Stories From The Roads


“Look to the Left, Look to the Right”

Story and Photos by Douglas Graham

May 11, 2023
A windmill sits in a field off of Williams Gap Road.

This spring with a fresh assignment from America’s Routes we decided to do
something different. Instead of photographs of the roads, we took a look at the land,
streams and animals you can see from the roads. We turned our cameras to the left
and right as we traveled these beautiful byways, to show you the breath-taking
vistas of the Loudoun Valley.

I grew up on the coast of Virginia in an extremely rural and beautiful area but when I arrived in Loudoun County in the early 80’s, I had never felt more at home. Just recently during a trip to North Carolina to find the roots of the Graham name with extended family, we discovered that somewhere along the way a Shaw child, my great, great, grandfather Jarrett entered into the picture! It’s still a mystery but we are actually descended from a family named Shaw. As we looked into the surname Shaw, we discovered that we had deep roots in the early years of Loudoun and found direct descendants that had settled in the Village of Waterford.

My love of these historic roads now made even more sense and for the past three decades had in a way brought me home. One of my first assignments for the Loudoun Times-Mirror was to cover the Waterford Fair. The editor handed me a large red ADC map book of Loudoun County to help me find my way around my new home. I sat in the newsroom and found the village of Waterford and then found Old Waterford Road. I decided that would be a great road to explore and look for feature photos on the way to my assignment. That trip along Old Waterford Road and that ADC map book hooked me on documenting the roads and later was the catalyst for America’s Routes. Old Waterford Road was also the place that I shot my first award winning photo for the Times-Mirror. It was a silhouette of a farmer in a snow-covered landscape cleaning a deer that hung in his carriage barn.

A great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) flies though a Loudoun sunset near Waterford.

I have traveled these historic roads now for decades, thousands of miles and I always find something fresh and new. Much of what you will see in these photos has been preserved though conservation easement. The hard work of the various land trusts that partner with land owners to create conservation easements is evident when you travel down the old roads. This work saves the viewshed for all to enjoy.

The opening photo at the top of this page of Grasslands Farm along Ridgeside Road is a great example of this work. If you find yourself in western Loudoun, turn off your phone, slow down and take in this wonderful place. Look left and right and enjoy the views. You never know what you will see, but rest assured, you will never see anything more beautiful.

Daybreak at Grassland Farm along Ridgeside Road near Bluemont. Grassland has set aside 800 acres into conservation easement saving this view for all to enjoy.

Unison Day

Photos & Video by Douglas Graham

October 29, 2022

On October 29th Unison Days returns for the first time since the pandemic. Great food, a silent auction and the Piedmont hounds are walked up from the kennel and released into the crowd where they proceed to charm folks for hand outs. It’s truly one of the last old time gimmick free events.

Flora Hillman

Keeping Loudoun Beautiful

Video & Photos by Douglas Graham

May 13, 2022

Flora Hillman of Bloomfield uses her e-bicycle with a small trailer in tow to clean up the roads in Western Loudoun. She was named volunteer of the year by the Land Trust of Virginia.

Paula Bliss Driving Through Loudoun

Story by Ted Monoson

Photography by Douglas Graham

“That’s a complicated question,” Paula Bliss replies when asked, “Where are you from?”

Bliss, who owns and operates Harlequin Farm in Hillsboro, was born in California while her father was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Her father retired and her parents divorced when she was 11 years old. After that, she shuttled between her parents, who lived at times in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia, and has been on the move ever since.

The constant in Bliss’ peripatetic life has been her love of horses. The proudly stubborn Bliss, explains, “I did not do dressage because that is what my father liked to do.” She adds, “And, I liked to jump horses.”

Bliss’ love of horses led her to the sport of combined driving and eventually brought her to Harlequin Farm outside of Hillsboro. Bliss cannot remember when she bought the farm but she does remember why she bought the farm. “The main reason I liked the property was because it is on a gravel road,” Bliss says.

Legard Farm Road, the gravel road that attracted Bliss to the area, runs parallel to Virginia State Route 9, between State Route 611 and State Route 690.

“These roads were literally built for all of us to use,” Bliss says. When she says “all of us,” Bliss is referring to her fellow equestrians, cyclists, pedestrains, cars and trucks. She is very clear that the purpose of Legard Farm Road, also known as State Route 697, and other gravel roads in Loudoun County, is not to move people back and forth to work.

“They are not highways,” Bliss says, “They are community roads.” Bliss adds, as she gestures to the fields and barns around her on a blustery late March day, “Without them we don’t have this. There is more to life than going back and forth to work and watching TV. We need beauty.”     

Bliss says that during the last five years there has been an increase in the number of cars and trucks using Legard Farm Road, which has affected how she trains her horses. More people using GPS along with an influx of people during the COVID pandemic has resulted in more vehicles using the road as a shortcut.

Many of the people who use the road as a shortcut drive significantly faster than the speed limit.

“Do you have a cooler with a heart in it?” Bliss jokingly asks. “Are you on the transplant team?”

The increase in the number of vehicles, along with the fact that many of the drivers of those vehicles are not cognizant of other users of the roads, has had a significant impact on how Bliss trains her horses and runs her business training drivers and their horses. “The public has this impression that we don’t need to be off of our farms,” Bliss said. Although she does use a pasture that is part of the farm to condition her horses, she also needs to use the roads.

