When it comes to using your vacation time, we have always been advocates of exploring your own backyard with the same enthusiasm you might have for a trip to a foreign land, a favorite amusement park, or a beach you love to visit. Your neighborhood may be home to your next favorite restaurant, museum, or park—or, like us, it might surprise you as the unlikely host of a secret military installation used to intercept messages from behind enemy lines.
Just an hour west of Washington, DC, Vint Hill Farms Station played an unlikely role during World War II as well as the Cold War. Over the decades it has transformed from a rural farm with a secret purpose to an off-the-beaten-path destination for great food, local beer, and entertainment. We’re fortunate that it’s not far from our home—but here are a few reasons you might want to seek out Vint Hill Farms Station as a quick detour during a visit to Washington, DC!
What Is Vint Hill Farms Station?In the years before World War II, Vint Hill served land owners as a farm that often mixed with some of the most defining moments in the USA’s history. Vint Hill dates back to before the United States declared its independence; the first deed was recorded in 1772. The land was most typically used to raise cattle and sheep, but farming ceased in the 1860s when the Civil War ravaged the Virginia countryside. Vint Hill saw its share of wartime action as several battles played out across its fields. The property was restored to working farmland when the war ended in 1865.
In 1911, the farm was purchased by Mitchell Harrison, a retired businessman who sought to use the land to raise cattle and show horses. In addition to livestock, he constructed and renovated a number of buildings that are, to this day, credited with giving Vint Hill much of its charm and character. He built a large barn with a slate roof, and he purchased and updated a number of buildings within close proximity of Vint Hill. When World War II broke out, life on the farm continued as normal. It was an otherwise uneventful spring day in 1942 that changed Vint Hill—and the war itself.
While conducting their work, farmers working at Vint Hill noticed that they were intercepting messages in German on their radios. After alerting the US Army, Vint Hill’s greatest secret was discovered: the land sits on an extremely rare geological formation that serves as a long-range antenna, and the messages coming through the radio waves were direct from Berlin! By June 1942 the Army purchased Vint Hill from Harrison and the country’s newest listening post—named Monitoring Station No. 1—was born.
Vint Hill Farms Station was largely staffed by women from the Women’s Army Corps, and they were highly trained to understand and translate Morse code messages. Highly intelligent women with backgrounds in mathematics and foreign languages were recruited for these critical roles, and they were largely credited with providing the raw data they received to analysts, who used the information to inform military decisions that were made and carried out overseas. Messages were intercepted and analyzed for more than a year before a huge break gave the USA the intel they needed to change the course of the war.
On November 10, 1943, Pvt. Leonard A. Mudloff discovered that an intercepted transmission he was decoding contained critical information about Nazi Germany’s location and planned action in Normandy. The transmission, sent by Japanese ambassador to Nazi Germany Hiroshi Oshima, provided extensive detail about the names of the Nazi commanders, their locations, and their plans for ongoing sieges in Europe. The messaging Mudloff translated and provided directly informed decisions and actions that led to June 6, 1944, the infamous D-Day, when troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and dealt a staggering blow to Nazi efforts. As the largest seabourne invasion in history, D-Day is credited with changing the course of the war. It started the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, and later Europe, and ultimately it set the course for victory on the war’s Western Front.
After World War II, Vint Hill Farms Station remained an active Army base and served as a training outpost for cryptanalysts and radio operators. While the area remained quieter than it was during World War II, it served as a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After a period of time where Vint Hill served as a research base, it was ultimately closed in 1997 when its military usefulness expired.
Vint Hill Farms Station: Things to Do
Since Vint Hill Farms Station ceased its military engagement, the Vint Hill Economic Development Authority (VHEDA) has worked hard to bring residential and commercial development to what would otherwise have reverted to a sleepy corner of Washington, DC’s suburbs. The area’s colorful history comes to life through a few fun, local experiences that are worth a day trip!
