The Schools of Forestville (1870-1922)

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) was founded in 1870 when the Virginia General Assembly passed the Public Free Schools Act. During the 1870-71 school year, there were 41 schools in operation in FCPS. One of these schools was located in the village of Forestville, which, during the mid-20th century, was renamed Great Falls.

Detail of a color map of Fairfax County published in 1879. The village of Forestville is highlighted in detail. Georgetown Pike and Walker Road are visible. Small squares indicate the location of homes and businesses, some of which have been labeled with the name of the homeowner or the type of business. A schoolhouse is located at the southeast corner of the intersection of the two roads. Some of the individuals named on the map are John Gunnell, Thomas Price, John Turner, Richard Follin, Samuel Follin, John Dickey, and Elizabeth Money. Salem Methodist Episcopal Church and a store are shown near the center of the village.
Detail from the Fairfax County, Dranesville District page in the “Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington, including the county of Montgomery, Maryland” drawn by Griffith Morgan Hopkins, Jr. circa 1878 and published in 1879. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Forestville “Colored” School (c.1886 – c.1905)

From 1870 until the early 1960s public schools in Fairfax County were segregated by race, because Virginia law required school districts to operate separate schools for white and black children. FCPS records indicate that by the mid-1880s there were two separate public schools in operation in the village of Forestville. The school for black children, known as the Forestville Colored School, was once located directly across Walker Road from Great Falls Elementary School. The building was constructed sometime around 1886 on a one acre lot donated by William Rowzee and his wife Clara. The school closed permanently in the early 1900s and the building was sold in 1913 to Cornelius T. Johnson.

Black and white photograph of the Forestville Colored School after it had been converted into a dwelling. The building is a small, single story structure with a tin roof and white clapboard siding. There are three windows visible on the side of the building with wooden shutters. A person can be seen sitting in a rocking chair in the shade on the front porch. The building has a stone foundation and is surrounded by trees.
After purchasing the schoolhouse, Cornelius Johnson converted the structure into a dwelling. Esther Rollison, the last owner of the property, lived there from 1947 until 2002. The building was demolished in 2003 and a new house was constructed on the site in 2004. Photograph courtesy of the Virginia Room, Fairfax County Public Library. 

Few records concerning the Forestville Colored School have survived, but researchers have been able to identify the names of some of the teachers: Richard T. Jackson (1886-87), Henrietta Smith Henderson (1887-89), Marie L. Thornton (1889-90), Hilory Lucas (1891-92 and 1901-03), A. Blanche M. James (1896-97), Fontaine S. Botts (1900-01), and Effie S. Harris (1904-05).

The Oak Grove School (1869-1889)

In 1869, just prior to the founding of FCPS, a one-room schoolhouse for white children was constructed on the southeast corner of the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road. This school was referred to as the Grove School and the Oak Grove School in records from the late 1800s, and soon after FCPS was established it came under the administration of the School Trustees of Dranesville District. Very few records concerning the Oak Grove School survive, however it has been verified that Henry O. Cornwell taught there from 1886-89.

Photograph of a small book that belonged to student Mattie Johnson in 1889 while she was enrolled at the Oak Grove School. Her teacher, Henry Cornwell, wrote a note to Mattie on one of the blank pages. The ink has faded to a dark brown and the paper has faded to a light brown and is stained with age. Mr. Cornwell's handwriting is a beautiful, flowing cursive. His message is transcribed in the caption below this image.
This book belonged to Martha “Mattie” Johnson, a student at the Oak Grove School. This page was signed by her teacher, Henry O. Cornwell, on April 9, 1889. He wrote: “To Mattie Johnson, Our friendship has budded on earth, may it blossom in heaven. Your teacher, H. O. Cornwell.” Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller, granddaughter of Mattie Johnson.

School Days

From 1870 until the mid-1930s, most FCPS students were educated in one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher worked with children in grades 1-7 all in the same room. Teachers at one-room schoolhouses, like the Oak Grove School, had significant responsibilities in regards to the upkeep of the building. There were no janitors, so teachers built and maintained a fire in a pot belly stove used to warm the building, and washed and oiled the wood floors. The daily lessons were staggered by subject and grade level, with one grade of students giving recitations while the others worked quietly at their desks.

Photograph of a Daily Program of Studies made by the teacher of the Popes Head School during the 1899 to 1900 school year. The time of day is recorded on the left, with lessons conducted in 5, 10, or 15 minute sessions. Students began their day at 9:00 a.m. with opening exercises, then progressed to arithmetic, reading, writing, spelling, grammar, history, and geography. There were two recess periods, lasting 30 minutes each, at 10:30 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. The students were dismissed at 3:30 p.m.
Detail of the teacher’s register from the Popes Head School in Fairfax County’s Centreville District, 1899. Courtesy of the Fairfax County Circuit Court Historic Records Center.

