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Remembering Maywood’s Oldest Resident

Arlington’s Maywood neighborhood lost its foremost historian last month.

Robert McAtee, the community’s oldest resident, died Aug. 10 at the age of 100. A colorful local figure, “Mac” was a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was known for his love of collectables, Scottish history and of telling tales of “old Arlington.”

Members of Maywood’s neighborhood listserv were informed of McAtee’s passing last week. The email included an obituary, written by Maywood resident Peter Harnik.

The obit is reprinted, with permission, below.

Robert McAtee, the oldest resident of Arlington’s Maywood neighborhood, died on Sunday, August 10. He was just two months shy of 101 and had lived in the same house for 98 years.

Universally known as “Mac,” Mr. McAtee was an institution in the county, attending community meetings and high school reunions in the kilt of his Scottish kinsmen and regaling all listeners with scrupulously accurate stories of old Arlington. An inveterate collector, Mac is reported to have had more than 20,000 license plates and 1,000 books of Scottish history along with cameras, buttons, stamps, coins, fossils, and much more.

He attended Cherrydale Elementary School (since demolished) and enjoyed telling stories of clambering along (and under) the trestle of the old Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. He also attended Washington-Lee High School, where he was a proud member of the Cadet Corps. After graduation in 1932, he began his working life at the Government Printing Office, where he worked until being drafted into the Army of the US in the fall of 1941. Mac was selected to attend Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA where he graduated with Class 13. He served for three years and was honorably discharged as a Captain. To further contribute to the war effort, Mac subsequently volunteered for the US Maritime Service.

At the conclusion of World War II, Mac returned to Maywood. He attended Columbia Tech where he studied electrical engineering. He worked for General Electric for a short time until he began managing a trailer rental lot on Lee Highway. In 1955 he purchased a trailer rental business at Seven Corners which he operated for over 45 years.

Mac had one sister but was never married and leaves no survivors. In recent years he was cared for by his long-time friend Robert Beck, Katherine Skerl, and care-givers Denora, Amy, and Marina.

In addition to good health, he also had a prodigious memory. Almost until the end he could rattle off the names of every family member in virtually every house in Maywood in the 1930s. He delighted showing visitors his collection of 24 letters and postcards – each with a different address – that had arrived at his house. The house didn’t change, but over the years its street name, city name, post office, zip code and other identifiers did.

Mac also reported that his family was the first in the neighborhood to install indoor plumbing. He told of the regular deliveries of milk, eggs, coal and blocks of ice, and he pointed out the location of small shops and the kindergarten within what is now the residential neighborhood.

He was perhaps best known in the neighborhood for annually renewing his automobile’s license plate with his updated age, usually entwining Roman numerals with his initials. Even though he wasn’t able to drive at the end, he kept his car, and at his death his plate spelled simply “RBM 100”.

Mr. McAtee took part in many recorded remembrances and also bequeathed much of his historically significant collection to the Virginia Room of the Arlington Library.

A memorial service will be held in the Fall.

After the jump: McAtee’s memories of Arlington in the first half of the 20th century, reprinted with permission.

What was Maywood like 100 years ago? (Well, 95 actually.)
By Robert B. McAtee, as told to Peter Harnik

A hundred years ago we got around mostly by horse and buggy for personal use, and by horse and wagon for business use. Of course, the primary method was walking. It was a necessity. We walked to the grocery, to the post office, to the drug store. We would walk down Windy Run to the Potomac, just like now. Except back then we swam in the Potomac. There was a heavy undertow at Forty Foot Rock. My dad would explain the environment to us kids. Back then, on Windy Run was a mill race – a wooden sluice that fed water to a grist mill. There was another one on Spout Run which fed water power to John Mason’s Grist Mill. (John Mason was the son of George Mason, but he was long dead by that time. The mill eventually went out of business.)

The first fire station in Arlington was in Cherrydale. It still stands on Lee Highway by Pollard St. Maywood had a fire substation with a bell tower and a cistern. The fire truck was a Model T Ford with a hook and ladder, plus a tank that held soda and acid. After World War I, when the men went to work in Washington, D.C., ladies were firefighters, firewomen I guess you’d say. I only remember three fires – one on a streetcar, one in the walls of a house at Fillmore and 24th, and the other I forget. They didn’t have hydrants back then; the firemen had to throw the end of the hose into a creek and use a motorized pump to pump it up.

The oldest house in Maywood was the Digges’ House, made of brick. It still stands at the corner where Lincoln Street bends around to become 23rd Street. But back then Lincoln Street was called Oak St. and there was no 23rd St. The man who built and sold many of our homes was Mr. Hugh Thrift. That’s where Thrifton Station and, later, Thrifton Hill Park got their names. At the corner of Georgetown Rd. (which is now Lee Highway) and Lee St. (now Lincoln) was an ice house. The ice man came round in his wagon once a day in the summer. You’d tell him how much ice you wanted – 10 cents or 15 cents – and he’d take his big, sharp knife and cut you a block for the icebox – whack! In the middle of the summer we’d need 40 or 50 pounds of ice a day.

We had a water tank in our attic. Most houses had a hand pump to fill it, but we were one of the first to have an electric pump. Now and then the water would taste peculiar for a time; that meant that a mouse had gotten in and drowned. Some homes had outhouses, some had septic tanks. Most had some kind of light fixture out front, either electric or gas or a combination, but there were no electric outlets in our house, and there were almost no accessories. If you had a washing machine, it was in the basement with a wire leading directly to the electric panel. Coal was delivered by horse and wagon, and it went down a chute into your basement. Trash and leaves we burned in the back yard, and we put the ashes in the alley. Compostable garbage was buried in the back yard. Bottles and cans, of which there weren’t many, were taken to the local dump down on County Road (now Lorcom Lane). The scissor grinder and knife sharpener walked through the neighborhood, carrying his rig on his back. Plus many other folks came through – Mr. Lickey, the bread man; also the Honey Man, the Butter Lady, the Egg Lady and the Watermelon Man.