► The Cold War Museum
It may have been World War II that brought Vint Hill Farms Station to prominence, but its involvement with the Cold War takes center stage at a small but powerful museum. Founded by two graduate students and staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, the museum is all but bursting with artifacts, memorabilia, and other items that connect to the Cold War. Dedicated to preserving the history and resources that will educate generations about the Cold War, the museum has some truly interesting exhibits about parts of world history you are unlikely to have learned in school. We were especially drawn in by a story about a Soviet Navy officer by the name of Vasily Arkhipov. He is credited with single-handedly preventing a nuclear strike that would undoubtedly have been the catalyst for World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stationed in submarines and without direct contact to Moscow, there was a suspicion that war might have broken out above the surface of the water—and the other submarine commanders wanted to fire a nuclear launch. Arkhipov made a decision not to fire, which was eventually analyzed to be the decision that so narrowly avoided nuclear war. Arkhipov’s legacy is honored with an exhibit at the Cold War Museum.
The Cold War Museum is funded exclusively by donations—both monetary and period-items that eventually are displayed within the museum. While donations are highly encouraged, it is free to visit the museum (and just $25 to become a member). A visit can take a short amount of time if that’s all you have, but it’s worth budgeting 30-60 minutes to see both floors of the building and chat with the fantastic volunteers, all of whom have lots of information and great stories they are excited to share.
More Information: ColdWar.org
► Escape Vint Hill at the Inn at Vint Hill
Thanks to Vasily Arkhipov we narrowly escaped World War III, and at Escape Vint Hill you can follow in his footsteps by saving the planet from a madman who wants to destroy it all. If you haven’t tried an escape room in the past, they are a fun way to challenge yourself and your friends and family as you work together to solve themed puzzles. You’ll be given background information, instructions, and enough tools and clues to solve each puzzle with the goal of “escaping” from the room before your time is up. At Escape Vint Hill, your puzzles put you in the shoes of President John Kennedy and his executive team, and the experience draws on historical facts to bring you into a volatile time in the USA’s story.
Check out this video from Escape Vint Hill for a great preview of the event!
Escape Vint Hill is a great activity to plan after a visit to the Cold War Museum, where you may learn a few facts to jumpstart your brain during your escape. Booking your experience online is the best way to confirm your reservation. The experience does sell out, and it is not available every day during the summer months; the room is hosted at the Inn at Vint Hill, a popular wedding venue, which means it is not possible to book the experience on a day when the inn is also hosting a wedding. That said, save a few extra minutes before or after Escape Vint Hill to enjoy the inn itself, which is steeped in history and has stood in place since the 1860s. It has been expertly preserved to reflect the colonial architecture, and the building was part of the Army station when it was established in 1942.
More Information: EscapeVintHill.com
Places to Eat at Vint Hill Farms Station
Like many great communities, Vint Hill Farms Station has a few places to get a bite to eat. Here are two of our favorites from previous visits.
► Café at Farm Station
Reflective of changing tastes that crave fresh, clean ingredients, Café at Farm Station focuses on delicious meals born from sustainable practices. The bright, welcoming space emphasizes in-season items from carefully chosen partner suppliers—including the honey bee. Honey bees pollinate a substantial amount of the food we eat, and Café at Farm Station is committed to bringing awareness to the important role they play.
Honey plays a leading role throughout the menu, which we love for its inventiveness and quality. Simple breakfast sandwiches feature homemade black pepper biscuits, farm-fresh eggs, locally produced cheese, and honey-cured bacon—although you may be tempted to swap in fresh-baked bread or house-made sausage to create the perfect first meal of the day. I am partial to the Virginia ham biscuits, which layer ham between a sweet potato biscuit smothered in orange honey butter. Sandwiches and burgers are available after late morning; treat yourself to the Bird & the Bee, a chicken sandwich topped with a cornmeal-crusted fried green tomato. Many items are available as grab and go options, which makes Café at Farm Station a great stop for a full meal or to grab something for the road after your finish exploring the area.
More Information: Facebook.com/FarmStationCafe
► Covert Café
Vint Hill Farms Station is enshrouded in history, and the Covert Café prides itself on being one of the neighborhood’s best kept secrets. Featuring plenty of classic soups and sandwiches, you will undoubtedly find a favorite on the menu. You can’t go wrong with the Rueben, a sandwich so full of pastrami, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese that I couldn’t finish it. Adam ordered the Big B.E.L.T.C.H. because the name begs for attention, but the sandwich itself—a BLT with egg and cheddar cheese—did not disappoint. Specials change daily, and during our visit on what we thought was a quiet Saturday the restaurant was bustling with takeout orders from hungry residents in the nearby neighborhoods.
