Neighborliness Grows on Them

"We have nothing to hide, and our life is open for anybody to come and observe," said Luke Wiseman, who was reared in the Twelve Tribes. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

They pool their finances, home-school their children -- whom they sometimes discipline with small reeds -- and have been accused in other parts of the country of being a cult and breaking child labor laws.

But in western Loudoun County, their neighbors wouldn't trade them for the world. After all, they're keeping the land free from development.

In 2003, the Twelve Tribes, a religious group founded in Tennessee, came to Hillsboro, a historic town of about 100 people 50 miles west of the District.

Many of the residents don't take kindly to the McMansions that have sprouted up in formerly rural parts of Northern Virginia. In such postage stamp communities in eastern Loudoun, for example, "you look out your kitchen window into your neighbor's kitchen window," said Belle Ware, a Hillsboro resident for more than 50 years.

But the Tribe, as some in town affectionately call its members, has, in the meantime, staved off such growth by choosing to use its 35 acres as a communal farm. Fending off the developers has thus endeared members to locals who admit to having been suspicious upon the group's arrival.

"There's obvious curiosity whenever a group like that comes around," Hillsboro Mayor Roger L. Vance said. Even so, "it was, frankly, a real relief when they were able to acquire that property and put in the farm they've got. It's a great plus for the town."

Since 2003, the group's now-25-member chapter has amassed its land, which straddles the incorporated town's boundary with Loudoun County. On a farm the group hopes will soon be certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bearded, ponytailed men and women in long homemade dresses plant crops, tend to goats and cows and follow the teachings of Yahshua (Jesus) through prayer, song and work.

A far cry from the hippie communes of the 1960s, the group owns for-profit landscaping and construction companies in Purcellville and plans to open a coffee shop in Hillsboro in spring.

Group members say they are monogamous, pay taxes, abstain from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex and possess no firearms.

To anti-growth locals, it sure beats an ominous proliferation of flags in the ground -- the telltale sign of land surveyors.

"I've been watching this garden grow with anticipation," said Francesca Edling of Loudoun Heights, as she purchased beets, lettuce and onions from the group's food stand on the side of Route 9. "I am delighted that it's a garden instead of a development."

Next-door neighbor Marion Virts, 85, said she has watched Tribe members from her porch at 4:30 a.m. pick lettuce as the growing number of commuters begin their trek from nearby West Virginia along Route 9, a juxtaposition she finds amusing.

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