On the Waterfront, or, The Smell of Discovery

Today’s post is by College Park processing archivist Alan Walker.

True story: Thursday, March 28 was shaping up to be a typical day. I had before me a cart’s worth of boxes full of case files from the Department of Justice that needed to be listed for a spreadsheet of “temporary” files to be disposed. These particular case files dealt with disputes over the ownership of land and their subsequent settlements, known as “Suits to Quiet Title.”

As it happens, my family has some experience in such matters. My great-grandfather, Albert Norton, and his two brothers George and Howard owned a rendering plant on the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. From 1942 until the late 1970s the plant processed…well, I won’t go into the gory details. Suffice it to say that the plant, and others like it across the country, “rendered” a valuable service to meat processors. With increasing consolidation of the industry, especially in the Midwest, small producers like Norton and Co. couldn’t compete and so were sold off or otherwise disposed.

Now, at this point you can probably take a stab at what happened on that Thursday when I opened the first box of the day. In it, as so often happens, was a pile of loose papers that had become separated from their original folder. I spread the pile on my desk, looking for the telltale case file number stamped onto each document. My eyes lit upon the words “Alexandria, Virginia”, then “Waterfront Litigation”, then upon the name of my cousin Howard Rand Norton!

In September 1982, my great-great-uncle Howard’s grandson Howard Rand Norton III (known as Randy), signed a settlement with the Federal Government over the Norton and Co. property in Old Town. In this pile of papers, comprising case file 90-1-5-1355, is laid out the torturous history of waterfront land ownership  from the 1950s to the late 1970s. And it is an issue that continues today, as evidenced by recent news articles on the topic.

Old Town Alexandria was a very different animal back in the days when the waterfront was dotted with military and light industrial operations, a far cry from the pricey townhouses, tony restaurants and dynamic art spaces that grace it today. Norton and Co. contributed its own sensory charms to the milieu; if you dare, you can just imagine the smell in the summertime.   My Aunt Holly tells the story of how my great-grandfather would stride into Burke and Herbert bank to do some business, and the banker would greet him with “What’s that smell?” And without missing a beat, Albert Norton would say “That’s the smell of money!”

And for me, this one-in-a-million discovery is one to savor.

Postscript: The site of the Norton and Co. property is now occupied by Canal Place, a mixed-use development,  as well as the Oronoco Bay Park. Randy Norton moved over to a more fragrant line of work, establishing several successful restaurants in Northern Virginia. He is currently the CEO of Great American Restaurants Group, which owns several popular restaurant chains in the area. And no; even with this shameless plug, I don’t get to eat for free!

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