Early in the 21st century, I discovered a deserted United States Army fort, an old brick house and a 1950s movie theater tucked into Fauquier County’s rolling hills near Warrenton, Va. I wondered if I had driven through a time tunnel off Vint Hill Road. As an Army wife used to military forts, I whispered, “What is this place?”
Vint Hill began as a manor home and farm. It transformed from a Civil War and early 20th-century estate into a top-secret Army station. After the Army closed Vint Hill Farms Station in 1997, the Vint Hill Economic Development Authority (VHEDA), with assistance from Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC), began revitalizing the place.
Today, the former farm has sprouted into a lovely village worth seeing. Abandoned buildings and barns have become businesses, a museum, winery, cafés and a performing arts theater. High technology companies and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center employ hundreds of people. Tree-lined streets with charming homes have joined the manor home, now the Inn at Vint Hill. Youth sports teams play ball on expansive grass fields. And in 2022, the Puller Veterans Care Center is scheduled to open.
Fortunately for visitors, especially history buffs, the ghosts remain. They whisper how the Civil War’s Gray Ghost didn’t win a war, but thousands of clandestine signal interceptors in the 20th century did.
VINT HILL’S HISTORY
In 1860, Bessie and Andrew Low built a manor house and a barn. They named their home Vint Hill. The Civil War erupted a year later. To signal neutrality to keep fire torches away, the Lows hoisted the Union Jack flag.
In May 1863, the Lows could not hold back the war. Confederate Col. John S. Mosby, called the Gray Ghost, and his rangers encountered Union forces near Vint Hill’s back gate.
In an area known as Mosby’s Confederacy — NOVEC territory today — the rangers sabotaged communications, ransacked supply wagons, boats and trains, and captured Union officers. At Vint Hill, men on both sides fought and died. So did the Confederacy in 1865. But Vint Hill survived.
In 1911, a Philadelphia entrepreneur bought the 701-acre property. He doubled the size of the house and turned the farm into a modern country estate with purebred livestock. For several decades, Fauquier County’s fashionable society flocked to the entrepreneur’s elegant parties.
VINT HILL SLEUTHS
During World War I, the U.S. realized it needed expert cryptographers for intelligence gathering. In 1919, code breakers started intercepting and deciphering secret cable messages from foreign countries. The War Department stepped up surveillance in 1930 with the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (SIS).
Soon, the Navy, Coast Guard, FBI and Federal Communications Commission added clandestine listening stations from New Jersey to the Philippines, creating what author James Bamford called a “hodgepodge” of intelligence gathering.
Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing and wounding more than 3,500 Americans. In response, the U.S. entered World War II and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson began turning coding chaos and discord into organized teamwork.
The Army bought Vint Hill in 1942 and surreptitiously moved its 2nd Signal Service Battalion there to set up a major listening post. The Army’s Cryptographic School joined the battalion and began teaching women and men the secrets of signal snatching.
“Giant intercepting towers and half a dozen ugly barracks-like buildings soon disfigured the lovely Blue Ridge foothills, and here, in rooms filled with desks and tilted tops, most of the Army’s traffic analysis was done,” according to David Kahn, author of “The Code-breakers.”
In 1943, Vint Hill Farms Station (VHFS) eavesdroppers intercepted a message that Japan’s ambassador sent to Tokyo. The message described in detail Nazi fortifications along the French coast. Gen. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander in Europe, later credited VHFS for helping make the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy successful.
John DePerro, chief curator at Vint Hill’s Cold War Museum, points out that the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) working at Vint Hill was the dawn of women serving in the military. “They knew what they were doing,” DePerro says. “When men cycled in before going overseas, the WACs helped them learn the fine art of radio interception.” One WAC member told Liza Mundy, author of the 2017 “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” how traumatized she became when she learned what happened to the men she and other radio intercept operators replaced at VHFS. “All the men in that unit went overseas and died on the beaches within a month,” the code girl says in the book.
