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At the Crossroads
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Loudoun County is known as Virginia horse country, with equestrian events filling the calendar year. Sandwiched between the mighty Potomac River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county offers some of the most pastoral scenery of rolling hills and rural beauty in all of Virginia. The county is home to Washington Dulles International Airport, which means plenty of travelers pass through. Many never realize the charm and the history just outside the airport. Loudoun is a county tied to its history, but one that looks to the future and high technology (America Online, the giant internet service provider, is only one hi-tech company that calls Loudoun County home).
Leesburg, county seat of Loudoun County, sits at the crossroads--metaphorically and otherwise. It was founded at the crossroads in 1758, when "the Virginia Assembly designated a site at the crossroads of the two roads . . . as the location for the Loudoun County Court House," according to a Leesburg Planning Department document entitled Old and Historic District Guidelines. Nestled within the serene beauty of Virginia's Piedmont, it is the crossroads between mountains and lowlands. The town is the crossroads between city and country. Located merely 35 miles from burgeoning Washington, D.C., the rolling landscape has a rural feel, but the outlet shopping and fine restaurants remind one, Leesburg is a town with city flair. Though only minutes from the DC metropolis, Leesburg maintains a small town feel, enhanced by its First Friday Gallery Walk.
The First Friday Gallery Walk is an event held the first Friday of each month (with the exception of January). The event serves to introduce Leesburg residents and visitors to emerging as well as established artists. Participating art galleries and specialty shops offer complimentary wine & cheese, tea and cookies, to browsing neighbors and travelers alike. The shops offer fine art, crafts, antiques and collectibles. It also serves to bring the community closer together as residents venture from their homes to the historic district. As we made our way through many of the shops and galleries, we constantly heard old friends and neighbors greeting one another as they shared in the popular event.
Nearby, Oatlands Plantation is an historic treasure, a National Historic Landmark, and a must-see for any Leesburg visitor. The plantation features nearly two hundred years of history. The centerpiece is the 22-room country home that was once the focal point of a 3,400-acre plantation. Construction on the home was started by George Carter in 1804. He remodeled the mansion in the 1820's to its current Greek Revival style. Operated by slave labor, the plantation had 128 slaves according to the census of 1860. Slave labor made Oatlands one of the region's most thriving 19th century plantations.
Fortunately, the home escaped damage during the Civil War, as it was closed and boarded up during the war. Afterward, mounting debt and lack of slave labor had the Carters renting the home out as a summer boarding house as the grounds fell into disrepair.
Long neglected, the property was acquired by William Corcoran Eustis and his wife Edith in 1903, who set about to restore it to its formal glory. William found the grounds suitable for his equestrian and fox hunting pursuits. Edith focused on the 4-acres of walled, terraced gardens that were originally designed by George Carter. Today, the gardens remain much as Mrs. Eustis restored them: a quiet repose from the hustle of the fast-paced lives we lead--an excellent spot for a time of peaceful reflection and relaxation. As we strolled the gardens, we saw rabbits and squirrels, listened to the melodic songbirds, and ran across a couple of artists quietly setting their garden interpretations to canvas.
As we toured the mansion, the well-versed tour guide brought history to life as she related stories of the Carter and Eustis families that once called Oatlands home. Outside, we stopped by the greenhouse. Originally built by George Carter in 1810, it is said to be the second-oldest greenhouse in the nation. It is currently undergoing reconstruction. On our way out, we stopped by the Carriage House--which is also the first stop on the way in. Construction on the Carriage House began in 1903, when horses still provided primary area transportation. Today, the Carriage House houses the visitor's center, gift shop, and maybe most importantly, the rest rooms. It is here that tour tickets are sold. As we opened the door, we found a delightful surprise. There were a couple of our nieces, nephew, and their parents, who by chance, had also stopped by for a plantation visit. What had started as an historic exploration now turned into an impromptu family outing, as we set out to stroll the grounds again, showing them the discoveries we had made? As the parents and our older niece toured the mansion, we spent some quality time with our youngest niece and nephew in the shade of the stately trees which surround the country home of a bygone era.
In 1965, the Eustis children conveyed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The plantation is open March through December and hosts equestrian events, sheep dog trials, antique fairs, dog shows, and herb fairs throughout those months.
Leesburg is home to several parks, including Ball's Bluff Regional Park. This 223-acre park is significant for several reasons. It is home to one of the nation's smallest national cemeteries, with only 54 interments, 53 of which are unidentified. The park was the site of a small Civil War battle with huge implications. Many northerners thought the war would end quickly (some Washingtonians had actually packed picnic lunches to come watch the battle of First Manassas). The Battle of Ball's Bluff laid those thoughts to rest, as it was a resounding victory for the South. Union soldiers were forced to retreat down the steep bluffs into the Potomac, many of them drowned and their bodies were seen floating in the Potomac past Washington, D.C. President Lincoln's good friend Colonel Edward Baker was killed by gunshot. A congressional investigation was conducted that ultimately cost Union Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone his military career. We spent some time in the park on a rainy Sunday morning, hiking down the Old Cart Trail. We had the park to ourselves.
Another popular park is the Washington and Old Dominion Trail which passes through the heart of Leesburg. The trail is a Northern Virginia Regional Park, part of the rail-trail program and stretches from Purcellville to Arlington. The trail is equally popular with walkers, runners, and cyclists.
Travel through the rolling countryside, stroll the grounds of Oatlands Plantation, take in one of the many equine events held throughout the year, cycle along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, do a little outlet shopping, then take in a romantic dinner at the Eiffel Tower Café in Leesburg. Housed in a building that dates from 1825, the restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating. We spied a secluded table on the rooftop, shaded and isolated--the perfect romantic enclave. The French cuisine offered is very tasty--as one expects in fine French cuisine. We highly recommend the Les Noix de St. Jacques Poêlées, Rizzoto au Champignons (pan-fried sea scallops with mushroom risotto)--absolutely mouth-watering. For the chocolate-lover, we recommend Le Financier au Chocolat et Miel de Lavande (chocolate "financier" with lavender honey) for dessert. It is sure to satisfy. Chef Christian Ponce has earned his way to our "heroes of food" list.
Loudoun County and the Leesburg area have much to offer the vacationing traveler looking to explore history and the outdoors. The area has more to offer those who can only make it for a weekend getaway, than can be comfortably squeezed into a weekend.
"Leesburg is a darned good place to visit," says Patty Rogers of the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association. Though Patty's interest is in promoting the area, we found we agree with her, Leesburg is a darned good place to visit, even if you only have a weekend.
If You Go:
Washington Dulles International Airport offers easy access to Loudoun County and the Leesburg area. The region is in close proximity to the metropolitan centers of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. If you like to spend money, you may want to stay at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg. Otherwise, we recommend checking out one of the more than 20 Bed & Breakfasts scattered throughout the county. All are listed on the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association website.
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS