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.
‘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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Story by Danielle Nadler
Photos 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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
About the author
Next up: The View From Willisville
The tight-knit community of Willisville wants to tell and celebrate the village’s history — a story that begins in the 1860s when a freed slave with a vision bought a few wooded acres along the dusty Willisville Road.