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Historical marker for Ball family cemetery wins approval

Whether the bodies are still there, however, remains an open question
This gravestone of Robert Ball Sr. and his wife Ann has been in storage for safekeeping, but now will be returned to the graveyard where some Ball family members are interred.

The Arlington County government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) has given approval, allowing for any minor tweaks, to an historical marker noting the Robert Ball Sr. Family Burial Ground in the family’s namesake community of Ballston.

The marker will join gravestones of family members in a small parcel – but where exactly those interred lie, or whether they are even on the site, is something of a mystery.

HALRB members voted unanimously Nov. 15 to approve the plaque as submitted by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), which turned the site of Central United Methodist Church into a new mixed-use project along Fairfax Drive.

Maintaining the 500-square-foot cemetery, making it available to the public and developing historical panels were part of the agreement with the county government to obtain the necessary zoning changes for the development to proceed.

Three generations of the Ball family were buried on the site between 1854-81. Six headstones in all were among the materials temporarily removed for safekeeping as the new housing was built nearby and then replaced in the locations they were found, although county officials acknowledge they really don’t know if that’s exactly where the bodies are buried.

Or, in fact, if the remains are still there, or perhaps resting under an expanded roadway nearby, or were relocated elsewhere sometime in the past century.

In 1906, descendants of Robert Ball Sr. donated a parcel of land for establishment of a Methodist church, with the proviso that the graveyard remain. In 1923, when a second, larger church building was constructed, the grave markers were moved – and historical records on where the bodies went, if anywhere, are scant.

When plans for tearing down that church and building affordable housing in its place were first announced prior to the pandemic, quiet efforts seemed to be taking place to have the remains moved elsewhere, but county officials ultimately decreed that the site of the graves would become a local historic district, providing for protection.

Robert Ball Sr., patriarch of one branch of the far-flung Ball family, lived a life that bookended two momentous events. He was born in November 1776, a mere four months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and died in May 1861, just a month after the attack on Fort Sumter ushered in the Civil War. Ball’s wife Ann (1781-1864) shares his resting place and grave marker.

The Nov. 15 discussion was a follow-up to an Oct. 18 session that involved extensive work on the verbiage and design of the marker. In approving it on Nov. 15, HALRB members left it to staff and the housing organization to make any final revisions.

APAH will be responsible for maintenance of the marker, and for replacement when it wears out – which usually takes 10 to 15 years, according to historic-preservation staff.

The burial ground is one of a number in Arlington connected to the far-flung Ball family, which had extensive community landholdings from the mid-19th century into the mid-20th.