Arlington’s Oldest Families
Their ancestors came here centuries ago, some by choice and others by force.
Shreves and Smiths
Occupying the second floor of the Penrose Square building on Columbia Pike, the real-estate development company BM Smith has come a long way since 1908, when local farmer and entrepreneur Benjamin Matthew Smith founded his eponymous home-building enterprise—one that, according to Arlington Economic Development, qualifies as Arlington’s longest-running business.
“Our family farm was right up there,” says president David Peete, the founder’s grandson, pointing up the Pike toward Courthouse Road. “All of this…is part of who we are.” But the family’s roots in Arlington actually date much farther back—all the way to the founding of America.
In 1775, war broke out across the colonies and Samuel Shreve, a Quaker, left his home in New Jersey to join the state militia with two of his brothers. Shreve soon earned a reputation as a brave and disciplined soldier, rising to the ranks of lieutenant colonel. He made such an impression on his superior, Gen. George Washington that, according to family lore, Washington would later give the young soldier an inside tip. When the Compromise of 1790 called for the nation’s capital to move from Philadelphia to the banks of the Potomac, Gen. Washington was charged with charting the exact location of the 10-square-mile site. Realizing his decisions would have an impact on land values, Washington reportedly recommended that Shreve buy land on the Virginia side—which is exactly what he did, purchasing 259 acres of farmland in the areas that now encompass the neighborhoods of Bluemont, Barcroft and Ballston.
Soon after, negotiations over taxes shifted the capital’s footprint to the Maryland side of the river, leaving Shreve high and dry. Says Peete: “I like to say that we are part of the first lost real-estate deal in American history.” But the Shreves nevertheless prospered. The 259 acres that Samuel Shreve had purchased extended from Lubber Run to Four Mile Run, making his heirs one of the largest land-owning families in Arlington.
In 1853, Julia Shreve was born and raised on the land her grandfather had bought. Several miles down the road, near Annandale, Toronto-born Henry William Smith had come to the U.S. to help his father establish a dairy farm. It’s unclear how the boy with the funny accent and the girl with auburn hair met, but fate brought them together. “That immigrant from Canada married an old blue blood,” Peete says. They married at Dulin Chapel in Falls Church (which is still located at 513 E. Broad St.) on Feb. 25, 1879, and moved to a farmhouse near what is now the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road.
Henry Smith continued to farm and ran a small coal business until 1894, when he made a career change. With $350, he purchased two horses, a 10-passenger wagonette and 10 blankets, and opened the Arlington Transfer Co.—thought to be Arlington’s first “tour bus service.” Picking up passengers at the Fort Myer Post Chapel, he—and later, other family members—would shuttle them along Columbia Pike and into the District, pointing out sights such as the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery. Henry’s grandson Ben Smith Jr. loves to tell of the time the company got a complaint letter from the cemetery about the tour guides’ language: “[They] were a little rough, so to speak.”
After World War I, Arlington Transfer Co. upgraded to motor buses before ending its operations in the late 1920s. In 1908, Henry and Julia’s son Benjamin Matthew Smith opened his real estate company at the age of 24. Some 15 years later, he moved his home and offices to the 2400 block of Columbia Pike (currently the site of Rappahannock Coffee), just across the street from the building that BM Smith, still family-owned and operated, occupies today. Stop by and you’ll usually find a couple family members working there, including the founder’s son, Ben Smith Jr., now 88. “It’s our hometown,” Peete says. “We’ve stayed connected. The whole family is represented here.”