Revolutionary Past Lives On at Waterford Fair


The place is the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The time is simply out of this world.

An intent-looking, bearded man in Revolutionary War-era clothing plays haunting melodies on a hammered dulcimer next to a one-room clapboard schoolhouse. The air is filled with the smell of fresh apple cider.

Down the narrow, sycamore-lined street, a band of youthful dancers, accompanied by accordion and fiddle players, bang wooden sticks on the ground and toss them back and forth in a spirited Elizabethan dance. Their impromptu stage is flanked by stately stone and brick homes and log cabins, many adorned with pots of pink and red petunias and impatiens.

Elsewhere throughout the tiny, village, artisans clad in breeches, tricorn hats, bonnets and long skirts are busy making baskets, furniture, jewelry, pottery, clothing, rugs and toys. Their tools are the simple instruments of Colonial times.

An 18th Century time warp? Another "Back to the Future" sequel? Not quite. These scenes are part of the annual Waterford fair, one of the best places in the country to experience various aspects of early American life.

The renown of the event, officially called the Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit, is attested to by the 36,000 visitors who turned out last year. Virginia's oldest crafts fair will be held for the 47th year this Oct. 5-7.

The setting itself is a draw. Founded by the Pennsylvania Quakers in 1773, Waterford and its 1,420 acres of surrounding farmland were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, one of only three such villages in the country.

The village has 91 homes and about 250 year-round residents within its 2.2 square miles. Although only 40 miles northwest of Washington, it remains resolutely pastoral. Some of the residents, who evince considerable pride in their refuge, call it "little Brigadoon."

The backdrop for the fair is so convincing that, despite telephone wires overhead and concrete sidewalks underfoot, one visitor last October was heard to ask: "Where do they keep all these buildings the rest of the year?"

The rest of the year, Waterford keeps serenely to itself. The only in-town accommodations are three bed and breakfasts with a total of six rooms and suites. Many residents are government employees and attorneys who commute to work in Washington. Some artists and crafts people including second- and third-generation villagers remain, but skyrocketing real estate prices have thinned their ranks.

Waterford has become such a trendy address, in fact, that there are waiting lists of prospective buyers for some houses. Ever vigilant concerning the dangers of development, the village has refused to have water lines installed. Each house has its own well.

Ducks, geese, cows and horses dot fields and pastures behind the homes, contributing to the striking vistas from within the village that landscape architects have termed "viewsheds." These panoramas, framed by brick and stone houses with the misty Blue Ridge in the distance, have inspired painters and photographers for decades.

A visitor is also struck by what you won't find in Waterford. Not only no fast-food franchises but no restaurants. Not only no car dealerships but no gas stations. Not only no video stores but no movie theaters. Why, there isn't even a bank.

"We can usually tell who's going to make it here by the first or second meeting," said Charles Anderson, a 24-year resident and owner of The Pink House, a local bed and breakfast.

"If they call up to complain about a stray dog, they'll be gone in a year. They've got a suburban mentality."

The fair, which attracts more than 100 artisans and performers from surrounding states and communities, is Waterford's showcase. It is organized by the Waterford Foundation, a nonprofit preservation group that uses the proceeds to acquire and protect properties that are under increasing pressure to be developed.

Knowledgeable volunteers chosen by the foundation review those who seek to participate for quality and authenticity. Competition is intense.

The reputation that has been achieved is such that one village merchant quipped, "When I was growing up, we used to say that you could sell horse manure if you stamped 'Waterford Fair' on it."

When my wife and I attended the fair last year, we were struck by the uniform quality of the exhibits and the re-enactments, and the sense of joyous discovery they engendered despite the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.

Among those we encountered was John Weissenberger of nearby Winchester, Va., who was at work on the Village Green. He was splitting wood with a wedge-shaped froe, knocking the corners off with a drawknife and shaping the legs with a spin-pole lathe to make Windsor chairs, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"We make 'em look like originals," said Weissenberger, who does makes furniture for a living, but not usually clad in stockings, breeches, waistcoat and tricorn hat. "It's more fun when you do something that you're good at."

The work of the artisans is generally for sale, which means you can find hand-spun sweaters, Amish quilts, reproductions of 18th-Century furniture, beeswax candles, salt-glazed stoneware, dried floral and herbal arrangement, Shaker baskets, hand-tooled leather belts, traditional cloth dolls, scrimshaw pieces and more.

Again, what's missing are T-shirts and the ubiquitous souvenir items that plague most tourist destinations today. Call it the progress of preservation.

On-the-spot craftsmanship gives way to Revolutionary War buffs who set up a weekend encampment near the old mill. Civil War re-enactors, meanwhile, march through town at various times during the fair and re-create battles on a nearby hill. The sound of a rifle shot in the distance may signal the start of such a skirmish.

Always, it seems, there is music. Visitors can hear early American hymns, barbershop quartets, traditional folk music or the distinctive sound of a marching fife and drum corps.

And, wherever you wander, you can't miss the smells: anise, cinnamon, herbs, homemade cookies. The village is redolent.

Hungry? Waterford seems determined in one weekend to make up for its year-round lack of restaurants. There are crab cakes, Brunswick stew, Polish sausages, roasted corn, homemade ice cream and even Vietnamese spring rolls.

Waterford was initially a late 18th-Century Quaker community of cereal farmers, and the town's earliest houses were built around the mill on the banks of Catoctin Creek. The Quakers were subsequently joined by Scottish-Irish craftsmen from Pennsylvania, who brought their carved interior woodwork to the earliest homes.

Because of their adherence to nonviolence, few Quakers participated in the Revolutionary War, and those who did were expelled from the meeting.

After the revolution, the village grew rapidly. Many of the buildings standing today were constructed during this time.

Numerous buildings are open for tours during the fair. This includes the one-room school built for the village's black children in 1867 and still used in a "living history" program, and a nearly 100-year-old log cabin known as the weaver's cottage. Both are owned by the foundation.

Private homes are also open, generally for parts of one or more fair days--a reminder that they are, indeed, lived-in history.

We visited the Mill End house, a grand Federal-style building on a hill overlooking the grist mill. The house was built around 1800 by the miller for his daughter and was later home to a number of his successors. Its current owners have granted a preservation easement so that the home will be forever protected from changes that are not consistent with its historic character.

One distinctive part of Waterford history is that some early residents were slaveholders, but the village had an unusually high proportion of free blacks for early 18th-Century Virginia.

By the end of the Civil War, the Quakers were solidly abolitionist and backed the Union. This was an unpopular stand in Loudoun County, prompting harassment by Confederate forces.

In response, Samuel Means, then Waterford's miller, renounced his Quaker principles and formed the Independent Loudoun Rangers, the only organized troops in Virginia to fight for the Union. A plaque at the 137-year-old Baptist Church recalls an 1862 skirmish in Waterford between Confederate troops and Loudoun Rangers in which brother literally fought brother.

At last year's fair, re-enactors representing a black Civil War regiment from Massachusetts laid a wreath at the Waterford Union Cemetery in honor of black soldiers buried there. Cynthia Wilson, the foundation's director of development, described the ceremony as a moving tribute to Waterford's own "glory."

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