Our Man in Arlington

March 11, 2014 10:03 AM0 comments

clark-fcnpIn my boyhood neighborhood of Cherrydale, there’s a name renowned for decades as a volunteer fire fighter, shopkeeper, Christmas party Santa and repository of local history.

Marvin Binns, 79, may have spent more time than any living soul at the early-20th-century Cherrydale Firehouse (before it was rebuilt and modernized two blocks up Lee Highway in 2011). He was there when it still housed Sam Torrey Shoe Service (before Sam moved up Lee Highway in the early ’60s).

Binns’ functioning fire truck, with which he delivers Fire Department mail, sits with permission in front of the Ballston apartment where I interviewed him last month. I was pleased to compare notes with a Cherrydale home-boy who preceded me by a generation.

As a blood-deep Arlingtonian born in Ballston, Binns attended Cherrydale Elementary School in the 1940s. He fondly recalls his favorite teacher, Mrs. Shin, three decades before the school’s pair of buildings were torn down to house the Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center.

From homes on North 21st and later on Nelson street, Binns at age 8 went to work as a shelf-stocker at the old Shreve’s Market, near what today is Mattress Warehouse. He recalls using the store’s ice blocks to sell flavored ice treats and the time he and two pals chipped in and bought a package of Brown’s Mule chewing tobacco. “We didn’t know you weren’t supposed to swallow it,” he says.

Binns joined Arlington’s fire team at age 18, though he soon enlisted for a four-year stint in the Navy. But he spent many nights sleeping at the firehouse that still stands as a state historic landmark. It was like a family. One Christmas, his boss asked him to come down and answer what turned out to be false alarms, but, by this time a father, he begged off, saying he had to assemble gift bicycles for his children.

His volunteer fire fighting was seldom dangerous, Binns says, recalling one close call in Lyon Village when the rear of a long fire engine whipped in a sudden turn to avoid a woman in the street. “If I’d been sitting on the back I’d be gone,” he says. In serious fires, such as the damaging blaze at the Murphy and Ames lumber yard in 1951, volunteers helped only from a distance.

Sundays in 1950s Arlington were especially busy for fire fighters in Rosslyn, Binns says. An industrial laundry, which cleaned for a nearby oil refinery clothing brought on Potomac River barges, stored the greasy rags over the weekend, and they combusted. Same at the nearby Jack and Jill diaper service.

Binns worked at Arlington Paper Company, which then stood alongside a penny candy store at Monroe Street (now a Filipino market), near the old Ellis Radio. We both recalled the proprietor Mr. Waller selling licorice strips and dots of candy on paper for a penny.

He remembers the predecessor of the Cherrydale Safeway named Sanitary Grocery, and several sites Safeway occupied. He confirmed my recollections of Bernie’s Pony Ring, which offered live pony rides at Lyon Village and Bailey’s Crossroads.

Now battling an illness, Binns recently gave up playing Firehouse Santa for Cherrydale children – after 37 years. He and his wife of 55 years, Betty, enjoy their 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and Marvin recently being named by his community as Cherrydale’s best volunteer.

Correction: An earlier version of this column reported that the Cherrydale Firehouse was a product of the 19th century. It was built in the early 20th century. 

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