To understand why the gravel roads are so important for Bliss and her horses, it is helpful to know more about the sport of combined driving. In the sport, a single horse, a pair or a team of four pulls a carriage with a driver and navigator. The sport has three phases: dressage, cross-country marathon and obstacle cone driving. The horses need to train, just like a marathon runner needs to train for a race. Using the pastures to train the horses is not effective nor is it good for the wellbeing of the horses.

Simply going around in circles in a pasture is monotonous not only for the horse, but also for the drivers. “We want to be able to go distances,” Bliss said. “That is one of the joys of driving a horse: to see the scenery.” 

Bliss says her introduction to combined driving “was a very serendipitous thing.” While helping out a friend she went to a combined driving event in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I saw someone, who is now a friend, go through an obstacle and I knew I had to do that,” Bliss says. “Not that I wanted to. I had to.”

Bliss loves the sport and is happy to educate people who have never even heard of combined driving. “Carriage driving, even in the equestrian community, is a niche thing,” Bliss says. The sport requires a tremendous amount of trust between the horse or horses and driver. The three phases of the event are intended to test the driver’s ability and the horse or horses’ obedience, speed and athleticism

The dressage portion of combined driving tests the drivers and horses’ ability to perform a series of predetermined movements. During the marathon portion, the horses are driven through obstacles, such as water and steep hills, in order to test the horses’ fitness and stamina  and the driver’s skill. A key part of the marathon is to assess the driver’s ability to keep a pace, so the driver goes through the obstacles as quickly as possible, but between obstacles, speeds up or slows down the horses in order to complete the full course in a targeted time. During the cone phase of the event, the driver navigates the horses through up to 20 sets of cones with balls balanced on top of each cone. The cones are only slightly wider than the width of the carriage and the riders are penalized if they knock the balls off of the cones.    

Although it is very technical, Bliss makes clear that the reason she does it is for the rush she gets. “All horse people are adrenaline junkies,” Bliss said while flashing a big grin.

While Bliss loves the excitement of competing, she also has a deep appreciation for the land and the animals. That connection to both is obvious when she stops herself in the midst of an intricate story because she sees a herd of white tailed deer in the pasture.

“I think it is important for people not to get too far from what it means to be an agricultural community,” Bliss said. “There is a rhythm to caring for animals. You have to focus on something outside of yourself.”

She adds about her passion for caring for animals, “Those of us who love it cannot imagine not having that responsibility.”  

She clearly considers herself to be as much of a farmer as an equestrian. She relishes telling a story about a sign that her mother had in her office when she worked in Thailand on agricultural development for the State Department. The sign, which was intended as a reminder for fellow State Department staff, said, “Remember you are talking to the farmer and her husband.”

Bliss makes it very clear that although she bought Harlequin Farm with her late husband, the farm was her passion and not his. She recounts how occasionally when she would tell him what to do, he would reply, “I don’t work for you.”

According to Bliss, the farmhouse on the property was built in 1786. “I believe a Wilts boy married a Legard girl and this was their wedding present,” Bliss says. She adds that the property was a working dairy until the 1980s when it was converted into a horse farm.

As much as she loves the farm, Bliss concedes that because of the increase in traffic on Legard Farm Road, she thinks about selling it and moving herself, her horses and her business elsewhere.

“It depends on the day,” Bliss replies when asked if she thinks about leaving. “It has to do with my enjoyment and my sense of personal safety.”

She adds with an impish smile, “I can move very quickly. I am very good at packing.”

Her suggestion that she may sell the farm and load her horses into her 42 foot trailer and move some place like Aiken, South Carolina, is undercut when she talks about Loudoun County.

“I like the diversity of this community,” Bliss says. “There are people from different backgrounds and races. I love being able to have a conversation on any issue. If you have lived in the area for a long time, you forget how special that is.”

Her love for what the community offers is evident when she talks about stopping by Finn Thai in Purcellville with friends and the staff there knowing her standing order of green curry with tofu and knowing she likes it very spicy.

Spending time with Bliss is a stark reminder of what will be lost if the gravel roads disappear.

“Horses are not a pastime for the wealthy,” Bliss says. “The majority of people are hard working folks.”

Although she was talking about others, when she referred to the “hard working folks,” the description also applies to Bliss.

Like the gravel roads of Loudoun County, Bliss has a rough edge to her. If you tame her down and pave those gravel roads, an essential part of Loudoun County will be lost.

The Making of Farmer Brown

Story by Danielle Nadler

Photos by Douglas Graham

94-year-old farmer Russell Brown, of Waterford, during an interview about his days farming at Rouges Hollow Farm off of Old Waterford Road.

“Most call me Farmer Brown,” he starts. His clean plaid shirt tucked into beat-up jeans. His gray facial hair freshly shaven. He pours steaming Folgers into a John Deere mug and, with a “hush now,” directed at his border collie, he takes you back there.

Back there. When Loudoun County’s cattle outnumbered its breweries and wineries. When the nation’s capital felt a world away, rather than a daily destination for half your neighbors. And when the gravel roads were main thoroughfares rather than the place for Sunday drives.

