One Traveler's Opinion: The Waterford Fair

Old Oct 27th, 2003, 02:12 PM
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One Traveler's Opinion: The Waterford Fair

Every year on the first weekend in October, Waterford, Virginia, a village on the far outskirts of Washington D.C., throws open its collective doors and welcomes the outside world for three days. If you have an interest in crafts, in old houses, in food, or in history, you ought to consider joining the migration. After missing the event for several years, I was back earlier this month. Herewith a report.

Waterford, Virginia, was settled by Quakers in the 1700s and, by 1860 was a thriving, prosperous town of 500 people. But, being Quakers, they were opposed to both war and slavery. And so Waterford because the only town in the Confederacy to refuse to send soldiers to the army, and was the first to "surrender" in 1861. As a result, the rest of Virginia shunned Waterford and, in the post-War-Between-the-States south, Waterford was bypassed, literally and figuratively. The roads into the village were those that existed before 1860, the railroads built no stations in the community. By the 1930s, Waterford was a dying village with a population of less than 100.

Then, remarkably, there came a Renaissance in the form of the Waterford Foundation, which recognized that there was an intact, pre-Civil-War village on the periphery of Washington, D.C. Decaying but structurally sound homes were bought up and the entire village plus the surrounding agricultural fields were declared a National Historic Landmark. The Waterford Fair was established in the 1940s as a means of raising funds for the restoration of homes in the village; it has evolved into one of the premier juried arts and crafts fairs in the mid-Atlantic states.

Today, Waterford doesn't need the fair; Loudon County (Leesburg is the nearest population center) has mushroomed, and homes in Waterford have become much sought after. This photo (http://www.waterfordva-wca.org/maps.htm) shows why. While Loudon County has sprouted square miles of mind-numbing look-alike townhouses, Waterford retains the look and feel of a small village, thanks in large measure to that landmark status. But the Fair is now a true extravaganza, running three days with 300+ crafts exhibitors and 20 or more open houses. The streets are thronged with people and there is the smell of food in the air (in addition to the usual suspects of fair food, there are such delicacies as lamb sausage to be had, and it's delicious).

I was there at 10 a.m. on a picture-perfect Friday when it opened and there were "only" a thousand or so people on hand; I left about 3 p.m. when there were at least ten times that number and movement around the village had become difficult. Saturday afternoons defy description, with miles-long caravans of cars coming in from every direction.

Six to seven different homes are open each day; they range from pre-civil-war row houses to Victorian shingled piles. Waterford's zoning is designed to ensure that, at least from the street, the community retains its long-ago feel. But within those strictures, homeowners have adapted and expanded interiors to meet the needs of life in the 21st century. It's fascinating to look in on them, especially if you have ever owned, or aspired to own, an antique home. Lines to tour the homes are shortest in the early morning; by mid-afternoon they were more than half an hour long.

But it's the crafts that draws the crowds, and the fair does spectacularly well at its mission. Crafts booths are clustered at half a dozen sites around town; some in buildings such as an old school house, but most in tents on the town's various greens. Almost all exhibitors offer demonstrations in addition to displays of wares; something that sets Waterford apart from other crafts shows. There's an early American theme and flavor to most (although not all) of the crafts, but the media run the gamut from clay to textiles and furniture. The quality of what is on display is uniformly excellent. This is not your anyone-with-the-price-of-admission-gets-a-booth crafts fair. "Juried" means submitting work to an admissions panel, and Waterford sets the bar rather high. Crafts people charge what the market will bear, but they also recognize that bills have to be paid, and so there are things to look at (and buy) at every price level.

There is also the village to explore. This is a residential community with a general store, but no restaurants, inns, or gift shoppes. Waterford today has perhaps 90 homes, virtually all dating from before the Civil War. Because of the strong sense of history (as well as building restrictions), a stroll down its two main streets and half-dozen cross streets is an excursion back to the 19th century. Waterford has preserved everything from the blacksmith shops with their open forges to the cabins that belonged to freed slaves. The handful of homes built in the early years of the 20th century seem almost out of place. It's a far different feeling than, say, Concord, Massachusetts. The center of Concord is a very tasteful preservation of a wealthy colonial town with a quaint village green, but there's a modern shopping district a block away complete with a Starbucks and Gap. Waterford, by contrast, is a self-contained community of mostly humble-appearing homes.

