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Local History: What This Historic Cemetery Has to Do With Tomatoes

The historic Southern-Shreve cemetery is a tiny cemetery plot located just off the Custis Trail, next to St. Ann Catholic church and west of Ballston.

It’s easy to miss, but its small size belies its local historical significance. Here’s what the historic marker says about the cemetery:

Five generations of the Southern, Shreve, and related families are interred in this burial plot. The Shreve family in Arlington dates from the arrival of Samuel Shreve from New Jersey about 1780. Shreve purchased a tract of land near Ballston in 1791. The earliest grave (1832) is that of John Redin (Sixth Continental Line), a veteran of the American Revolution. Redin’s daughter married Richard Southern.

But there’s even more to the cemetery than that. You can thank one of its occupants for helping to popularize tomatoes as a food. Until the mid-1800s, tomatoes were largely regarded as an ornamental plant.

More from an article on the Arlington Public Library website:

Of the two Shreve family cemeteries in Arlington, the Southern-Shreve cemetery could possibly lay claim to having a more unique history. Located on the north side of Fairfax Drive, between North Frederick and North Harrison streets, the cemetery sat near the property of Richard and Frances (Redin) Southern. Richard Southern was a landscape architect and horticulturist, who became known for pioneering the use of the tomato as a food. It may seem hard to believe in these modern times, but prior to Southern’s efforts, the tomato was widely regarded as being poisonous and was only used for decorative purposes.

The land was given as a dowry by Frances Redin’s brother, a prominent Georgetown attorney, and was the burial place of John Redin, father of Frances and her brother. This generous act may have been precipitated by the fact that the Southerns cared for John Redin during his final years. He was buried in the garden of the Southern’s home in 1832, his gravestone being the first in what was to become the family cemetery.

Being neighbors of the Shreves, Birches, and Balls, the families intermarried and the house and property remained in the Shreve family until 1904.

There are approximately 20 marked stones in the cemetery, which is still in fairly good condition today, with the most notable being that of Richard and Francis Shreve, who were both killed by lightning on June 25th, 1874. The inscription reads: “Struck by a thunderbolt from Heaven, they both lay down and died, they left three lambs whom God had given them, may he for them provide.”

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