Brown spent most of his life farming, using horses to plow fields, cut hay and plant crops.

Russell Brown starts with the early years. The late 30s, early 40s, when he cut his teeth working on “Grandpap’s farm” near Lovettsville. As he begins, you can almost taste the fresh cream from hand-milked cows, see the gold dust set free by cropped hay, and feel the rough terrain of Old Waterford Road beneath your feet. “This county has changed some since then,” the old farmer says dryly, with a trouble-making smile. With some prodding, he slows down and gives up more details.

He was born in 1927, in a little house in Wheatland. He wasn’t raised on a farm, but he knew early on that farming was what he wanted to do with his life. At 9 years old, he went to live on his grandparents’ farm, a property on Quarter Branch Road. He spent three years there and, as far as he can remember, he worked every minute of it. He got up before sunrise to milk seven cows by hand. Then, he hurried the jars of milk inside, before catching the bus to school. In the evenings, he picked up where he’d left off, mucking stalls, processing hogs, preparing the fields for planting — whatever needed to be done.

Grandpap wasn’t too keen on paying his grandson for his help on the farm, so Russell relied on trapping to make enough cash for occasional sodas and candy bars from the general store. He caught muskrats, racoons, and skunks—and anything else that found its way to one of his traps.

One morning before school, he hurried down to the creek to check his trap. Sure enough, a skunk was waiting for him. Before Russell could take the thing out, the skunk soaked him. The boy, clinching his nose, waded into the creek to try to rinse off the stench, before hoofing it to the bus stop.

“Well, I wasn’t at school two minutes before the teacher said, ‘Russell, go home. Come back when you’re smellin’ better.’ My Grandpap was just fine with that because then I could work for him. He expected a lot out of yeh and he never gave you nothin’.”

Russell went on to work odd jobs, sawing wood and bailing hay. At 15, he even took a job at a bowling alley just over the river in Brunswick, Maryland, where he’d set up pins for a penny a game. After high school, he served two years in the U.S. Army just as the nation was cleaning up from World War II.

He took jobs as they came, but he always found his way back to farming.

It was 1948 when he started working for Albert D. Lueters, on a property known as Rogues Hollow. The name sounded like something out of an adventure novel, but Russell thought it suited the place — more than 300 acres of rolling hills that seemed to glow emerald green nearly half the year.

Family scrapbook photo

You could say the year he started working at Rogues Hollow was the year Russell became Farmer Brown. He was 21 years old, skinny but strong, and eager to work. He and Mr. Lueters not only had a love of farming in common, but also military service. Lueters had recently retired as an Army captain, so he helped his new farm hand get into government-sponsored classes on the agriculture business.

“They held the classes up there in Lincoln,” Russell recalls, “and the government paid you 93 dollars a month to learn farming. It was really something’.” It didn’t take long for Farmer Brown to consider the farm more than his place of employment, but his home. He moved into a small tenant house on the property and got to work.

“At first, I put out twenty acres of corn. I cut it and shucked it by hand, then shoveled it into the corn crib. Everything was done by hand at first. Nothing was easy,” he recalls. “I used horses to cut the hay, rack the hay…The cows were milked by hand. It was nothing how you picture farming today. Eventually — thankfully — that all improved.”

By 1950, machines changed the pace of the work for most farmers in Loudoun County— and made Farmer Brown’s life a lot easier. Decades later, the farmer still talks about the day an M International Tractor arrived at Rogues Hollow. It was the day everything changed. “Oh hell, with the horses, you had to keep ’em clean, keep ’em fed, keep ’em healthy. This tractor, aside from maintenance every once in a while, I basically just turned it on in the morning and turned it off at night.”

Family scrapbook photo of Russell Brown on his tractor at Rogues Hollow.

That tractor became his calling card. Anyone who lived or regularly drove along Old Waterford Road got to know Farmer Brown, always atop the M International, dressed in a plaid shirt, baseball cap, with a border collie at his side.

The property was bought and sold over the years — Mr. Lueters sold it to Leonard Dyke, who later sold it to Neil Nichols — but for nearly 70 years, the farmer, with his border collie and tractor, remained a constant. In the winters, Farmer Brown and his tractor pushed snow off Old Waterford and the other narrow roads that split off into farmland and horse pastures. The man-and-machine duo spent warmer months haying the properties between Waterford and Leesburg.

At first, they hayed just Rogues Hollow. Then, hayed neighboring farms. When those open fields were replaced with master-planned housing, many of the new homeowners decided to keep small hay fields, mostly to qualify for a tax cut. But still, Farmer Brown and his tractor kept up their work, haying the sloped fields that surrounded the new homes. Farmer Brown eventually, and reluctantly, left Rogues Hollow. It was 2017. He, and his canine companion, now live in a small home near Lucketts.

The farm now operates under a new owner and new name, but if you drive by slowly, you can almost spot the tracks from Farmer Brown’s M International carved into the course gravel of Old Waterford Road.

Free to Fly

Story by Danielle Nadler
Photos by Douglas Graham

There wasn’t time to call the midwife. Certainly, no time to find a ride to the hospital. This baby wasn’t going to wait.

