Where We Live

Residents of Bluemont, Va., Revel in the Rural

Bluemont Community Center, site of an announcement by fictional
Bluemont Community Center, site of an announcement by fictional "West Wing" president Josiah Bartlet, at 60 miles from Washington was deemed a more convenient venue than the script's New Hampshire location. The feel of an earlier time, a smattering of historic sites and a connection to rural customs impart a way of life that residents say they value above the development that characterizes much of Loudoun. (By Rita Zeidner For The Washington Post)

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 8, 2007

Location scouts for the popular television series "The West Wing" didn't have to travel far from their base in the District to find a town that could pass for rural New Hampshire.

Disappointing Granite State residents who lobbied to have the show shot on location in 2001, the purse-conscious producers decided that Bluemont, Va., 60 miles from Washington on Loudoun County's western edge, was an acceptable look-alike. The Bluemont Community Center, a white, two-story building from the 1920s, was chosen as the schoolhouse where fictional president Josiah Bartlet would announce his decision to run for a second term.

The same qualities that attracted the show's producers -- quiet streets, a mix of mostly older architectural styles, fieldstone fences, and breathtaking views of rolling countryside and the Blue Ridge Mountains -- are what residents say lured them to the town and keeps them there. Unlike other Loudoun villages such as Round Hill and Aldie, Bluemont remains mostly untouched by developers.

"It's just a lovely small town," said Maria Nicklin, a self-employed commercial artist who moved to Bluemont from Arlington in 2001 and has since developed a following among several local businesses, which use her locally inspired pen-and-ink drawings for marketing. Her husband, Cris Collins, an engineer who commutes 45 minutes each way to his job in Fairfax, bought their house before the couple married, a late-1800s farmhouse with a stone kitchen floor and beamed ceilings. The house is perched atop a steep hill, on a lane mostly trafficked by bicyclists hammering their way up the initial climb to Mount Weather.

Bluemont wasn't always off the beaten path. Settled in the early 1800s, it was a way station on a key route for stage traffic heading west from Washington across the Shenandoah River, according to Henry Plaster, a retired federal engineer and the town's unofficial historian. Originally, the town was named Snickersville, after Capt. Edward Snickers, who ran a ferry across the nearby Shenandoah River in the 1760s. But it was rechristened in 1907, mostly as a marketing ploy by the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, which had just a completed a rail line to the village and hoped it would catch on as a summer retreat. The line, which ran until 1939, is commemorated at its eastern terminus, now Bluemont Park in Arlington.

Bluemont has no formal borders. Rather, its single zip code, 20135, has the quirky distinction of spilling into both Loudoun and Clarke counties in Virginia and a tiny corner of Jefferson County in West Virginia, according to the town's postmaster, Rachel Wetherill. Wetherill moved to Bluemont in the early 1970s from Los Angeles and lived for a spell with her family in an apartment above the town's general store.

Bluemont's historic district is a cluster of about 60 houses, several of which predate the Civil War, along Snickersville Turnpike. The town's oldest surviving private residence, Clayton Hall, was built by Amos Clayton in 1797.

But the bulk of Bluemont residents live by Route 601, a roller-coaster byway running along the spine of Mount Weather. An eclectic mix of new and vintage cabins is interspersed with huge fieldstone mansions along the hillside overlooking the Loudoun Valley to the east and Shenandoah Valley to the west.

Locals from all parts of town pick up fresh eggs, read the paper and catch up on gossip at the Bluemont General Store, an inviting blue clapboard house that has been open more or less continuously since the 1840s. But virtually everyone makes the drive to Purcellville, Winchester or Berryville for groceries.

"I am so happy to be out of the suburbs," Ann Plaster said one sultry Sunday while rinsing the fist-size tomatoes her husband Henry had just brought in from the vegetable garden he spent much of the summer tending. The couple moved to Bluemont from Bethesda 15 years ago, living in a trailer for six months while they oversaw the renovation of a 170-year-old farmhouse that has been in the Plaster family since the mid-1850s. The house is surrounded by 270 acres of pastureland and is flanked by a storybook red barn embellished in 2001 with the image of an American flag painted by a local artist. (A less-pleasing feature of the property is the former slave quarters out back, preserved by the Plasters for historic purposes.) "I can't see my neighbors out my window, but I know they're there," she said. "Someone's always stopping by. Or if a cow's on the road, two or three people will let you know."

While much of Bluemont proper is protected by historic-preservation rules limiting construction, the Plasters' land is not. And while they say they like the town the way it is, they plan to will their property to their three grown children and can't be sure what the next generation will do with it. "I'm praying they won't sell to a developer," Ann Plaster said.

Things are less up in the air for Mark and Kate Zurschmeide, who purchased a 300-acre farm in 1993 on the village's outskirts and started Great Country Farms, one of several community-supported agriculture projects in Loudoun. The farm sells shares to several hundred local residents who, in return, get weekly shipments of the farm's freshly picked bounty -- asparagus and strawberries in the spring; tomatoes, beans, corn and peaches in the summer; pumpkins and apples in the fall -- delivered to their homes during the growing season.

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