DePerro says few people today know Japanese Americans from Hawaii served at Vint Hill. “These men deserve recognition for their invaluable contributions.”
THE COLD WAR
After Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, the world morphed into the Cold War. Free-world and communist nations used spies and coded messages instead of tanks and bullets.
According to author Bamford, VHFS operated secretly in Fauquier County where “four-wheeled Mustangs coexist with four-legged stallions” and where small farms dotting the landscape in a gentle patchwork send “forth from the rich moist soil corn, soy, and, at a 720-acre secluded estate 10 miles east of Warrenton, antennas.”
Using rhombic antennas and monopoles, more than 2,000 men and women dressed in green and khaki harvested the crop, processed it through expensive machines in barns, and shipped it to a customer in Maryland. The customer, the National Security Agency, took all the farm produced. VHFS also supported CIA and FBI operations.
“One thing we knew in Army Operations was we must maintain security at Vint Hill.” says retired Army Lt. Col. Randolph Williams, a NOVEC member who served in the Pentagon in the 1980s.
VHFS sleuths intercepted the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and military communications. The Soviets weren’t the only targets — one former Vint Hill employee confirmed to a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in 1977 that the “giant ear” eavesdropped on Washington’s Embassy Row.
Vint Hill also had two small “safe houses” in the woods. Bryan Zwanzig, an Army soldier assigned to VHFS from 1978 to 1980 recalls when federal agents hid James Earl Ray in one of the houses. Ray, convicted of the 1968 killing of Martin Luther King Jr., stayed at the station before testifying on Capitol Hill. “When one of my friends rode his bike too near the house, agents pounced on him,” Zwanzig says.
Mike Washvill served at VHFS from 1983 to 1984. He says, “It’s fascinating how much of the technology used today in computers and cellphones, and for cybersecurity, derived from what the military developed during war and at VHFS’s Army Signal Warfare Lab.”
While the giant ear eavesdropped and federal agents hid people, Army families enjoyed the movie theater, sports and a community center in the manor home before it became the Inn at Vint Hill. Kim Love, who served at VHFS with military intelligence in the early 1990s and works for NOVEC, has fond memories of “4th of July fireworks, Oktoberfest celebrations, going Halloween trick or treating with my daughter, and running with my unit on the antenna field.”
VINT HILL TODAY
The Cold War Museum — co-founded by Francis Gary Powers Jr., son of the CIA U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 — tells VHFS’s secrets and honors those who served there and abroad. Zwanzig and Washvill are among volunteers at the museum, open on weekends and by appointment.
“It’s been 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Visitors from all over the world who don’t know much about the Cold War come to our museum to find out what really happened,” says Jason Hall, museum executive director.
But mostly, satellites, wireless broadband and computers have replaced Cold War antennas and special Smith-Corona typewriters. Starting in 2009, the Vint Hill Economic Development Authority poured millions of dollars into the village’s roads and infrastructure. NOVEC upgraded the Army’s electrical system.
In 2014, Julie and Ike Broaddus renovated one of the military’s 1950s warehouses and opened Old Bust Head Brewing Company, which can seat 300 people. “The brewery created a community gathering place,” says Ike Broaddus, a former economic develop-ment authority chairman. The couple purchased other military buildings and abandoned barns. They created a charming, energy-efficient village for more than 20 retailers.
In 2017, EFO Capital Management took majority ownership and management of Vint Hill’s remaining undeveloped property. To add to the village’s beautiful single-family homes, EFO is reviewing ideas for converting the Army’s abandoned barracks into condos for first-time buyers. EFO and local businesses continue to develop Vint Hill into a thriving work-live-play community.
Vint Hill is located about 10 miles northeast of Warrenton near U.S. 29/15. For more information, visit vinthill.com. Museum information is at coldwar.org. For more on the Inn, where secret Cuban Missile Crisis talks were held in 1962, visit vinthillvenue.com.