Hattie Reid Tracy was a soft-spoken girl, just a few months past her 18th birthday. She’d worked another long day as a house maid at Gaither’s farm. She’d begun her walk home along the dirt roads of Loudoun County, Virginia. The rough-cut roadways connected the expansive farm boasting happy herds of milking cows, flower gardens, and acres of newly planted crops to her family’s modest home in Howardsville. It was three miles as the crow flies.

But, of course, Hattie couldn’t fly. So her daily journey took her along muddy roads, over fieldstone walls that had been laid by enslaved workers just two generations before her, in ditches and up ridges, and along rocky trails cut through emerald green pastures. The trails through private land had become public right-of-ways, worn down over the years by horses, farm machinery, and quasi trespassers headed to and from work. Each night, Hattie hurried along the route to beat the sunset back home to Howardsville.

The small village of Howardsville had taken shape in the years of reconstruction that followed the Civil War. White property owners William and Mary Stephenson had sold land to about a dozen Black people, most of whom had been enslaved on nearby farms.

Carroll Tracy holds a photo of his mother, Hattie, in front of the home he grew up in along Greengarden Road in Loudoun County, Virginia. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

Hattie’s family wasn’t among the first to buy land in Howardsville, but you could say they were part of the second wave. Her grandfather bought a small, wood-framed house along Greengarden Road in 1917. Busy with aunties, uncles, grandparents and grandkids, more people called the place home than it had room for. As the fifth of seven children, Hattie had never really known privacy, and she’d had her share of nights sleeping with feet in her face.

Now, on a cool night in May 1943, making it to that house — to her home — was all Hattie could think about. But there was no time to get there. Not now. This baby wasn’t going to wait.

So Hattie thought about the second-best option. Her older sister’s home on Willisville Road. A house Mary Catherine Reid was renting from a man named Harold Hampton. Not long after Hattie burst through the front door, the nasally cry of a fresh baby could be heard. She called her son Carroll Tracy.

This old home on Willisville Road, across from the entrance of Old Welbourne Farm, is Carroll Tracy’s place of birth. Tracy’s mother, Hattie, had gone into labor during her 3-mile walk home from her job as a maid at Gaither’s Farm. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

For at least the next few years, Carroll stayed a part of Hattie, almost as if he was still in the womb. His mother carried him to work every day. First, as a baby swaddled tight to her chest. Then, as a toddler, balanced on her back. He held onto Hattie’s thin shoulders as she navigated open fields, climbed over fences, and shuffled along cratered roads. Their journey took them down Greengarden Road, over the fence and through Burnthouse Field, across Willisville Road, along Beaverdam Creek, and through the Old Welbourne Farm. Then across John Hughes’ property to finally reach Gaither’s farm.

“Stay outta trouble,” was the instruction Hattie gave her son each morning when they arrived at the farm.

Words like that are so easy to forget at 4 years old. Carroll made himself scarce on the farm, while his mother worked in the house. He did his best to explore and play, but he always seemed to find some sort of trouble.

One afternoon, he found himself watching the Gaither’s pigeons coo and peck inside their cage. He wondered whether they might like to fly. Who wouldn’t want to fly if they could? With no one else in sight, he unhitched the cage’s door. Then sat back in the grass to watch.

At first, the birds didn’t seem to notice they were free to go. Then, suddenly, one flew out. Then a second. And the rest took notice and quickly followed.

“They flew around the farm a couple times, and then they disappeared,” Carroll recalls.

He never told his mother that he was the one who’d freed the pigeons, and she never asked. And anyhow, Carroll didn’t feel too bad about the trouble he’d found that day. After all, who wouldn’t want to fly if they could?

Carroll Tracy walks along Quaker Lane near the village of Unison in Loudoun County, Virginia. To the right is Gaither’s Farm where his mother worked. When Carroll was little he would ride on his mother’s back across fields and along the old roads. The farm today is called Kentfield’s Farm. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

A couple of years later, Hattie could go to work without a little companion. Just after his sixth birthday, Carroll could join all the bigger kids at Willisville School. The two-room schoolhouse had educated Black students from Howardsville, Willisville, Rock Hill and other nearby villages since about 1870. Carroll was thrilled he made the cut to enroll. His cousin, on the other hand, had to wait another year because she didn’t turn six until November.

“I know she was sad about that and I felt bad too,” Carroll remembers.

And what’s more, Carroll got to ride a yellow bus to school. Hattie, who would travel to work on foot for several more years, continued to offer her son the same instruction each morning. “Stay outta trouble,” she’d holler after Carroll as he climbed up the bus steps.

Without meaning to, he managed to find at least a little trouble at school. “My biggest problem was talking. So Miss Edna Brinkley would make me stay in for lunch and write the same line over and over. I’d write ‘I will stop talking’ in really big print. That way I could get away with filling both sides of the paper before too long.”

Willisville School, seen in the background, served to educated Black students from Howardsville, Willisville, Rock Hill and other nearby villages. It is located at the crossroads of Willisville, Millville, and Welbourne Roads. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

At 13, Carroll took on a part-time job. He and his friend Russell Basil were hired to work on a nearby farm owned by Harold Menkins. On weekends and in the summer months, Mr. Menkins would pick the two boys up in his truck from their homes in Howardsville and drop them off in the evenings. He kept the boys busy mucking stalls, hauling straw, mending fences, and other odd jobs.

