By Margaret Good and Tom Kuehhas
Actions during the Civil War by both sides ravaged Waterford’s agricultural economy, causing a good number of residents to depart. Of those who remained, few saw the prosperity prevalent in Waterford in the early 1800s, when the village’s economic vitality within Loudoun was second only to Leesburg.
Still struggling after the war, Waterford’s commercial development was further weakened in the 1870s, as the railroad pushed west of Leesburg, but bypassed Waterford. While area farmers benefitted from improved access to urban markets, the influx of cheaper goods from large manufacturing centers rendered many local cottage industries obsolete. New construction in Waterford dried up. Although much of America experienced a rise in productivity and industry in this, the Gilded Age, Waterford foundered. Few residents could afford to modernize and update their homes. World War I and the Great Depression led to further decline. In 1937, a Historic American Buildings Survey of Waterford described a village dominated by dilapidated houses.
But buried in this grim scene was a circumstantial seed for improvement and preservation. Waterford’s stagnation as a commercial center meant it was not worth demolishing the old to make way for the new. The old town and its surrounding farms were able to slumber undisturbed for many years. Indeed, numerous buildings in the village appear as they do today because of those seven decades of neglect.
By the later 1930s, new life was beginning to stir. A trickle of newcomers from the Washington area appreciated Waterford’s picturesque buildings and rural setting, and began to renovate old structures throughout the town. In 1936, when the village was no longer incorporated, Loudoun County paved Waterford’s roads, making the village more accessible.
Two brothers from an old Waterford family, Edward and Leroy Chamberlin, began buying and restoring buildings in the 1930s. Later, other families and individuals concerned with the welfare of this all-but-abandoned-town joined the Chamberlins in preserving Waterford’s structures, traditions and rural setting. After meeting informally, this small group in September 1943 formed a nonprofit organization known as the Waterford Foundation Inc. As recorded in the minutes, the founders of the Foundation had “a deep feeling of obligation to serve and a desire to preserve, restore and improve the village of Waterford.” The mill was the first purchase, as it was the reason for the town’s beginnings.
A secondary aim was to “… revive and stimulate a community interest in recreating the town of Waterford as it existed in previous times with its varying crafts and activities.” Skilled artisans and craftspeople had plied their trades in Waterford for 200 years. That tradition was continued with the first exhibition of arts and crafts in October, 1944. The Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit (the Waterford Fair) was born.
Since its creation in 1943, the Foundation has worked diligently to acquire, place preservation easements on, and restore or rehabilitate the historically significant buildings in the village. As some structures are not residential, they have remained under the Foundation’s ownership, and are now used primarily during the Fair. They accurately paint a picture of a typical rural 18th-19th century village: schools, churches, stores and barns amid a large number of residences. This picture acknowledges what a robust community it was.
Today, the Foundation continues its mission to preserve the historic buildings and open spaces of the National Historic Landmark District of Waterford, and through education to increase the public’s knowledge of life and work in an early American rural community.
It owns 13 properties, and has purchased, eased and resold many others to ensure their protection. The Foundation also has gone to great lengths to protect surrounding open space from development that would destroy the 270-year-old visual connection between the old mill town and the farms it served. In the process, the Foundation has acquired a national reputation as a model community-based preservation organization. In 1970, the U.S. Department of the Interior validated the Foundation’s decades of pioneering work by establishing the Waterford National Historic Landmark District.
The virtually intact village of Waterford was named one of Loudoun County’s first Historic and Cultural Conservation Districts in 1972. It consists of 750 acres nestled in the rural surrounding of an additional 670 acres. These 1420 acres make up the larger National Historic Landmark. Waterford also is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register. Waterford today has more properties under preservation easements than any other location in Virginia. These easements provide additional protection of this unique heritage site, which in 2011, was named by First Lady Michelle Obama a Preserve America community.
[Margaret Good is the Waterford Foundation’s preservation director and Tom Kuehhas is the Foundation’s executive director) Comments or questions about may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization or to participate in the rural road initiative, to go loudouncoalition.org.]