Douglas Graham has been in love with Loudoun’s back roads for more than 30 years.
As a young photojournalist on assignment in the mid-1980s, Graham took his first drive down Old Waterford Road between Leesburg and Waterford. He was captivated by the scenes of rural life he encountered on the way. After that trip, he bought an old-school paper map and made it a mission to hit Loudoun’s unpaved roads one mile at a time.
“I was immediately taken not only by the number of dirt roads, but the age of them,” Graham said. “You see the old stone walls and you know they’ve been there for centuries.”
Now Graham is following up on his longtime dream of documenting Loudoun’s nearly 300-mile network of rural roads. He’s joined forces with author and Loudoun Now managing editor Danielle Nadler and a group of dedicated historians and preservationists in a new project called America’s Routes. The group hopes that by telling the story of Loudoun’s historic back roads they can help save them.
“Our hope is to not only say why this rural road network is a treasure but to illustrate it through powerful images and a series of short stories,” said Nadler, who is writing a series of short stories as part of the project. She wants to hear from those whose families have called Loudoun home for generations and those who live along and travel the historic roads today, from the farmers and postmen to equestrians and cyclists. “Our hope is to nudge others to love these roads and the villages they connect, and we think true stories as told by those who’ve lived them, are the most meaningful way to do that.”
Working in partnership with the nonprofit Mosby Heritage Area Association, the America’s Routes team launched its website, AmericasRoutes.com, last month, pairing Graham’s stunning photographs of life on Loudoun’s gravel roads with Nadler’s stories from people who live along those unpaved routes. The project’s first story featured local farmer and stonemason Allen Cochran’s long family history in the village of Lincoln and his decision to move his sheep from field to field the old fashioned way: by walking them along Lincoln’s gravel roads.
The pair’s next project centers on the southwest Loudoun community of Willisville, another historic hidden gem. Followers of the project on social media were given a taste of the story last week with Graham’s fascinating image of Fora Hillman driving her pony-pulled carriage down Willisville Road, a shot from November 2018 that looks like a step back in time.
Their work featured on the website is just a taste of the final product that will include the images and short stories in a colorful, hardcover-bound book; curriculum that educators can use to teach Loudoun students about the historic and ongoing significance of the roads; and a guide for how people can experience the roads, whether by car, by horse, by bicycle or on foot.
Graham and Nadler are working with MHAA, along with a group of area historians and preservationists to help educate Loudouners and others about the value of the county’s rural roads in both in terms of preserving the county’s history and its agro-tourism economy. So while the journalists work to capture images and stories from the roads, their collaborators are working to document the roads’ history and take steps to help preserve them.
Mitch Diamond bought his historic farm near the village of Unison in southwest Loudoun 20 years ago after retiring from a career in international consulting. Diamond began researching the history of his farm and the Unison community. What Diamond and fellow preservationists discovered was a network of roads that’s unique in America and that offer important information about Loudoun’s position as a booming agricultural and manufacturing community in the 18th century, with every road designed to help bring grain to the county’s many mills and from the mills to markets around the region.
“The roads are really a proxy for the whole landscape. They connect everything,” Diamond said. “By honoring the roads and what happened along them and what you’re seeing all around you, you honor and educate people about the landscape and its real value.”
And that value is not just for the people who live on those gravel roads, Diamond says. They’re also of value to the county’s suburban communities, he says, pointing to county-commissioned studies by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service on quality of life in Loudoun.
“Invariably, right at the top of the list is that combination of suburban convenience and rural beauty,” Diamond said. “The landscape is not just a relic that you preserve. It’s a valuable critical asset that you have to treasure and people have to understand both. It’s beautiful. It’s authentic. We have all this history but also it’s enormously valuable.”
Jane Covington, an architectural conservator and restoration specialist, is contributing to the America’s Routes project by researching the history of Loudoun’s rural road network and working to establish eligibility for the entire network on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
“National Register listing in itself does not impart protection or prevent destruction, but it does encourage preservation planning if changes are proposed for the roads and would give an official stamp to their historic value,” Covington said.
Beyond the history, the value of the roads to equestrians, cyclists and pedestrians is key, says Graham who captured most of his images while traveling back roads by bike.
Emily Houston is a member of the Loudoun County Equine Alliance and an America’s Routes collaborator whose horse farm is bisected by Old Waterford Road. She no longer rides on the now heavily trafficked gravel road, but still feels a connection to the historic route just outside her front door.
“It’s a very intimate relationship with this unpaved road,” Houston said. “When I first came out here, I fell in love with the unpaved roads. People either connect with them emotionally or they don’t, and I’m one of those people who does.”
For Graham and Nadler, that intimate connection between road and resident is at the heart of the project and the stories they’re choosing to tell. For Graham, who retired in 2013 after a 40-year career photographing presidents and dignitaries for the Economist Group’s Washington, DC, bureau, America’s Routes is a passion project where he feels he’s doing some of the best work of his life. Some of the roads will likely be lost to development, he says, but others will be saved. That’s why the combination of documentation and education is so important.
“The biggest battle is educating people,” Graham said. “We have a chance to save something that’s really important.”