“I made about $25 a week — $5 a day,” Carroll says. “When it was real busy, he’d offer us a dollar more in overtime pay if we worked longer days. Russell would take it, but I’d just rest in the ditch and wait for him. To me, all that work wasn’t worth one more dollar.”

Carroll continued working at Menkins’ farm while he attended Douglass School, the all-Black high school about 25 miles away in Leesburg.

“I was always smart about working. I worked hard, but I spoke up if I was ever being taken advantage of,” Carroll says. “I guess I got that from my grandmother.”

Pushing back wasn’t a trait of his mother, Hattie, but of her mother. Her name was Gracie, but when she wasn’t in earshot, Carroll referred to as The High Sheriff. “Because what she said, went,” he recalls. “My mother didn’t whip us. But my grandmother wouldn’t hesitate. She was fair, but she was tough.”

One afternoon on Menkins’ farm, the boys were sitting in the shade of a tree, eating out of their lunch pails. With ten minutes left on their break, the farm manager walked over and yelled, “Carroll, get off your ass and get back out there and fix that fence.”

So Carroll, about 15 years old, stood up, picked up his Roy Rodgers lunch pail and walked home. His grandmother, The High Sheriff, met him at the door. “What are you doing home this early?”

“Well, that farm manager said something I didn’t like.”

“Alright,” she sighed. “You didn’t have to take that. Go back tomorrow and get your last paycheck.”

The next morning, Carroll walked up to the house to talk to Mrs. Menkin. “Morning, ma’am,” he started. “I’d like to have my money.”

“Carroll, it’s not payday.”

“I know. But I quit yesterday. Your farm manager said something I didn’t like.”

She promised to tell the farm manager to leave Carroll and the other boys alone. “Anyhow, you don’t have to work on the farm if you don’t want,” she added. “Why don’t you come up here and work in the yard?”

“Well alright. That sounds fine.”

In the months that followed, Carroll ate more cake and ice cream than he’d had in all of his previous 15 years. “She was always bringing me something,” he says. “So it worked out. Seemed like everything always want to happen to me, but I’d stop it by not keeping quiet. I never did take too much. But that was just me.”

Carroll Tracy walks along Quaker Lane near the village of Unison in Loudoun County, Virginia. (Photo By Douglas Graham)

After graduating from high school, jobs and responsibilities took Carroll away from home, but he always managed to find his way back. His tour in the Army took him first to Fort Lauderdale, Florida; then Fort Jackson, South Carolina; then Fort Carson, Colorado. And finally, to Vietnam. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroism in holding off Viet Cong soldiers during a brutal, four-hour attack in February 1968.

Two months later, he told his captain he was counting down the days until he could leave. “I have seven days left in this man’s army.”

The captain told Carroll, then a young specialist, that he was free to go, as soon as he could get caught up on his vaccination shots.

“I said, okay then. Let’s get this over with — give me three on this arm, three on this arm. And that’s what they did,” he says. “I was ready to go home. No matter where I’d ever been, I always thought about coming home.”

Carroll later moved to nearby St. Louis, but he never forgot his roots, that little house set back from Greengarden Road brimming with relatives.

“I always find my way to Howardsville. Matter of fact, I still go up that way to see my cousin and my brother,” he said in an interview in November 2020. “Every time, I think about my mother. Everything she did for me and for so many others.”

He describes Hattie as “the best mother that you could have.”

In her later years, she quit her job doing housework to care for her mother, The High Sheriff, until she died in 1999 at the age of 104. Then Hattie cared for her sister, Mary Catherine, when she got sick. And later, her other sister, Emma.

“She had a good heart,” Carroll says. “She didn’t complain. She didn’t get no help because everyone else was living their lives.”

Hattie died at 84 years old, in November 2008, in that little house in Howardsville. She passed peacefully. Here one minute, in this place she’d lived and loved and left her mark. And gone to heaven the next. As if she’d suddenly taken flight.

Thank you to Carroll Tracy for sharing his memories of his mother and his childhood. Thank you, also, to Harold Hampton and Carol Lee for supporting portions of this story. The following resources were used as historical references: The book, Howardsville: The Journey of an African-American Community in Loudoun County, Virginia, by Kevin Dulany Grigsby and the National Register of Historic Places registration form for Old Welbourne Farm.

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About the author

Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She’s worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales. Her favorite place to be is riding bike along a quiet gravel road. Follow her work at

Ode to the Gravel Road

By John B. Denegre

Dedicated to the “America’s Routes” rural roads preservation effort, with heartfelt apologies to Robert Frost.

Whose road this is I think I know.
It’s owned by all who cherish slow;
They will know I’m stopping here
To honor with steps the stones below.

Once a deer and Indian track
Now mottled gravel, not asphalt black.
Toil of commerce, blood of war,
Have flowed across its noble back.

Its rural strengths with us will stay:
Connection, reflection, nature’s way.
Lacking oil and tar, this road will give
Things much needed in lives today.

The name of progress gets roads covered,
And who we were, and are, is smothered.
Some say these paths are too much trouble;
They thrive through time when gently mothered.

