Henry Knox Field was born in April of 1860 in the City of Alexandria. Field was one of six or seven children of Isabella and Stephen K. Field.

  • His father may have once been a shoe salesman early in life, but appeared more often as a tax collector in the Alexandria Gazette.
  • His brothers were Stephen F., William C., John A., and possibly R. L.; however there is some uncertainty about R. L….he might have been a nephew.
  • His sisters were Mary A. and Cora F.

His marriage to Ella Wheatley resulted in two daughters, Eleanor S. born in 1889 and Marguerite born in 1894. Eleanor married Thomas Clarke and Marguerite married John Graham. Both daughters and their husbands are buried in the family plot along with their parents in the Union cemetery of the Washington Street United Methodist Church.

A notice in the March 2, 1893, edition of the Alexandria Gazette announced the issuance of permits to Field for two, two-story frame houses on the east side of Patrick Street, between Oronoco and Pendleton. He and his family may have resided in these homes (today there are a number of two-story row homes, both framed and brick), but when he died om July 31, 1917, he was in residence at his home in the Warfield Apartments. He also maintained a residence at 509 South King Street for some period of his life (WSUMC records).

Field’s first job following high school appeared to be in the Smoot Lumberyards. He grew in the business that the Smoot brothers George, Josiah, and French, had built until he was basically in charge. An entry in the Alexandria Gazette on October 23, 1899, announces the final transfer of rights and property for the Josiah H. D. Smoot Lumber Company from Josiah’s widow to Henry K. Field. Interestingly, it seems Field didn’t purchase the property on which the lumberyard stood. A 1906 entry in the Gazette says the property was sold on the courthouse steps and Field purchased it at that time. Apparently Smoot’s wife and daughter had had a dispute over who should receive how much allowance from whom in the Smoot Estate and the matter was best settled by the courts divvying up the property and liquidating it.

A brief history compiled by the Alexandria Historical Society estimated that Henry K. Field and Co. covered more than 3 acres from the Potomac to Lee Street and from Queen Street to King Street. The Potomac front was essential for delivery to customers up and down the river, but especially to Washington. The Gazette’s daily listing of port calls generally includes a Schooner arriving at or leaving from Henry K. Field and Co. through the turn of the century. The business employed about 40 men.

The lumberyard on the river wasn’t a terribly risky business, but at the turn of the last century, the planing factory was. Planing was necessary to get smooth modern construction lumber, but the process required a powered plane (we have no record as to whether Field used an electric or steam powered plane—early electric models were available). On October 11, 1901, a fire was discovered in the planing mill. Employees were able to extinguish the flames and the fire department quickly arrived to assist. Damage was slight, but this was only the first fire.

On May 12, 1909, the Gazette reports a disastrous fire at W. A. Smoot & Co.’s Planing Mill. (W. A. Smooth may have been related to the Smoot family, but this was definitely a different company from the one that Field had purchased.) The fire destroyed “thousands of dollars worth of lumber and building material.” Five total buildings were lost in the blaze. The Gazette’s account of the fire is riveting, noting the minute by minute progress of the flame. The article frequently refers to fears from the firefighters that the flames would move to adjacent buildings, including Field & Co.’s planing mill.  In the end, the Gazette only refers to “a considerable quantity of insured lumber belonging to Henry K. Field & Co.” being destroyed.

The Gazette’s report was not the only newspaper to chronicle a massive fire in Alexandria on May 12. The Evening Times in Cumberland, Maryland, reported a blaze covering three blocks and resulting in a loss of $500,000. The Lima Times Democrat in Lima, Ohio, reported the fire as smaller…only $200,000 in damage, but did report specifically that Henry K. Field and Company lost about $50,000 in lumber.  This photo shows what must have been a tremendous blaze.

Henry K. Field and Co. was insured and suffered little lasting effects from the fire. In September of the same year, the Gazette reported that Tannie Trigger seriously cut one of his fingers on a circular saw, but little other incident is recorded. Advertisements continue to show up for Henry K. Field and Co. in the Gazette for a few years, but then die away.

