By Roger Vance
It is one of the questions we all ask when we first meet someone. It seems we have an instinctive checklist of queries to help us get a fix on a person, associate a face and a name with an occupation or role and perhaps most important, a place. Place helps us define, in a spatial sense, how a person relates to us.
“Where do you live?” is an easy icebreaker that starts conversations about a town, a place, and acquaintances or shared experiences, in your place or theirs. This is one of the simplest questions we have to answer. After all, just about everyone has an official fixed address, thanks to the U.S. Postal Service.
When my family moved to the area 21 years ago, we knew where we lived—in our house, in the center of Hillsboro. So did my mortgage company, bank, employer, utility companies, credit card companies, magazine publishers, junk mail purveyors etc.—all thanks to the United States Postal Service. When people asked, I told them, and most of them knew. “Oh that quaint little historic town on Rt. 9, with all the traffic.” I was somewhat surprised to learn how many more people called Hillsboro home than actually lived inside the town boundary. “I live in Hillsboro, you know, off Mountain Road.” Or, “I live in Hillsboro, out on Harpers Ferry Road.” Or, “I live in Hillsboro, off Sagle Road … Hillsboro Road … Purcellville Road … Woodgrove Road …” and so on it goes.
Since its official establishment by an act of the General Assembly in 1802, Hillsboro (Hillsborough back then) was the “hometown” for residents from the crest of the Blue Ridge (dividing what is now West Virginia and Virginia) to the west and the Potomac River to the north, to the Short Hill Mountain Ridge and Berlin Turnpike to the east and southeast and to what would become Purcellville in 1853 to the south. That is a nearly 45-square-mile swath of northwest Loudoun that had a Hillsboro address. When the town’s charter was revised in 1880, the spelling of Hillsborough was truncated, by the Post Office, to distinguish it from another Hillsborough in southern Virginia (no longer in existence). Because the robust village served not just its residents but the surrounding agricultural region as well, a purpose-built post office was constructed in the center of town in the late 19th century, complete with postmaster.
In the 1960s, the Postal Service revolutionized its delivery system with the ubiquitous ZIP (Zone Improvement Plan) codes, assigning one to every address in the country. If you lived in the Hillsboro area, yours was 20134. By the late 20th century, economics-driven consolidation saw the elimination of hundreds of small community post offices across the country, many of them losing postmasters but retaining “postal facilities” housed in commercial venues or operated by nonprofits. Thus was the case with Hillsboro, where, in the 1970s, the postal operation moved to the venerable Hill Tom Market, and the post office building was sold to private owners.
All was well, as Hill Tom fixture Glenn Roberts ran the store and “post office” for decades. It was the quintessential “Mayberryesque” place where hundreds of area residents picked up mail—along with local news and gossip—every day. With the turn of the 21st century, however, Hill Tom ownership changed hands, Glenn was gone and the new storeowners and Postal Service could not come to terms on the facility. By 2004, after strenuous objections by the town and area residents and with no alternate Hillsboro location offered, the facility was closed, forcing residents to either erect rural delivery mail boxes or rent a Post Office box—in Purcellville.
Even though postal officials assured area residents their Hillsboro identity would remain, today Hillsboro’s ZIP code “lives” only as a lonely box in the Purcellville Post Office. The Purcellville ZIP of 20132 has overridden 20134 and now encompasses the traditional 45-square-mile Hillsboro address zone.
As a consequence, in our GPS, digital-driven world, a Purcellville ZIP code means only one thing to the world at large. YOU LIVE IN PURCELLVILLE.
No offense to Purcellville intended, but this is no small matter. Even as Hillsboro’s mayor, on Election Day I’ve been challenged—at the Hillsboro Precinct polling place!— by poll workers who’ve told me, “sorry, you live in Purcellville.” Convincing mortgage companies, financial institutions and a myriad of billing agents, data collectors and call centers that my house has not been moved to Purcellville and that I do still live in Hillsboro is a time-consuming, frustrating and often fruitless routine—one shared by every Hillsboro-area household.
The Town of Hillsboro’s official address is Purcellville, as is Hillsboro Charter Academy’s. Hillsborough Vineyards, along with a dozen other Hillsboro-area wineries, B&Bs and other tourism-dependent establishments as far as 15 miles from Purcellville are described with a Purcellville address by online search engines and maps. Accident alerts and news reports refer to Charles Town Pike or Harpers Ferry Road as “in Purcellville.” Befuddled tourists and visitors relying on GPS routinely lose their way as they search for their “Purcellville” destination that is nowhere near Purcellville.
Attempts to correct web-based and social-media GPS services have proven to be impossible in most instances. Advertisements for local businesses are thus forced to use the assigned Purcellville address, with the unintended consequence of furthering marketplace confusion.
Hillsboro is renewing its quest to reestablish its rightful postal identity. With the support of the Greater Hillsboro Business Alliance, in the short term Hillsboro will be formally requesting the reinstatement of its long-held ZIP code. Our long-term goal is the reinstitution of a full-service postal facility in Hillsboro that once again serves its outlying region.
So soon, everyone else will know what we already know—where we live.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column appears monthly in Loudoun Now.]