This road is lovely, warm and sweet,
But needs our promises to keep
The miles of joy we wish to meet,
The miles of joy we have to keep.

Day After Christmas 2016

‘My DNA is in Those Stone Walls’

Story by Lindsay O’Connor
Photos by Douglas Graham unless otherwise noted

Far from the stone walls of western Loudoun County in a dimly lit DC cocktail bar, Eric Channing Brewer tells me about his childhood visits to Bluemont, where his mother grew up in a house the family built by hand.

UNITED STATES – May 4, 2020: Rock Hill Cemetery is an all-black cemetery in rural Loudoun County, Virginia. The cemetery sits on sloping woodland purchased from former slave owners. (Photo By Douglas Graham/WLP)

I met Brewer while cycling on the washboard gravel roads of Loudoun and neighboring counties. But looking at his bespoke dress shoes and slim, tailored pants, it’s hard to see the mountain biker he was in his younger years. Brewer moved into road cycling and then onto unpaved roads on the forefront of a still-growing trend in endurance cycling.

As the creator of DC’s Tweed Ride, Brewer is a leader at the intersection of cycling and style. Just as the Tweed Ride highlights his love for vintage fashion and the lifestyles it evokes, Brewer’s turn toward gravel cycling brings his personal and family history in Loudoun into a changing present. And in doing so, he has introduced hundreds of MidAtlantic cyclists to the hundreds of miles of rural Loudoun roads and the histories they hold.

I met Brewer several years ago after I moved to Middleburg. I’d begun riding with a cycling group called the Bluemont Connection for long, spirited adventures in the more rural parts of Northern Virginia. I knew the goal was to bring DC cyclists to Loudoun and surrounding counties, to shift their focus from the bike trails and the busy roads of Montgomery County, MD that were so popular with the local cycling community. But I never knew there was personal history behind it.

At the start of one such ride on a gray Memorial Day, with tires checked, chains lubed, and bottles filled, Chris Tank’s calm voice gave a brief overview of the day’s route between pastures and cornfields and timeworn Quaker hamlets. Just before we set out, Brewer’s steady voice announced an addendum.

“I got the news this morning that my Uncle Vernon had passed,” he calmly shared. He then explained that he had grown up visiting this uncle and other family out near Bluemont, sparking his love for this area and his knowledge of the roads we would ride that day. “I want to dedicate today’s ride to my Uncle Vernon.”

Eric Channing Brewer
Eric Channing Brewer leads a ride along Carters Farm Lane in western Loudoun. [Photo by Chris Tank/Bluemont Connection]

I’ll admit that I was particularly surprised that the eponymous Bluemont Connection belonged to Brewer, a slim, quiet, indeterminately middle-aged black man I had met on several rides but did not know well.

Known for equestrian sports and open spaces enabled by conservation easements, western Loudoun projects an image of wealth and leisure that looks strikingly white, especially against Northern Virginia’s striking ethnic diversity. I had heard something about the trouble families in Willisville faced getting water and some rumors of Underground Railroad activity among the area’s antebellum Quakers. But ultimately, I knew little of the area’s African-American past and present.

UNITED STATES – July 3, 2017: Western Loudoun’s historic dirt road known as Furr Road outside of the Village of Bloomfield. Many of the dirt roads in Loudoun are important heritage resources that represent the migration, settlement and travel patterns of the County’s early populations. Historic travel routes are also essential components of the County’s historic landscape as it associates with standing structures, linking early settlements. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

Somewhere outside Middleburg, I rode up alongside Brewer, offered my condolences, and hoped we had arrived at the point of the ride where endorphins help personal stories unfold with ease.

“There was an article about my Uncle Vernon in the Washington Post a few years ago,” he explained. Vernon Peterson, Brewer’s mother’s brother, lived all his life in rural Loudoun, except for his time serving in the Korean War. Somewhere along the way, he took on the mantle of caring for a small cemetery on land purchased by the African-American community shortly after the Civil War. Behind a stone wall at a sharp turn on Furr Road, children and descendants of people enslaved on Loudoun County farms rest in Rock Hill Cemetery, which is now also the site of Peterson’s own grave.

A generation removed from his rural family, Brewer was raised in Gaithersburg, MD, and knew western Loudoun through holidays and school vacations when he and his cousins would spend afternoons walking along the gravel roads of Rock Hill and Bluemont.

One of 12 Peterson children, his mother grew up at the family homestead right near the cemetery along Furr Road just outside of the village of Unison. In a family of stonemasons and other skilled craftspeople, “My father built the church my family went to,” Brewer explains. “My uncles built their own homes. They all had a resolute sense of being able to take care of themselves.”

Rock Hill Cemetery
UNITED STATES – May 4, 2020: Rock Hill Cemetery is an all-black cemetery in rural Loudoun County, Virginia. The cemetery sits on sloping woodland purchased from former slave owners. (Photo By Douglas Graham/WLP)
Rock Hill Cemetery
UNITED STATES – May 4, 2020: Rock Hill Cemetery is an all-black cemetery in rural Loudoun County, Virginia. The cemetery sits on sloping woodland purchased from former slave owners. (Photo By Douglas Graham/WLP)

Other family members have worked as servants and horse trainers for generations, including some of his uncles who remain in the area even after most, including his mother, have left to pursue education or economic opportunities beyond rural life’s offerings. Everyone would visit their parents with their spouses and their children, a younger generation removed from the land and community perhaps the way immigrants’ children feel toward their parents’ homeland.