At some one-room schools children didn’t have individual desks. They sat on long wooden benches and held their work in their lap. Before the days of ink pens and paper, children wrote with chalk on small slate boards that could be carried to and from school. There were no restrooms or running water in one-room schools. Older boys were tasked with carrying drinking water in a large bucket from a nearby well, and with carrying firewood into the building. Bathroom facilities typically consisted of a single outhouse, but in some more fortunate communities there were separate outhouses for boys and girls.

Black and white class portrait from the 1888 to 1889 school year at the Oak Grove School in Forestville. The students are arranged in four rows on the steps in front of the schoolhouse. The building has wooden clapboard siding and two doors, one of which is propped open. 42 children and their teacher are pictured. The children range between 6 and 18 years of age. The youngest children are standing on the bottom rows, and the group is evenly divided with the girls on the right and the boys on the left.
The Oak Grove School, 1888-89. Teacher Henry O. Cornwell is standing on the far right in the back row. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

A Growing Community

By the late 1880s, the Oak Grove School was no longer adequate to support the growing number of children living in the Forestville area. In 1889, the School Trustees of Dranesville District began construction of a new one-room schoolhouse in the village of Forestville. On September 7, 1889, the Trustees awarded the contract for the construction of the building to Mr. M. D. Remy, at a cost of $487.10. The new school was built on a one acre lot approximately 200 yards east of the Oak Grove School on the north side of Georgetown Pike. This lot was purchased from George Gunnell and his wife Alice for $50.00, and the deed was recorded on October 7, 1889. On November 2, 1889, the School Trustees inspected the new school and recorded in their minutes that it was finished and ready for use. The school became known as the Forestville School, and the building is still standing today at 9812 Georgetown Pike.

Color photograph of the Forestville School taken in 2014, seen from the front. The building is a two-classroom structure with beige clapboard siding, white window frames, and a green tin roof. The building was modified in the second half of the 20th century to create a second story in the 1889 portion of the building. Front porches and additional windows were also added to the structure. The building is set on a grass-covered lawn and has a brick sidewalk leading to the main entrance. There is a grove of tall oak trees is behind the schoolhouse.
The Forestville School in 2014. The original portion of the building (the classroom on the right) was built in 1889. The classroom on the left was added in 1912.
Black and white photograph of the Forestville one-room schoolhouse taken in 1899. The building is a one-story structure with a pitched roof and a bell tower. The building has three windows on the side facing the camera, and two doors on the front of the building facing Georgetown Pike. The school is surrounded by trees.
The Forestville School in 1899. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller. Henry O. Cornwell was the first teacher of the Forestville School. A history of the school, written by Ruth A. Hill, records that at times Mr. Cornwell had as many as 70 children of all ages in this one-room schoolhouse. “In the early days, monthly pay for Henry was $30. To supplement his income, he sold butter, eggs, and farm produce from his home on Georgetown Pike near the Methodist Church.”
Henry O. Cornwell had the longest teaching career at the Forestville School. A wood stove, tended by the teacher, heated the Forestville School. Mary Sanders recalled that one morning when Mr. Cornwell lifted the stove lid to start a fire, a big goose rose from inside the stove, flapping its wings and spreading soot over Mr. Cornwell’s neatly attired frame. Mr. Cornwell taught “to the tune of the hickory stick.” Facing the blackboard with the light shining so that his glasses mirrored motion behind him, he noticed a student shaking his fist at him. Turning around, Mr. Cornwell rendered a good application of the stick to the fist shaker.

- The First Forestville School, by Milburn P. Sanders

By Horse and Wagon

During the 1911-12 school year, a new, brick schoolhouse opened in the Floris community south of Herndon.

Black and white photograph of the Floris School constructed in 1911. The building is a single story structure with four classrooms and a central hallway. The school has two brick chimneys and a bell tower. The children enter the building through double wooden doors beneath a large arched window.
The Floris School, 1958. Courtesy of Floris Elementary School and the Virginia Room, Fairfax County Public Library.

The new schoolhouse at Floris replaced a three-room wood frame building at the same site. During this time period, the school-age population was on the rise in several communities in Fairfax County. In July 1912, the School Trustees of Dranesville District decided against selling the three-room building, and instead directed that it be dismantled and the classrooms moved to other locations in the district. Two of the classrooms were moved by horse and wagon and attached to the one-room schoolhouses at Forestville and Vale. The third room may have been moved to the village of Dranesville and attached to the schoolhouse there.

