“I’d just returned to America after nine years abroad and moved to an old house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My Australian wife chose the spot; the fields and cows and crooked fences fit Geraldine’s image of outback America. For me, the place stirred something else. I stared at a brick church still bullet-scarred from a Civil War skirmish. In the lumpy village graveyard, I found Confederates and Yankees buried side by side, some of them kin to each other.” - Tony Horwitz, “Confederates in the Attic.”
Forgive me dear reader, for I have sinned. Flat out of ideas for our next day trip destination, I stooped to the depths of desperation. Yes, I’ve started looking at travel guides. (In all seriousness, I’d like to thank Beth Kanter for her book, “Day Trips from Washington, D.C.: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler.”)
Gone is my purist’s pride, but oh, what a jewel we have for your today. We’re talking Waterford, a sleepy village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some 30 miles northwest of Washington, and a short scenic drive from Leesburg. Until I sold my soul to the travel devil, had never heard of it.
Waterford is a peek back in time. First settled in 1733 by Amos and Mary Janney, Quakers and farmers from Pennsylvania, this National Historic Landmark and bedroom community has no restaurants and just one or two shops.
The tiny town shines, however, with great surrounding beauty and historic homes and buildings. 1,500 acres of surrounding farmland buffer the town of just 1,000 inhabitants from development.
As the Waterford website notes,
The village has survived from the early 1900's to the present day with very little alteration of its basic pattern and character. It is a life-size history book, providing visitors with a glimpse into the lives of Virginians 100 to 200 years ago.
As Christopher Hendricks notes in his book, “The Backwater Towns of Colonial Virginia,” the town was not laid out in any particular pattern or grid. It “simply evolved naturally based on the layout of the land.”
The Catoctin Valley held great beauty and resources for the farmers, but its location in the middle ground between North and South meant peace and prosperity gave way to trouble during the Civil War. As abolitionists, many residents fled to Maryland. Confederate troops harassed those who stayed. The Quakers had welcomed and assisted African-Americans as early as 1790 (Hendricks).
Some fed-up town citizens formed the Loudoun Rangers, who fought in “The Fight for Waterford” on August 27, 1862. The Rangers took the worst of it, but a year later, three Quaker girls published the Waterford News, an underground Union newspaper.
The town did not recover until after the Great Depression. Today, commuters to Washington trade the traffic for the quiet, rural setting and historic character. A significant number of the 18th and 19th Century structures remain thanks to local preservation efforts, which began in 1943 and are sustained by the Waterford Foundation.
Waterford residents cherish their solitude, but every early October they put aside those thoughts when the town celebrates the season with their award-winning Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit. Several prominent authors are said to live here, or used to, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning couple of Tony Horwitz and Geraldine Brooks.
Waterford is small but there’s lots to see. Here are the highlights of our visit:
Waterford Foundation Office (Corner Store)
Don’t miss this uniquely shaped building, which houses the offices of the Waterford Foundation and serves as your starting point. Some excellent handouts found here including their walk guides.
Without the Mill, there is no Waterford. Three interpretive markers in the back provide information. Don’t miss the rusty wheel.
The Philips Farm
The self-guided tour starts behind the mill.
Real small, real old, real fun. Send a postcard.
The Quakers provided financial assistance to the black community and built this one classroom school in 1866.
Waterford students use the school to learn about African-American history. Do not miss.
We’re not sure if “Onward Christian Soldiers,” is sung in this church, but if so, the hymn connects with the town’s past. The interpretive marker, ceremoniously installed last year, details the story fully told in, “Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia.” Gunfire rang out here on the morning of August 27, 1862. 60 Confederates attacked 28 soldiers from the Loudoun Rangers, an Independent outfit led by Quaker miller Captain S.C. Means.
Also see the stateside marker on Main Street.
There’s nothing sadder than seeing a beautiful church no longer in use. That is the case with the John Wesley Methodist Church, across the street from the Mill. Black members of the community built the Gothic Revival structure in 1891. The work was done by lantern light after their workday.
As the Waterford site notes:
Many skirmishes were fought near the town but this was the only one within its borders. It was unique in that friend was pitted against former friend, even in one instance, brother against brother. This war is thought of as one of brother against brother, but seldom did it really happen — here it did.
This blogger observed:
It is hard to find a more direct example of the “brother vs. brother” (which often sounds so cliche) aspect of the Civil War. But when Colonel Elisha White’s 35th Virginia attacked the Loudoun Rangers at the Waterford Baptist Church on August 27, 1862, brothers stood on opposite sides.
The total number of Civil War veterans interned at the cemetery number over 40, if my math is right. I submit you will not find a broader sampling of Civil War experiences than that represented among the men who lay at rest in the Waterford Union Cemetery.
In her book, Kanter recounts her visit to Waterford. She asked two locals where the museum was.
They replied, “The whole town is a museum.”