Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Kim Prothro Williams – Interview with a Washington DC History Author

Kim Prothro Williams

Lost Farms and Estates of Washington, D.C.
The History Press, 2018


Related presentation: Rural Remnants of Washington County: An Architectural Survey of Washington’s Historic Farms and Estates


  1. Tell us about the book.

Lost Farms and Estates is book about the transformation of the cultural landscape of rural Washington, D.C. from the time of the city’s establishment until suburbanization.  It is a book about the cultural landscape of farming and the economic and social forces that contributed to the changing nature of that landscape.  The chapters are arranged chronologically with each one discussing a seminal moment of change.  The book is heavily illustrated with historic photos and maps.

  1. What’s your thesis? Story arc?

The principle thesis is that of the persistence of agriculture. Despite all of the forces working against Washington remaining rural, farmers continued to cultivate the land well into the 20th-century. Many farmers continued to plant and cultivate their fields as surrounding farms were cut and laid with streets, and built upon with houses.

  1. What are the most important influences?

The most important influences for the book came from the surviving remnants of what was once a rural Washington.  Farm houses, springhouses, barns and other buildings associated with rural Washington still survive in the city, but are not always visible or apparent.  The discovery of some of these “survivors” and discovering their individual histories were important influences on the book.

  1. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

I don’t think there are any myths about agriculture and its demise in Washington.  I think most readers recognize that the land that would become the nation’s capital was rural before it was urban, and that farmsteads and farming operations were still a common feature of the District’s landscapes before giving way entirely to suburbanization.  I think what readers will be surprised to learn, however, is how many farmhouses and farm-related buildings are hidden in plain sight.  Peirce Mill is one visible and well-known example of a survivor, but dozens of other buildings associated with rural Washington are less obvious and/or not readily visible, but still out there.

One misconception that does exist relates to the definition of “farmhouse.”  For the purpose of my study, I only considered a house a farmhouse if the land associated with it was cultivated with crops or held farm animals.  Older houses that were built on lots that were part of a residential subdivision are not actually farmhouses, though they are often referred to as such.

  1. What are the classics in field (if any)?

There are no books dedicated to this subject.  Many neighborhood histories (books, essays and articles) recall the early history of the specific neighborhood in question, but no publication has looked more comprehensively at rural Washington.

  1. What challenges did you face in this research?

The biggest challenge in the research was getting an understanding of the rural lifestyle of farmers and the farming community. Primary source documents such as maps, historic plats, tax assessments and the like provide a partial record of buildings that stood on the landscape, but these records are little more than lists and don’t provide much insight on farm life and culture.  Diaries and letters are good sources for getting that kind of information, but those records are not widespread or readily available.

  1. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

The Agricultural Census records were, across the board, the most important resource for me in researching this book. They are readily accessible on microfilm at the National Archives, but have not yet been digitized and so not available on-line.  Other resources were invaluable for more specific periods, or for individual properties.  For instance, the plat maps drawn by city surveyor Nicholas King in the 1790s of the “mansion lots” of the original proprietors were the single-most important resource for gaining an understanding of the cultural landscape at the time of the city’s establishment in 1790. These plats are available on-line through the Library of Congress and can be downloaded at high resolution for reproduction purposes.   Letters and diaries were also critical, such as the Letters of George E. Chamberlin, written by an officer in the Union Army who was stationed at Fort Lincoln.  These letters provided first-hand accounts of the rural landscape around the fort, and the destruction to it caused by the war effort.

  1. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

I would like to have had sources that provided better information on individual farm complexes and the buildings making up those complexes, such as fire insurance records. Fire insurance companies often provided detailed inventories of farm properties for insurance purposes.  Fire insurance records are common sources of information in other rural areas, such as in Montgomery County, Maryland, but I am not aware of any in D.C.  and wished there were!

  1. Who’s your audience?

Anyone interested in local Washington—residents, students, scholars, preservationists, researchers and the general public.

  1. Tell us about you.

I am an architectural historian with a particular interest in researching local history, neighborhoods, and urban planning developments in and around Washington, D.C.  I work in historic preservation and in that capacity I am regularly engaged in the historic designation of individual buildings, neighborhoods, and institutional districts. I generally find beauty in all vernacular buildings, but especially those whose original purpose is no longer relevant and whose structures survive to tell stories of the past. I am also intrigued by the transformation of place—a theme apparent in two of my earlier books—Chevy Chase, A Home Suburb for the Nation’s Capital and Pride of Place: Rural Residences of Fauquier County, Virginia.

  1. What inspired you to write this book?

I have always been interested in layers of history and in understanding those various layers through surviving (above-ground) buildings or remnants of buildings in their historic context. But, specifically, it was the discovery of a mid-nineteenth-century springhouse, nestled into the base of a hill above a still-flowing stream that really inspired me. I wanted to learn more about that particular springhouse, but mostly I wanted to learn more about the people who built it, and about the lives of the people who relied upon it for their livelihoods.  As I learned more about the springhouse and the farmstead that it was part of, I wanted to find out how the farmstead fit into the physical and social narrative of a rural Washington before it was fully urbanized.

  1. What’s unique about your perspective?

My perspective is unique in that it looks at the rural landscape, citywide, through time, and uses buildings to help tell the story.  Other books may provide an early history of a neighborhood or place as a preamble to a larger story, whereas this book is focused on the persistence of agriculture throughout the city’s various periods of growth.

  1. What’s your favorite DC history book?

My favorite D.C. history book is always the one I’ve just finished reading! But, my favorite of all time would be, hands’ down, James Goode’s Capital Losses.

  1. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

I have been studying the alleyways and alley buildings of Washington, D.C., for several years now, and I am thinking about some kind of publication related to the cultural and physical landscape of the city’s alleyways.   I am thinking about more of a photographic-type book with short essays and heavy captions, rather than long narrative.

One comment on “Kim Prothro Williams – Interview with a Washington DC History Author

  1. Pingback: 2018 Washington DC history books | Washington DC History Resources

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