Sepia-toned photograph of the three-room school at Floris taken in 1910. The building is in the center of a large field surrounded by a wooden fence. Children can be seen playing outside in the field.
The Floris three-room schoolhouse, 1910. In the summer of 1912, one of these classrooms was moved to Forestville and attached to the Forestville School.
Color photograph of the Forestville School taken in 2014, showing a close-up view of the 1912 addition to the schoolhouse. The additional room is smaller than the original school building in size. The addition originally had three windows on the side, but the center window has since been removed and was replaced by a doorway.
The Forestville School in 2014. The classroom on the west side of the building was transported to Forestville from Floris by horse and wagon.

The additional classroom allowed Forestville to operate as a “graded school” with two teachers. In a two-room graded school, the children were separated into primary (grades 1-3) and elementary (grades 4-7) classes.

Black and white class photograph of the Forestville School taken in 1913. Two teachers and approximately 72 children are pictured. The children range between six and eighteen years in age. They are standing in rows on the wooden steps in front of the schoolhouse. The school has clapboard wood siding and two doors. The door on the left is open.
The Forestville School, 1913, with teachers Henry O. Cornwell (far right, front row) and Ella Borden (far left, second row).

The Teachers

From 1889 to 1901, Henry O. Cornwell taught at the Forestville School. Records indicate he was followed by Ella Adams (1901-02) and George Johnson (1902-03). In 1903, Cornwell returned to Forestville and taught at the school for another 15 years. In 1912, when the school expanded to two rooms, Mr. Cornwell was promoted to principal and he became teacher of the elementary grades. He was joined by Ella Borden who taught children in the primary classroom from 1912-18. During the 1919-20 school year, Lelia Booth was the principal and elementary classroom teacher, and Ressie Kanost was the primary classroom teacher.

Black and white, head-and-shoulders portrait of George Johnson. He is an older gentleman with a long white beard.
George Johnson taught at the Forestville School during the 1902-03 school year.

The Rambler

During the early 20th century, John Harry Shannon, under his pen name “The Rambler,” wrote about local history in the Washington, D.C. area for the Washington Star newspaper. In May 1918, Mr. Shannon rode the electric trolley from Georgetown to Great Falls and walked to Forestville where he recorded his impression of the village schoolhouse.

The Forestville schoolhouse stands in a clump of white oaks a short way east of the crossing of the roads… a small frame building on an old foundation of ironstone and quartzite standing back from the pike in a grove of oaks, beneath which all turf and humus has been worn away by the feet of the boys and girls of that fair country. The schoolhouse is near the east edge of the village of Forestville, which has settled itself along both sides of the pike and whose homes are set in green gardens that are wide and deep.

Mr. Shannon’s articles are a treasure trove of Fairfax County history. You can read them online through the Fairfax County Public Library website. Enter the term “rambler” and search using the “entire subject field.”

Higher Education

The first public high schools for white children in Fairfax County began operation in the early 1900s. At this point in time, high school consisted of grades 8-11, however not every high school offered all four grades. Schools that offered only two grades (8-9) were referred to as junior high schools. In 1916, the citizens of Forestville rallied together to advocate for improved facilities and higher education for their children, and, through their persistent organized efforts, their dream became a reality six years later with the opening of Forestville Junior High School.

Black and white photograph of Forestville Junior High School taken in 1942. The building is a large two-story brick structure with six classrooms, an auditorium, and indoor plumbing.
Forestville Junior High School was located on the present site of the Great Falls Fire Station. In 1930, the high school department closed and the students were transported to Herndon High School. The building remained in use as an elementary school until 1953 when Great Falls Elementary School opened.

In addition to junior high school students, the new school at Forestville also housed children in the elementary grades. The two-room Forestville School is believed to have closed at the end of the 1921-22 school year because on July 2, 1922, the property was sold to Henry Goode for $1,075, but newspaper articles indicate the building may have remained in use as a school for one more year. The building was used as a dwelling until October 1951, when it was sold to the Great Falls Grange. In 1952-53, the building was briefly used for overflow classroom space during the construction of Great Falls Elementary School. In the second half of the 20th century, the old Forestville School housed a bank and the Great Falls Post Office. Today, the building is owned by the Fairfax County Park Authority and can be rented by the public for event purposes such as weddings and meetings.

Color photograph of the old Forestville School taken in 2014. The building is seen from Georgetown Pike at the crest of a hill. A brown Fairfax County Park Authority sign with the words Forestville School, 1889, has been placed on the property very close to the roadway.