Bored by this unusual place, city cousins would walk for hours along the web of gravel roads that spun them away from the restrictions of parents and responsibilities. Brewer recalls how his flat feet would get to him way back then, that he’d wander too far on long summer days and a cousin would have to carry him back. But those visits dwindled with time and growing up, and Brewer’s education, career, and love made DC home.

In a sport that can look like all neon spandex and pedaling too fast to really take in the scenery, Brewer and Tank launched the Bluemont Connection in 2016. This group and cyclocross racing team partners with cycling clubs and bike shops in the DC area for curated gravel riding in Loudoun and neighboring counties.

After learning about his family history, I notice the parallel between Brewer’s engagement with the predominately white cycling community and his family connection to rural western Loudoun. Brewery’s family of stonemason and horse trainers has been intimately but invisibly involved in building and sustaining important Loudoun icons.

Now, age and city life have him turning toward his heritage and childhood memories. “My DNA is in those stone walls,” Brewer tells me. “This land is part of why I’m around.”

About the author

Lindsay O’Connor teaches English and lives on campus at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, a perfect starting point for many long bike rides on Loudoun County’s paved and unpaved roads.




Greener Pastures

Story by Danielle Nadler
Photos by Douglas Graham

Allen Cochran moving his sheep to another pasture near the village of Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

The warm summer sunrise steadily creeps its way across the Mid-Atlantic to light up a dusty street corner of Lincoln, Virginia. With the neighborhood school closed for the season, the village sits quiet, except for the symphony of cicadas and a rooster’s solo. Until an aging Subaru pulls into a gravel lot. A woman beneath a graying perm steps out, walks across the still-vacant Lincoln Road, slips a key into the post office’s front door and disappears inside.

This corner, which serves as a venue for a friendly game of tug-of-war, between Virginia’s old and new, is silent again. But just for a moment.

The postal worker returns, now carrying a tri-folded flag. She clips the faded star-spangled banner in place and hoists it toward the sunrise. And, as if it were a flag waving on drivers at a race track’s starting line, the village traffic—both foot and car—picks up.

“Mornin’,” a neighbor offers to a passerby while fetching the newspaper from his driveway.

A grumpy-sounding Ford truck carrying stonemason and sheep farmer Allen Cochran kicks up dust as it rolls up to the post office. He makes his way into the building, which doubles as a showroom for his business, Cochran’s Stone Masonry.

“Hey there, Ann,” he hollers toward the post office side of the building. Then he makes a cup of coffee and sits down at a table in the middle of the room, leaning back and crossing his arms.

Allen Cochran of Cochran’s Stone Masonry & Timberframing poses for a photo in his showroom which is the old Janney Country Store in Lincoln Virginia. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

“Wanna hear somethin’?” he asks with wide eyes. “If you walk right out here in the middle of this road right now, and you look north, south, east and west—this little corner, as far as you can see, looks exactly as it did when I was a little kid.”

It’s one of his favorite things to tell his stonemason clients who make their way out from the suburbs. “It’s exactly as it was 50 years ago,” he says with a wink. “You can’t say that about very many places in Loudoun County.”

Foundry Road, Sands Road, and Lincoln Road form an X that marks where most of Allen’s life, and the lives of his parents and grandparents, has unfolded. His grandfather, George Cochran, raised three kids in the white farmhouse on the southeast corner of the X in 1938. Allen’s father later moved a mere 200 feet away, to the stone house on the northwest corner, where he raised Allen and his sister, Patty. And occupying the northeast corner since 1815 is the Goose Creek Friends meetinghouse. “I consider that my spiritual home,” Allen adds.

It’s the spot three generations of Cochrans, descendants of Quakers who settled in Virginia in the 1700s, have spent Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.

As a kid, any time not spent on this corner was spent in fields nearby. The family’s farming operation kept Allen busy and, for the most part, out of trouble. The Cochrans had 200 acres just of pumpkins, plus fields beyond that of strawberries, sweet corn and loads of other vegetables. The ruddy, red-headed teen hauled the produce to Cochran’s Vegetable Farms stand in Purcellville, now the site of a strip mall anchored by a Giant grocery store.

Here along Foundry Road in this field sits a very old stone Quaker cottage (circa 1749) that once belonged to Jacob and Hannah Janney, two of the earliest Quaker settlers. Raising twelve children here, Hannah was one of the leading lights of the congregation, praying near a fallen log as her natural alter until the first meetinghouse was built in 1765. Quakers had brought their Lancashire stone architecture from the English midlands to Pennsylvania, and thence to Maryland and northwestern Virginia. Note the springhouse just a little further along. (Photo By Douglas Graham)

“My grandfather was one of the first guys doing this local food thing. It wasn’t cool and hip then. Hell, we were just farmin’.”

He didn’t have plans to go into the family business. A week after he graduated high school, he joined the military, which carried him all the way to Egypt and back again. When he returned, he decided to follow his dreams to become a stonemason, with the idea that hard work and care could restore old homes and barns into long-lasting treasures.