Admission to the fair is $14 - a hefty sum, but a substantial portion of the proceeds go to the Waterford Foundation.

Lodging: The nearest lodging is in Leesburg with the usual chain motels. There's also the Inn at Little Washington (30 miles away), but I was quoted $775 for a room, which was somewhat more than I had in mind to spend. Because we were also spending a day in Washington D.C. at various museums, we chose the Marriott Crystal Gateway in Crystal City (adjacent to National Airport in Arlington), which offers weekend rates starting Thursday night. For $175 per night, we got early check-in for a spacious junior suite, full breakfast, and parking. The Metro blue and yellow lines are across the street and there's easy access to the GW Parkway and I-66. Impersonal, perhaps, but very convenient and definitely comfortable.

Dining: In addition to lamb sausage and Red Hot and Blue barbecue at the Waterford fair, we indulged in a couple of old favorites in the D.C. area. The first was Le Refuge in Old Town Alexandria (Washington Street just north of King), a wonderful little restaurant that offers superb French country cooking, an intimate setting, and attentive service. The second was Les Halles on Pennsylvania Avenue (at 13th Street) in Washington. It's a Parisian bistro that offers the real thing: hanger steak and frites, washed down with a Cote du Rhone.
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Old Oct 27th, 2003, 02:18 PM
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This was most interesting and now I will have to wait a year!! until I can go?
I will definitely make plans to do so, I love a good Crafts fair and antiquing in historical surroundings, so this will be a treat!
Thank you SO much, Neal ~
Scarlett
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Old Oct 27th, 2003, 02:29 PM
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Outstanding report. Very nice to see you back. We will put it on our list to visit.
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Old Oct 28th, 2003, 12:20 AM
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I don't know if or when I'll ever get there but it was fun to read about. Where have you been all this time anyway, Neal, and how many funny hotel reviews have we missed?
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Old Oct 28th, 2003, 05:32 AM
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I had not heard about the fair but thanks to you, it's on my "to do" list. Thank you for posting.
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Old Oct 28th, 2003, 07:42 AM
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Welcome back Neal. I always enjoyed your writing. I'll have to put Waterford VA on my places to visit list.
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Old Oct 28th, 2003, 03:32 PM
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It's great to see you back, Neal, we've missed your interesting and thoughtful reports. Waterford sounds fascinating, and I've never heard of it before.

I do have one small quibble, though. I live in Concord, and, although we do indeed have a Starbucks, there is not, and never has been, a Gap here. The Thoreau Street shopping area is more than a block from Monument Square and the Milldam, more like a half mile, I'd say. When Dunkin Donuts opened a store across the street from Starbucks, they were not allowed to install their normal hideous orange and pink sign, but had to put up a tasteful white and beige one, instead. They are also required to offer china plates to any customers that request one - we are oh so highfalutin here, don't you know!
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Old Oct 28th, 2003, 04:33 PM
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What a wonderfully descriptive post. Thanks for sharing. Wish I were closer so I could put it on my short list. It sounds like it would be a fun place for a stroll even without the craft fair, I love old houses and we just don't have them like they do in the east.

Thanks!
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Old Oct 29th, 2003, 05:42 AM
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Sara, a huge "mea culpa" for placing a Gap on Thoreau Street. If you're gonna write, you ought to be accurate.

I chose Concord to contrast with Waterford because a lot of people have visited or otherwise know Concord. (I love Concord and went on a tour of The Manse last month.) But Concord has beautiful, large Colonial-era homes, many set on rolling lawns. The houses in Waterford would be dwarfed by those in Concord; the lots tiny by comparison.

Both towns survive largely intact: Waterford because it was shunned by the outside world for nearly a century; Concord because it is proud of its heritage and made a conscious effort to preserve the look of its past while adapting to the reality of the present (Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts).
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