Loudoun in the First World War: The Great War Viewed from a Distance

By Richard Gillespie

[This is the first article in a three-part series.]

This year, Virginians remember the centennial of America’s participation in the First World War. The year 1918 was a year of massive change, heroic effort, and huge loss of life for the commonwealth. It would mark America forever. Over the past 80 years, Loudoun County’s attention to historic preservation largely through the foresight of early county zoning, the work of caring individuals, and the efforts of historical and preservation non-profits to save, restore, preserve, educate, and inspire has left us an historical landscape that lets us tell the story of that war and its home front. We should remember that story.

When America entered the 1914-18 war in 1917, Loudoun had just begun to emerge from the economic shadow of the Civil War that had devastated it a half-century earlier. The memory of it lived on in remembered battlefield and skirmish sites, statues, monuments, reunions of Confederate veterans, and the system of racial segregation and black disfranchisement known as Jim Crow, bolstered heavily since the turn of the 20thcentury.

Loudoun was still a rural county of just 21,000 people in 1918. Dotted across its rural landscape were small towns including Leesburg, the county seat (population 1,500), towns along the Southern Railroad including Purcellville (500), Round Hill (about 350), and Hamilton (just under 300), and the small towns of Middleburg, Hillsboro, Lovettsville, and Waterford.  The vast majority of residents lived in western Loudoun, where the landscape was heavily farmed. County-wide, dairy products were the key to the agricultural economy and could be shipped easily on the cross-county branch of the Southern Railroad that cut from Sterling to Bluemont. Recently electrified, daily milk runs were made to supply Washington and Alexandria. But now, with worldwide need for American crops and livestock since the beginning of the World War, the county was plunging into a second agricultural revolution. The latest technology and methods were being employed to raise beef cattle, dairy cows, horses, and grain. One of our prominent farmers, Westmoreland Davis of Morven Park, was a leader in that revolution; it would help in his 1917 election as governor.

In Our Backyard

When the Great War began in August 1914, Loudoun was a key piece of the famed Virginia Hunt Country, attracting the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington foxhunting enthusiasts. Loudoun had long been known for its horses—consider the Upperville Colt and Horse Show grounds on the Loudoun-Fauquier line, the oldest horse show in the country—a feature that would immediately attract government purchasing agents from Britain.  Despite the advent of trucks and cars, armies were still reliant on literal horsepower throughout World War I. Accordingly, the price of horses and the grain we grew to feed them skyrocketed. Sympathy with Great Britain was strong, particularly with those involved in hunt country because of their pre-war equine ties. Besides, Germany didn’t buy horses because of the British naval blockade.

As farms prospered with Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson in the White House who stressed American neutrality in word and deed, there was no taste for engaging in this war.  Better that we borrow money from a local branch of a national bank with the help of the new Wilsonian idea, the Farm Credit Administration, to buy more land for crops to feed starving war-torn Europeans. Banks involved in these 1916-18 loans still stand in Hamilton at East Colonial Highway and St. Paul Street (the old Farmers & Merchants Bank), at Purcellville opposite East Main and 20thStreets (the former Purcellville National Bank), across from the courthouse in Leesburg on the southeast corner of Market and King Streets (formerly Loudoun National Bank, and in the handsome building Lightfoot Restaurant occupies today that was home to People’s National Bank.

Loudoun residents had other concerns to engage them in 1914-17. They assessed the merits of women’s suffrage from speakers who came to the county, had the General Assembly bring on Virginia prohibition, hardened racial attitudes, heard the latest bands and religious speakers at summer Bush Meeting in the Tabernacle still standing at Purcellville, attended passionate local baseball games, and if African-American, joined thousands arriving by rail to be inspired to self-improvement at the annual September Emancipation Association celebration also held at Purcellville.

Still, Loudouners were keenly aware of the horror of the enormous, long-feared Great War across the Atlantic in 1914 through early 1917. They could see it on postcards sold at local drugstores like Littlejohn’s Pharmacy (still standing with other use at 7 N. King St. in Leesburg), and in newsreels, shown at local “theaters” like Grubb’s Store in Lovettsville (building extant on East Broad Way), and Hampton’s Hall (upstairs in the White Palace building still standing at Main and 21stStreets in Purcellville) as well as in newspapers such as the Baltimore American, Loudoun’s favorite at the time. They didn’t like what they saw. In the second installment of this three-part series, we’ll look at what happened when the war came to them anyway in April 1917.

Richard Gillespie is the former executive director and current historian emeritus of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. Previously, he was a career Loudoun County Public Schools history teacher. Now retired, he gives public presentations on Loudoun and the First World War to schools and community organizations. Contact him at rgillespie@mosbyheritagearea.org.  In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.

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