By Roger Vance
For just over two decades I’ve had a distinct experience nearly every day that signals to me it is now time to exhale. It’s the moment when the frenzy and worries of the workday can begin to be tuned out. It’s the moment when I know I am leaving one place and entering another.
While it is not the world’s most grandiose vista, heading west on historic Charles Town Pike, at the point where the view ahead opens up to sweeping pastures left and right revealing a narrow gap in the Short Hills, is a breathtaking site nonetheless. That “ahhh” moment is one shared by generations of people over centuries. Today, for tens of thousands of us, it’s our last leg home on an often-grueling daily commute—or the first leg of a relaxing adventure in the countryside.
Home for me is just around the next bend nestled in the cradle of the Short Hills, a place long known simply as “The Gap.” First settled nearly a quarter century before the American Revolution, as The Gap grew and prospered by the turn of the 19th century into the bustling hub of a bountiful agricultural region, its people adopted the more refined descriptive for a town nestled in the hills: Hillsborough. Today’s Hillsboro is little changed from the 18th- and 19th-century Hillsborough. In the 21st century, thanks to the vision and dedication of individuals who could have easily chosen to do otherwise, the expansive and beautiful approaches to this historic village have to an amazing degree remained open and unspoiled. And Hillsboro is once again poised to be the hub of a vibrant agriculture region.
The chances of that were long in doubt as it appeared all but inevitable that the outward push of residential development would consume this ground. Ten years ago, along with that welcome relief of reaching The Gap panorama each day came the tinge of dread—wondering if this might be the day we learn it too will be transformed as so many other scenic swaths of the county have.
But today, cynics aside, we see that an elegant and sustainable alternative to development has firmly taken root, proving that viticulture, winemaking, organic farming and livestock production can once again make agriculture central to the Loudoun economy and that be the linchpin for the agro-tourism that will ultimately ensure preservation of Loudoun’s rural west.
To a large extent, it will be a convergence of “old Loudoun” family ties to the land and energetic entrepreneurial innovation that sets the keystone to building a robust rural economy that ensures the remaining open spaces.
The Virts family has farmed in Loudoun since 1797, likely taking their grains to grind in one of Hillsboro’s several mills. For nearly half a century the Virts have owned the farm and majestic stone homestead on the south side of Charles Town Pike on the Hillsboro approach. When the pressure to develop this prime real estate was at its height, the family resisted, holding firm to continue their 12-generation tradition of working the land.
After years of study, preparation and hard work, the Virts family dream is coming to fruition with the opening of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Farms, an innovative approach to farming utilizing hydroponics and strict adherence to organic farming practices. Led by the vision and handiwork of Donald Virts, CEA Farm’s offerings of year-round fresh produce and quality organic meats have been met by an enthusiastic demand. And in addition to its great food and relaxed atmosphere, its farm-to-fork restaurant offers visitors a remarkable view.
It is a view that would be instantly recognizable to the 18th- century travelers who traversed this route through The Gap—and it remains one that each day tells some many of us, it is now time to exhale.
[Roger L. Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro, editor in chief of the HistoryNet publishing group, and editor of American History magazine.]