Covert Café has some nice outdoor seating for days when the weather is warm, and their location just around the corner from the Cold War Museum offers a nice vantage point to see many of the buildings and adjacent farmland that sustained the Army station for several decades.
More Information: CovertCafe.com
Beer and Wine at Vint Hill Farms Station
In addition to a few great restaurants, Vint Hill Farms Station offers a brewery and a winery just steps from one another! Here is what you can expect when you sample Vint Hill’s local brews and vintages.
► Vint Hill Craft Winery
One of our favorite wineries in Virginia is Pearmund Cellars, which boasts the name of executive winemaker Chris Pearmund—the same driving force behind Vint Hill Craft Winery. Mitchell Harrison’s barn with the slate roof, which later hosted the US Army, is now a beautiful tasting room that serves a nice selection of wines.
Before you even begin your tasting, you will be able to connect to the palpable history evident throughout the space. Pictures on the walls show people wearing headphones sitting at tables, monitoring the radio signals broadcast all the way from Europe. Even the bottles are part of the spirit of the area; some boast artistic images of the barn itself while others feature 40s-style pinup girls. It’s all in the details; it’s easy to let them convince you that you have been transported back to a very different era.
Even without the historical context, the wine is worth a visit. We both liked “Vivian,” a Viognier (Virginia’s state grape!) featuring a smiling girl on the label. It’s a bright, citrusy wine with plenty of lemon and orange, perfect for hot summer days. “Monique,” the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre) is also a delight, with dark notes of red fruit and pepper. Our favorite was the aptly-named Enigma; when asked what we were drinking, the tasting room associate who poured our wines just smiled and said, “I don’t know. That’s classified.” That’s what makes Enigma a fun wine. In addition to being a great red blend, no one is entirely sure what blend of grapes combines to create it. Well, someone knows. But they aren’t talking.
More Information: VintHillCraftWinery.com
► Old Bust Head Brewing Company
We spend a lot of our vacations seeking out new wineries, but we are no strangers to great breweries. From the familiar (like our visit to Guinness in Dublin) to the surprising (like Bruges, where beer runs under the streets!), beer is part of many local scenes. In the hyper-local community of Vint Hill, Old Bust Head is a gathering spot, an event place, and a destination in itself.
You’ll seek it out for the beer: after all, that’s what Old Bust Head makes. In addition to staples like IPAs and pale ales, the rotating menu features inventive creations that often reflect seasonal ingredients and styles. Table Talk, a Belgian-style wit, uses passionfruit and guava purée to produce a light, tropical libation that is available year-round but pairs perfectly with summer. On the other end of the scale is the Gold Cup, a deep, dark Russian imperial stout with heavy notes of chocolate, berries, and coffee. Don’t overlook the seasonal varieties that change periodically; they can be a great way to sample local flavors or learn about a new style.
Public brewery tours are offered regularly, and they provide a great way to learn about the brewing process. Stick around and create a flight to sample a few beers or order a pint of a favorite (or one you know is about to be a favorite!). Old Bust Head often hosts fun events like live music, food trucks, and even the Cold War Museum’s speaker series, which makes it a great place to extend your visit to Vint Hill Farms Station.
More Information: OldBustHead.com
Vint Hill Farms Station: Where to Stay
There isn’t a standard hotel within the Vint Hill Farms Station community. It is predominately residential, but there are plenty of options as you head back toward Washington, DC. If you don’t want to drive toward the city after your visit, Manassas is a great place to seek lodging for the night. It also gives you the chance to continue your history lesson by jumping back in time to the Civil War; you can visit Manassas National Battlefield Park near Bull Run, which is just a 15-minute drive from Vint Hill Farms Station. We find many of the best hotel rates through booking.com; take a look and see if there is a hotel that meets your needs as well!
Enjoy Vint Hill Farms Station!
Although many of our favorite travel memories stem from bigger, more complex trips, our visit to Vint Hill Farms Station provided a great reminder that some of the best vacation days are spent getting to know your own hometown—and even your own neighborhood. Vint Hill’s colorful history weaves through every experience you will have when spending time in the neighborhood, providing a half-day or full-day trip that feels connected and complete. Whatever you do, don’t let those vacation days go to waste: you never know what incredible experience is just around the corner!
We love to visit locations that might be a little lesser known with tourists. Here are a few more places to consider for your next vacation!