When I was three the Potomac froze and Ed Young took me down there, put me on a sled and started skating, pulling me behind. The rope broke and I was flying down the river all alone. I remember that even today! I still have an old Flexible Flyer sled and also a soapbox scooter I made with old skate wheels. Also, in the winter back then we didn’t have to buy Christmas trees. We just went to the woods at Jackson Street across Lorcom Lane, cut down a tree and dragged it home.

Two things happened in 1912. The American flag got up to 48 stars. And the Washington and Old Dominion Car Line came to Maywood. We had two stations: Thrifton (you can still see one of the old walls in the park) and Dominion Heights up at Mackey Street (Monroe St. today). Those were also the only two entrances into Maywood and both of them had a set of concrete steps. Once my grandmother came to visit. She didn’t come by railroad, she came by horse-drawn jitney, right up to the house! The jitney wasn’t supposed to leave the main road, but somehow she talked them into going off course. The other passengers carried her baggage to our door! It would be like having a Metrobus leave its route for you today. But no one was in a hurry back then.

Back then Maywood wasn’t restricted to residential. Mrs. Bruce had a small store in her front room on Grant Street (now Kenmore St.), from which she sold groceries and school supplies. We shopped with string bags. Every family had a string bag to carry small amounts of food or supplies. And Mrs. Lockling ran a kindergarten on the second floor of her house on Columbia Street. (Today it’s the yellow house with the big chimney on 21st Avenue.) That’s where I went. For grade school, I went to Cherrydale Elementary, a big red brick building where the nursing home is today. For high school the young people either went to Washington or to Alexandria.

We kids didn’t have television but we still had fun. We played in the street – tag, “Red Light,” football and baseball. We’d sit around the fireplace in the living room and roast frankfurters and toast marshmallows. We’d flip cards, which was a form of gambling, but we did it only as a fun thing. We knew where all the culverts were and we’d crawl through them. I was the natural leader because I was the oldest. Or we’d come over to my front porch and 10 of us would crowd onto the porch swing and really get it going. On the Bluemont Line there was a railroad trestle which crossed over Georgetown Road. Some kids would lie down on the superstructure below the ties and have the thrill of being run over by the trains. For smoking experiments, the stuff we tried was enough to kill a horse – corn silk, rabbit weed and milkweed floss wrapped in brown paper or newspaper. We also tried Catalpa leaves, which we called Indian Cigars. Also, Georgetown Road was a tar road — bare ground covered with tar. In the summer the tar would boil up and we would burst the bubbles with our bare toes. The place to go in the summer was Great Falls Park which had a carousel and dancing, along with the Falls, of course. The Baptist Church sponsored many trips there for us.

There were lots of changes in the 1930s. In 1933 Lee Highway was widened from 16 feet to 24 feet – two lanes to three. It was more dangerous then, because everyone tried to pass in both directions and there wasn’t room. The next year the streetcar stopped running – 1934. Ironically, it was the only year that the streetcar actually made a profit. Also around then the County decided to rename all the streets and change the numbering system. They had to, it was a mess. There were 8 different Cedar Streets – ours plus seven others. Making deliveries was impossible. The stores said that if the county didn’t change the system they would stop making deliveries.

As for some of the old timers in Maywood, Ed Gharrity was a catcher for the Washington Senators. He lived on Cedar Street next to the fire substation. Later he sold the house to Jim Shaw, a pitcher for the Senators. Mr. Burgee was a teacher at Cherrydale School. So was Mrs. Ellis, who later became principal. George West and his family were colored but there was no discrimination – we played with their kids. Mr. Falconer, a member of the Navy band, was killed in a plane crash going to Europe. (Back then flights couldn’t fly directly across the Atlantic – they would fly south to Brazil, then across to Africa, then on to Europe.) H.C. Roberts, who lived at Cedar and Allison (right across from my house) was a West Point graduate but he worked for the Navy making maps and plans. Later Mr. Roundy lived there – he was a movie projectionist for schools and commercial theaters. Mr. Goodner was a lawyer, and Sam Fox quit the Bureau of Standards to work as an electrician on his own – he did a great amount of wiring work in Maywood. Then there was Mr. Toone who lived on Columbia Street (now 21st Avenue) and owned Cherrydale Cement Block Company on Georgetown Rd. Toone got in just as the County was doing a lot of building, and his cement blocks now line many utility holes. We had some famous visitors, too. Jeanette Macdonald, a famous movie star and singer, would come and visit the Wrights. Lawrence Tibbitts, a famous tenor, would visit the Manions. We all enjoyed listening to them sing.

During World War II everyone had to use ration coupons. Meat coupons were red, groceries were blue, plus there were coupons for gas. There was really no need to ration, but it made people feel like they were helping. I had a victory garden, but when I was drafted no one tended it and it didn’t do too well. My potatoes came out so small, I took a picture of one that was the diameter of a quarter. When I was called up I made up a fake front page of the newspaper with a big headline, “McAtee Caught in Draft.” Back then we had lots of papers – not only the Post but also the Daily News, the Times, the Herald, and the Star. When I was young I was a substitute and delivered them all at one time or another. They all merged together and now they’re all gone, except the Post. Our air raid warden for Maywood was Mr. Rohrbach. He would go around making sure that everyone had drawn their blackout curtains so that the Germans couldn’t see any place to bomb. It may have been important along the coast but it was a big joke in Arlington. But people felt that they were doing their part for the war. It sure made Maywood dark.

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