But just as he returned to that street corner in Lincoln, he eventually returned to farming.

The Goose Creek Friends graveyard in the Village of Lincoln. The Religious Society of Friends—“Quakers”—arrived in Loudoun County from Quaker-settled Pennsylvania in 1733, finding that colony becoming crowded with good land in short supply. The Loudoun Valley’s fine soil fit the bill. Initially, Quakers settled some seven miles to the north in and around the village of Waterford, but soon spread out. The Goose Creek Friends Meeting in the Village of Lincoln followed in the 1740s. (Photo by Douglas Graham)

At first, it was just about saving a few bucks. Not long after his 34th birthday, Allen bought Stone Eden Farm—a place built by the Hatchers, another Quaker family—just a mile down Sands Road. He quickly learned that he’d better keep some kind of livestock on the property if he wanted the tax break that agriculture zoning promised.

“One day I get this letter from the county saying ‘where’s your livestock? ‘Cause you’re on land zoned as agriculture.’ So I went and bought 10 sheep and put them out there,” he said, brushing his palms against one another. “And there we go. … So I thought.”

The flock promptly died. Turns out, raising sheep isn’t easy. “It’s as if they’re born looking for a place to die,” Allen shook his head. “And I’m just stupid enough to pick up the hardest thing in the world.”

But he wasn’t about to shed the title sheep farmer. He’d come to like the idea of raising sheep, despite its challenges. It was no longer about a tax break. “I’ll tell you, it is the most maddening, frustrating, heartbreaking, rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. You get your sheep, they’re looking well, and then they just die,” he shakes his head. “And for some reason I take it so personally, like I failed. But, still, I wanted to stick with it.”

So he researched, signed up for the National Sheep Improvement Program, and learned, among a slew of other tips, that it’s best to just get rid of the weakest sheep, those that are susceptible to worms and other disease, and hold onto the strongest. “These days, if a sheep looks at me wrong, I’m taking it off my place.”

It’s worked. Today, fifteen years after he lost his entire first flock, Allen has 100 ewes and four rams. “This year I’ve had a zero death loss, and not one sheep needs worming,” he beams.

This fine stone Quaker farmhouse are now surrounded by new houses. The Brown farm, belonging to an old Loudoun family, sold off most of its acreage in the mid 1990s when farming no longer prospered sufficiently on the site. Certainly this is a picture often repeated in recent years. However, another long-time Loudoun family uses the smaller farm, and is heavily involved in history and historic preservation. They raise sheep, and insistently use the old roads to move their sheep between fields.(Photo By Douglas Graham)

As the flock grew over the years, so did the need for more pasture. It’s all about getting the sheep enough grass, the farmer advises. So he rented two pastures, one on the southeast side of Lincoln: the original homestead of Quaker Hannah Janney, and another 10 acres on Barbara Baroody’s place, called Creek Crossing. When the sheep have done a number on one pasture, the farmer moves his flock to the next, and so on, until they’ve hit each pasture once before the end of the year.

For years, he’d load up the reluctant ewes into trailers and take several trips to deliver them to a fresh field, a process that took five hours by the time it was all said and done. It was late January when he thought of a better idea. His ewes were pregnant, carrying swollen bellies and thick wool. It would take all day, plus a team of generous friends and relatives, to load up the ewes.

“So I thought, well shit, I can walk them home in an hour. So I told my dad, ‘I think I’m going to walk ’em home.’”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Sure, let’s try it.”

So they got up early the next day and, just as the sunrise hit Lincoln, Allen opened up the gate at Creek Crossing to free his flock. The jittery ewes, followed by their shepherd and two dogs having too much fun on the job, steadily made their way down Chappelle Hill Road to Lincoln Road, then Sands Road.

“We just marched right up through town and went home,” Allen said.

The bleating march quickly became routine for the flock and the pair of pups, but it’s still far from routine for the dwellers of Lincoln. When word spreads that the Cochran ewes are on the move, neighbors make their way to that little corner, where Allen grew up. Little hooves crunch the gravel road, bells flung around fluffy necks clink clink, and worried sheep with one eye on the dogs bleat. The sounds spill into village, causing the best kind of disruption on an otherwise quiet morning.

“This has become quite a spectacle,” Allen says. “It’s something that just doesn’t happen anymore. People come to watch because they can associate it with Scotland or Ireland and the old country—and agriculture in Loudoun County that they want to believe is still alive and well.”

He smiles and adds, “It lets us believe we’re in another time, in another place.”

But we’re not. It’s here, it’s now, at this dusty street corner in Lincoln, Virginia.

“I don’t think there’s any prettier place in the world,” the sheep farmer says. “I’ll never call any place home except Lincoln.” He clarifies, “The south end of Lincoln. This corner right here.”

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About the author

Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She’s worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales. Her favorite place to be is riding bike along a quiet gravel road. Follow her work at


Views from the Roads

Next up will be a video and a photo essay on spring in the Loudoun Valley and a different look at the vistas and wildlife that we see from the sides of the road in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia.

Fog settles in the tree line at Grassland Farm along Ridgeside Road near the village of Bluemont.


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