Most county residents—whether they have lived here forever or are relative newcomers—know Loudoun has a rich history, even if they’re a bit sketchy on the details.
But what many don’t know is that Loudoun is one of only a few jurisdictions in Virginia that can back up its stories with piles of documentation.
Stowed away away in the basement of the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg in file cases is a treasure trove of records detailing Loudoun’s 259-year history. You can search for land records, wills, birth, marriage and death notices, slave auctions, registers of free black residents, property auctions, tax records, deeds and court judgments.
That they still exist is attributed primarily to the foresight of Clerk of the Circuit Court George Fox and Chief Justice Asa Rogers. Two weeks before Virginians voted to secceed from the Union, the justices decided to remove the court documents to safety should the Yankees come to town, according to Historic Records Manager Eric Larson in a recent interview.
Union forces did come to town—in March 1862—but Fox and all the court records had left in February and were safely en route to Campbell County with the justices’ blessing as Union forces prepared to enter the town. The records came home safely in August 1865.
Thanks to that spirited intervention, Loudoun County today is one of only five jurisdictions in Virginia to have its entire records collection complete—dating back to its formation from then-western Fairfax County in 1757. Fairfax County records fared less well—many of them being dumped out unceremoniously on the front lawn outside the courthouse by the invaders.
A secondary reason for the continued existence of the documents, many of them very frail, is a determined program over the past decade to pursue funding to protect and conserve the records, under the leadership of Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary M. Clemens, ably abetted by former Historic Records Manager John Fishback and his successor Eric Larson, who took over the department on June 1, 2014, on Fishback’s retirement.
Larson’s current workforce includes summer intern Charles Freiburg, staffers Sarah Markel and Alyssa Fisher, plus several volunteers, including retired records manager Fishback, who just can’t seem to stay away from helping tend the records he’s cared for over many years. He now volunteers three days a week.
Larson had plenty of archival experience before taking over leadership of the program, having served in a curatorial position at both the Loudoun Museum and the Loudoun County Heritage Farm Museum, as well as serving under Fishback for two and a half years.
One of the first things Larson did was to centralize the assorted records, which were located in different departments. Now residents can research the records all in one place.
Another key focus was to continue the conservation and digitalization of the more recent records started under Fishback.
The push to restore the records and make them more accessible to the public stems in large part from Clemen’s oversight of the records, dating back to his election in 1999. Back in the 1990s, no one really understood the value of the records, he said.
Clemens recalled his shock and dismay when he first became Clerk of the Circuit Court. In January 2000, after taking office, he was walking through an unfinished area of the courthouse where some of the historic records were stowed.
There was no light in the area. “I heard water dripping, and saw there were boxes and boxes of records.” Using a flashlight, Clemens investigated. “I realized what a treasure trove it was,” he said. At the time, the Historic Records Department of the Clerk’s Office did not exist. He went to then-County Administrator Kirby Bowers and the Board of Supervisors to seek their support to protect and emphasize the importance of the records. That was the start.
Fishback became manager of the new department, an energetic grant-raising program was initiated, staff was expanded and volunteers came on board. The realization by those in authority that the records needed attention and a department of its own was manna to Fishback.
“I’d been trying to protect them for years,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Clemens said recently. But he and Larson are not done yet.
“This is my vision—to have a museum,” Clemens said, noting he wants the records to always stay in Loudoun where citizens have access to their records. Under the courthouse expansion, he hopes to have the archives in a different building, where there is space for the public and a secure preservation area for the records.
He also would like to see “all the historical groups consolidate their efforts in one global museum—where you can see it all,” citing other collection institutions, such as the Thomas Balch Library, the Loudoun Museum and the County Heritage Farm Museum, Oatlands with its slave data base, Mosby Heritage Area Association, the Balch’s Black History Committee and NOVA Parks. Continuing the push for successful fundraising is key, he said, noting he foresees the establishment of a 501(c)3 foundation to be a source of independent funds.
Clemens hopes Loudoun’s historic records program will become a model for other collections, in which the county could hold a historic records conference to “show what we do.” His vision is for Loudoun to be the center of a collaborative effort in which many institutions will work together.
Larson said the Chancery files from 1757 to 2012 are now digitized and are on the Library of Virginia website, while Fishback and Fisher are scanning deed books from 1757 to present, and the will books are almost current. Researchers can search the online indexes, which contain many of the records found in the Clerk’s Office. Check on the Loudoun.gov/clerk-archives, where records are constantly being updated. Also look for a paper titled Tips and Tricks for Researching Historic Records, which Larson said was written to answer many of the questions patrons pose to staff
Larson noted that, surprisingly, the more the records are digitized, the more people seem to want to see the originals.
Now the historic records are being carefully unrolled from the bundles in which they were stashed—then moistened using humidity in the spa tank, flattened and ironed under rice paper, mended where necessary with archival tape and flat filed, through an in-house conservation program which is largely funded through Library of Virginia grants. All the records are stored in acid-free paper and files.
For staffers, coming upon unexpected treasures is exhilarating. Markel noted she had just found former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s signature on a couple of lab reports. George Washington’s signature is a prized possession as well as his plat of Leesburg in 1759. Fisher has found plenty to interest her as she moves through the slave and then on to the free black indexes. Some records are of those petitioning for their freedom.
Larson’s four goals are: digitization, conservation, expanded access to the records, and public programs. To that end, the department now holds quarterly First Friday programs, in which the public is invited to come in and tour the records. He’s also working on the next big Loudoun commemoration—that of World War 1, in which he is working with the Loudoun County Centennial Committee.
New this year, is another initiative: the department’s “Little Gems” newsletter, which will be published quarterly. As the title suggests, it concerns small, hidden treasures. The January 2016 edition, for example, contained an article by Markel, noting that successive Clerks of the Circuit Court “squirreled away notes,” jottings down of things that interested them as well as downright oddities. The notes eventually went from being scraps of paper to being in a binder. Retired Deputy Clerk Louisa Hutchison compiled them as “The Book of Little Gems,” in which important information was contained. The work continues, Markel wrote, noting that staff recently found a deed for President James Monroe’s property at Oak Hill
Preserving the records for future generations “is a challenge I embrace,” Larson said, noting that being only one of five jurisdictions to have its entire records from its founding in 1757 from Fairfax County is amazing. “We really do have a treasure,” he said.