The city and the world were changing. While we are uncertain when Field dissolved the company, we know that construction began for the Torpedo Factory on the site of his offices in November of 1918 in response to the demands of World War I.

Field frequently showed up in the Gazette throughout his life. Increasingly, toward the end of his life, his community involvement was either with his church or with Masonry. The Royal Arcanum and Travelers Protective Association are mutual benefit and relief societies that continue to operate today, but on a much smaller scale. It seems that these organizations, and a couple of others with which Field was affiliated, were focused on life insurance.

The early 20th century was a turning point for the acceptance and endorsement of life insurance. Life insurance products had existed since before Colonial America, to an extent, but many people eschewed them as taboo. Christian communities in particular thought it distasteful to enter into contractual agreements that would financially benefit you only at the termination of the life of another human. The realization of the need to support one’s family in a post land-grant and military-pension based economy, however, shifted acceptance. The transition suggested it was more distasteful to leave your family destitute.  Field was on the cutting edge of a business proposition that aligned with his civic-mindedness and fraternity.

Field’s generosity frequently surfaces. He provided a monthly donation to a rest home for Civil War veterans.  He gave barrels of flour to the hospital. He gave each of the three fire companies that responded to the May 2009 fire at Smoot and Co. $50 each and another $25 to the captain who had organized their efforts. That’s a little over $1300 and $600 respectively in 2018 money.

The 1908 mention of Field as a pallbearer is interesting more for the article that follows it in the Gazette. The efforts of citizens in the Del Ray and St. Elmo communities of Alexandria appeared to be paying off and it was thought they would soon be incorporated as the Town of Potomac. 17 years later, Henry Knox Field Lodge would be chartered in Potomac.

Field’s well-established business, personal philanthropy, and involvement in the community made him a prime candidate for politics. However, Field, if anything, was a reluctant politician. In his obituary, there is mention that he could have been mayor and his friends urged him to do so, but he refused. He had no desire to make any position a contest and would not run against an opponent. I think this comment very clearly paints Field as a man who would fill any role required of him, but he would also seek to maintain peace and harmony.

Not necessarily political, the first mention of Field in an authoritative role is administrator of estates, which would be basically an appointed executor. The 1904 mention of his participation in a group that appeared before Congress is both political and business-minded. The Potomac Chanel, owing to greater land development around the river’s tributaries, had become too shallow with silt deposits for many vessels. This was particularly dangerous for the Alexandria economy, which had served as a seaport since its founding in the 1600s. Field’s participation showed his importance in the community and the power of his business.

When a seat on the Board of Alderman opened for the Third Ward, the board elected Field unanimously. The citizens of the Third Ward continued to do so. Field received notice in the Gazette for his work on the finance committee of the Alderman and eventually he was named Alderman Board Chairman. When Field moved to the Second Ward of the city, his new neighbors petitioned him to continue to watch out for their interests by sitting on the lower board, the Second Ward Common Council.

Field’s church life was undoubtedly center to his character. He was utterly dedicated to the choir, leading it for many years and participating in the establishment of the Alexandria Church Choral Society. He was an accomplished Tenor, having numerous solos listed at church and other functions over the years. His participation in church administration included being treasurer, serving on many committees, and being a trustee. Some time after 1910, he began teaching the Wesley Men’s Bible Class, which was a spiritual and social organization in its own right, with many participants and an active baseball team.

Field’s church and Masonic involvement blended on a couple of occasions. It was his lodge, Andrew Jackson 120, that laid the cornerstone of the Young People’s Building and it was later in that building that AJ organized a Social Smoker to celebrate his election as Grand Junior Deacon. After his death, the Wesley Bible Class renamed themselves in his honor. In November 1917, reflecting on Field, Rev. Bulla wrote, “Brother Field was a man of symmetrical character—humble, gentle, magnanimous, tactful, genial, and amiable. He was affectionate in the home, loyal in friendship, honorable in business, and consecrated and untiring in Christian work. …he stepped out of his tent into his mansion. We loved him in sincerity. We shall miss him. Please God, we shall see him in that sweet and blessed country.”

