Standards and sell them to folks as they were leaving work. It provided a good source of revenue to the more enterprising kids.
Another beauty grew in great profusion. I do not know whether a botanist would classify it as a flower or a weed. I do not believe that I’ve seen daisies grow more plentifully anywhere then they did in that area. Each year on Children’s Day, which in our Sunday School was a big day, we would pick enough of these daisies to line the front of our church pulpit. It created an effected of unusual color and beauty.
With the advent of spring came the appearance of wildlife in the valley. I can recall that my father and I tracked a red fox to its lair after it had made a foray into our chicken yard. To our great surprise we found a sort of a cave high on the bank that went up from the creek to the Holy Cross Academy pasture. This was the den of the fox and there was evidence of a newly born litter which prompted us to stay a safe distance from the den.
It may well have been that our chicken flock proved such a luscious target that other forms of wild life were drawn into the area. My brother Wally received a sixteen gauge shotgun on his sixteenth birthday, and shortly after he put it to work killing a huge chicken hawk which got into the flock. Also I have a vivid recollection of a large snake which I took to be a copperhead leaving the yard in some haste after its discovery.
There were other snakes to be found in the spring time in the valley ranging from the harmless garter snake and the larger black snake – to an occasional rattler. I’ve never seen a rattler, but once while picking blackberries I heard the unmistakable noise which those fellows make, and my picking stopped suddenly for the day.
The creek itself was responsible for types of aquatic life from minnows to crayfish. These we used to find by turning over rocks in the stream bed after the water cleared we’d see them and pick them up. Not for any useful purpose mind you, but simply to see who could find the largest one. None we ever saw were much larger than two inches long.