On the outskirts of the sprawling suburbs to the nation’s capital, there’s a time machine of sorts that can transport you back a century or two. It’s a quaint village called Waterford.
You’ll find it preserved like a dragonfly in amber amid the cookie-cutter housing developments that are gradually consuming the rural remnants of Loudoun County, VA, one of the nation’s fastest-growing communities.
Back in the spring, Nick, my older brother in Norfolk, messaged me asking if I’d ever heard of Waterford. He’d found something about it online and wrote, “Looks like a cheap Williamsburg.” Both of us are history buffs; so, intrigued, we agreed to make a day trip of it when he next visited me in Baltimore.
On a warm day in August, after a short drive off the beaten path, we found it — an enchanting cluster of homes, churches and other buildings from a bygone era, nestled on narrow, leafy streets between a scenic creek and a hillside. Not exactly Williamsburg, but without the kitsch, and certainly not overrun by tourists.
Waterford is a National Historic Landmark District, and its 1,420 acres retain many of the structures built in the late 1700s and 1800s, when it was a bustling flour-milling town. The place seems to have changed so little since then that its founders could feel right at home — as long as they watched out for the periodic cars and pickup trucks passing through.
My brother and I parked our car at the brick Baptist Church, built in 1853. Then we strolled down the hill taking in — and photographing — the many historic buildings we found below. We had read up a little on the place beforehand, so we understood that Waterford has a fascinating history.
Waterford got its start in 1733, when Amos and Mary Janney, Quaker farmers from Bucks County, PA, moved south to farm 400 acres on the south fork of Catoctin Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River. They created a gristmill and sawmill there, both powered by the creek’s current. They also built a log meeting house as more Quakers joined them from up north.
The community was known then as Janney’s Mill. More dwellings and shops were added, and the Quakers were joined by other farmers, including German Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians.
African Americans were residents, too. Some were enslaved, but with the Quakers being advocates of abolition, by the early 1800s, a growing number of were free — which was uncommon in Virginia at the time. Sometime around 1790, the village was renamed Waterford, for the Irish town where some of its prominent settlers were born. And by the mid-1830s, when Waterford was incorporated, the village had become a thriving commercial center in the countryside. About 400 residents lived in 70 houses, shopped at a half-dozen stores, studied at no less than two free schools, refreshed themselves at four taverns, and worshipped at either a nondenominational church or the Friends meeting house.
The Civil War proved especially traumatic for Waterford, as Northern Virginia was a battleground fought over throughout the conflict. The village’s many Quaker residents sided with the Union, which brought harassment and worse from Confederates, and many residents fled north. Fed up with having his horses and other property confiscated, the mill’s owner organized the “Loudoun Rangers,” a cavalry unit that fought for the Union.
After the war, the town languished. The railroad bypassed Waterford, cutting it out from the flow of commerce. Stagnation set in and continued through the early 1900s. With no new construction, many homes and buildings simply deteriorated until repair and restoration began during the 1930s, led by several well-off families.
In light of the village’s history, its structures present a variety of architectural styles. Early dwellings, such as the Weaver’s cottage, built in the early 1800s, were modest accommodations for the less affluent — two-story, log-and-frame homes, with steeply pitched roofs and small windows. Others, built from the 1780s until about 1840, display Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival styles.
In some, the first floors were initially set up as stores or businesses, with no interior stairway to living quarters above. A number have had wings and floors added over time, so that the current structures are made up variously of stone, bricks of different age and hue, and clapboard. There’s also a tiny stone jail with a peaked roof, built in the early 1800s and used to hold “inebriates” and other petty miscreants up until the 1930s. The large brick mill at one end of Main Street, built in 1818, is actually the third such structure on or near that site, replacing earlier, smaller versions. You can still see a rusting wheel on one side of the restored building.
The town does have some more modern — or less old — structures: Victorian homes and a handful built in the latter 20th century. The village became a National Historic Landmark in 1970, effectively preventing any more radical changes.
There isn’t much “to do” on most days in Waterford, other than stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. There isn’t a visitor’s center, and no one is decked out in period costume to entertain visitors or squire them around. It’s a living community, with regular folks going about their daily business, walking to the post office or driving off to school, work or stores.
Though once full of tradesmen and merchants, there are just a few commercial establishments in town now — art galleries, offices and a woolen goods store, with a flock of sheep conveniently grazing out back. The store also sells cold drinks and snacks, which came in handy, as we’d browsed the streets well past lunchtime and there is no eatery in town.
You can download a self-guided walking tour from the Waterford Foundation’s website. Better yet, stop by the foundation office in the old Waterford school to pick up a printed copy — something I wish we had done at the start. We would have had much more information at hand as we peered at time-marked structures and wondered what stories they contained.
But the lack of an organized tour was more than made up for by the friendly nature of the town’s residents we encountered as we strolled around. They were almost always happy to stop and chat when we’d greet them, sharing what they knew and liked about the community. On a return visit, one resident even invited me in for a closer inspection of her colorful garden, decked out in crimson calla lilies and “love lies bleeding” amaranth, with their deep red trailing blooms. Both visits left me feeling calm and contemplative.
If you want a little break from the historic theme, there’s a 1.5-mile interpretive trail through a 144-acre farm southwest of the village. Phillips Farm, as it’s known, appeared destined to become yet another exurban housing development when the Waterford Foundation bought the tract in 2003 for $4 million. A local farmer raises hay there now, and it’s home to an apiary. The trailhead begins behind the old brick mill and takes hikers through a variety of habitats to see several restoration projects, including abundant milkweed growth that makes it a monarch butterfly migratory waystation.
The Waterford Foundation, which since 1943 has been dedicated to preserving the buildings and open spaces of the town, runs a variety of programs and activities throughout the year. There are four one– or two-day “craft schools” offered to the public from April through July, with lessons in making wreaths from dried flowers, basket weaving and the like. The Second Street School, built after the Civil War for African Americans, is now used to teach area schoolchildren through role-playing how black children learned in the segregated one-room schoolhouse in the 1880s.
The town’s crowning event, though, is the annual Waterford Fair, which celebrated its 74th year this fall. It takes place the first weekend in October and features tours of historic homes, craft demonstrations, galleries, children’s activities, vendors, music, and food and drink, including local wine and beer. Proceeds from the fair support the foundation’s work.
My brother and I were elsewhere that weekend, but the dates are already circled on my calendar for next year. I’ll no doubt be ready by then for another trip back in time.
For information about exploring Waterford, including the annual fair, town market, local history and the self-guided walking tour, vist waterfordvillage.org.