Field came from a family of Masons. His father was raised in 1874, Henry raised his brother William at AJ120 in October of 1894, and R. L. field, who was either a brother or a nephew, was raised in May of 1898. Henry Knox Field was initiated, passed and raised in Andrew Jackson Lodge No. 120. He was Worshipful Master of that Lodge beginning in June 1893. In 1896 and 1899 he was named District Deputy Grand Master from AW 22 and AJ 120 respectively. He was elected Grand Junior Deacon in 1910 and moved through the Grand Line to be elected Grand Master in 1917.

Field’s Masonic resume was extensive. He was Past High Priest of the Mount Vernon Royal Arch Chapter, Past Eminent Commander of the Old Dominion Commandery of the Knight Templar, Past Patron of the Martha Washington Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, and a Scottish Rite Mason.  We also know that Field was present, and in charge of music, for the cornerstone laying of Columbia Lodge, No. 285, in Clarendon on June 26, 1909.

On April 23, 1917, As Grand Master, he instituted Sharon Lodge, No. 337, in McLean. The Gazette noted that the 50 Masons of Alexandria that attended the event made the trip by automobile.

When he was elected Grand Junior Warden, it made front page news, so you can imagine the accolades afforded him when he became Grand Master. The Gazette wrote, “While members of the Masonic Lodges of Alexandria rejoice with him, the citizens are generally enthused over the testimonial accorded one of their most popular citizens.”

Field was a contemporary of Charles Callahan, the AW22 Master that donated the land necessary to finally begin the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Field participated in a number of the organizational meetings that were held at AW with Grand Lodge representatives from dozens of Grand Jurisdictions.

Field made his final official visit to Andrew Jackson Lodge on July 5, 1917. The oil portrait of him with his Grand Master’s jewel was presented at that time and now hangs in the AJ ante room. When he passed away on July 31, 1917, his obituary noted that he suffered an incurable ailment and was in declining health. His death was front page news and accolades were featured on additional pages in the August 1 Gazette.

Of his civic service, it was written in an article titled Popular Citizen Dies, “Mr. Field had always been truly esteemed by all who knew him. While never seeking a public trust, he was always ready to devote part of his labors for the public good, and during years of service in the City Council he had been justly regarded as one of the most useful members. … We are told that the steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord. It was so in the earthly pilgrimage of [Henry Knox Field].”

Lucy M. Graves, Past Matron of the Martha Washington Chapter of the Order of Eastern Star, said, “I do not need to speak to this audience of brother Field’s fine bearings and attractive personality. These are but the external signs of an inward and spiritual beauty which constituted the real man. Our brother needs no eulogy. His life has been an open book, known and read of all men—a book wherein are shown the actuating motives of a noble life, wherein are recorded manly, virile virtues, mingled with gentleness, tolerance, patience, modesty, a wonderful combination. Manly and fearless, he stood for the right in all questions of civic morals and ethics, and stood in the open. He never sought honor nor preferment, but when selected gave his very best to the task or duty at hand. Is it surprising that men believed in him, that high honors were his reward, that love and devotion surrounded his life as a rare perfume, and enshrine his memory in many hearts?”

The Alexandria that Field left behind was much for his time in it. Is it any wonder that the men of Alexandria would want to find a way to continue to honor a city father and masonic giant by naming a lodge after him.  A pillar of faith, fair business, and freemasonry deserves no less an honor.

When he was elected Grand Master, Mrs. Frank W. Latham, Worthy Matron of the Martha Washington Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, said, “Elsewhere in Virginia he is the Grand Master, dignified, distinguished, and reserved. Here however, he is not only that, but in addition, is an Alexandrian—our brother and our friend.”