In Our Backyard: The Waterford Foundation Celebrates 75 Years of Preservation and Innovation

Each year, thousands visit Waterford and marvel at a wonderfully intact remnant of early America. This year, the village celebrates the Waterford Foundation, the far-sighted organization that for 75 years has worked to preserve and share that treasure. Its successes have been neither easy nor inevitable.

In Our Backyard

By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the old town was a near shambles, the hollowed-out relic of a long, slow decline after the Civil War. Many locals doubted that the dilapidated buildings could—or even should—be saved from inevitable collapse. One charming old structure on Main Street, the home of a former slave, was taken down for its stone, which was hauled to Leesburg. The Pink House, (40174 Main St.), originally an early 19thcentury tavern, escaped a similar fate only because its brick proved too soft for reuse. As one dismayed observer put it,” Most every building looked as though it was about to fall apart. … It seemed a truly deserted village.”

The one sign of life was the work of brothers Edward and Leroy Chamberlin, who had begun to repair and resell a number of deteriorating residences in and around town. The Chamberlins, members of an old Waterford Quaker family, fortunately had the means to tackle the job in the depression-ravaged community.

In 1943, a handful of concerned locals and a few recent arrivals came together and resolved to build on the Chamberlins’ progress. They were incorporated as the Waterford Foundation, Inc. But where to begin? The new organization had no money and no real plan other than a desire “to preserve the historic buildings” and “to increase the public’s knowledge of life and work in an early American rural community.” As a tentative first step, the foundation pulled together $825 to buy a dilapidated house that, fittingly, had been built circa 1800 for Mahlon Janney, son of Amos Janney, the town’s founder. The foundation made necessary repairs and resold the house in 1945 for $1,500. The organization would repeat this pattern of rescue and resale many times in the decades that followed, a bootstrap technique that was largely self-funding.

But not all needy buildings could or should be resold. A prime example was the defunct old mill, the iconic structure in the village. The Foundation was able to purchase that building in 1944 only because the Fadeley family stepped in with a $2,000 donation. Then, casting about for more sustainable ways to continue its work, the Foundation hit on the idea of holding an exhibition of arts and crafts and charging a nominal fee to attend. The success of the first such demonstration in 1944 exceeded the Board’s hopes, and the “Waterford Fair” rapidly grew to a major cultural event in Loudoun and beyond, furthering the organization’s educational mission and providing a vital source of funding.

Over the years, the foundation has confronted many challenges, some of its own making. An early and persistent one was a charge of elitism, coupled with secrecy. To help allay concerns, the board opened membership to anyone interested.

A greater threat to the long-term success of the Waterford Foundation arose from an unexpected source: the accelerating growth of Loudoun County. The threat came to the fore in 1970 when the Water Street Meadow and Schooley Mill Barn properties came on the market, opening the possibility of new construction immediately adjacent to the town. Still, not all board members thought the threat was as great as the purchase price, and there were multiple resignations when the majority opted to buy the Water Street acreage. In hindsight, the wisdom of their acquisition looks much clearer.

By 1970, the work of the Waterford Foundation had acquired a national reputation as a model of grassroots preservation. It had achieved its successes in restoring buildings, protecting building facades and open spaces, and celebrating early American crafts and activities with virtually no public funding. That same year, in recognition of those accomplishments, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Waterford and its surround as a national historic landmark district, a category reserved for the likes of Mount Vernon and Independence Hall.

But the work was not finished. The Waterford Foundation continues to protect viewsheds, maintain fragile buildings, host the annual Waterford Fair, and develop educational programs and exhibits. A new partnership has been created with the Loudoun Freedom Center to help celebrate the African-American contributions (past and present) within the village, particularly in the John Wesley Community Church.  The church was built by African-American hands under the light of their lanterns in the evenings of 1891. Another new addition to the foundation is the Waterford Craft School, which teaches methods used in craft and building arts, enabling students to learn make-by-hand skills from experts in each field. Classes include quilting, weaving, basket-making, the building arts and more. Teaching such skills will help ensure continued preservation in Waterford.

All are invited to visit the open house of the Loudoun Freedom Center at the John Wesley Community Church, 40125 Bond Street, Sept. 29, 3 to 5 p.m., and step back in time at the Waterford Fair, Oct. 5, 6 and 7, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Watch 100+ juried artisans as they demonstrate their crafts, tour historic homes, enjoy fine and faire food and local libations, enjoy many strolling entertainers and catch the stellar bluegrass bands performing on the main stage. Children 12 and under are admitted free.

Visit waterfordfairva.org for the Fair schedule and ticket details.

 

Historians Bronwen and John Souders researched and wrote the historical content of this article. Wendy Roseberry coordinated contributions from the Waterford Foundation staff. The source of the photographs is the Waterford Foundation Local History Collection. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. Learn more about the organization at loudouncoalition.org.

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