Boots on, tape measure in hand, Mike Jenkins walked the red shale hills of Loudoun County that December day in 1989, a man alone on the muddy road on which he soon would live.
He whistled as he took down the dimensions of a few home sites. The second man to buy a house in a place called Cascades, Jenkins could take his pick.
"You had to envision it. Mud everywhere. No paved streets," Jenkins said. "It was great. You felt like you had the whole 3,000 acres to yourself."
It feels so suburban now, a decade after bulldozers carved out the subdivision and Jenkins and a few dozen others moved in and put up with the lack of telephone service and the racket of earth being moved. Hunkering in the still-forested land, they could call themselves pioneers.
The promise of Washington's as-yet largely undeveloped western suburbs pulled them to this far frontier. Cascades--and the dozens of other developments that created Washington's outer ring of suburbs--gave these pioneers a chance to settle a new area, to climb the middle-class ladder while living in virgin green.
In 1989, the first home buyers shopped for food in Sterling and for everything else in Tysons Corner or Reston, their telltale mud-splashed cars identifying them as Cascades folk. "It was like camping out," said Jenkins, 47, a bank examination specialist at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who is celebrating 10 years in the community this month. "For two or three years, we were close to the only ones living out here."
Then came the shaping of neighborhoods, the laying of roadbeds. Fearing that the bulldozers would strip the land of any remaining signs of its 18th-century settlers, a trio of descendants converged on the area to search for and protect their ancestors' headstones.
They traversed a square mile before they came across the grove of red cedars that family legend said would mark the spot--then and now the lone cemetery in Cascades, 23 miles from the District.
"The headstones were all toppled over, broken and no longer on their bases," said Karen Kolosvary, 55, great-great-granddaughter of Newton Keene, an early landholder buried there.
A black iron gate and a half-dozen houses now circle the cemetery. The residents file sporadic requests with the Cascades Community Association to plant trees to hide the remains of the past from view.
The newcomers' story begins in 1989, when four-bedroom houses with two-car garages began to rise between runs called Broad and Sugarland.
It was a time to turn previously ignored swamps and fallow cropland into communities that developers promised would be "town-like," offering a new way of experiencing Washington.
Cascades' developers, Kettler & Scott and later Chevy Chase Bank, offered high-status houses with turrets, wraparound porches and other architectural flourishes; tot lots just blocks from home; and a village center styled in the manner of the 19th century, with fountains, a farmers market and merchants conducting business below offices or apartments.
Cascades, the original marketing brochure said, was to be "a gateway . . . convenient to several business hubs," offering commutes of "a matter of minutes." Families would have schools, a library and so many day-care options "the only problem you'll have . . . is deciding which of our six centers you prefer." A decade later, the community boasts four new schools, a library and a seasonal farmers market, but parents hardly get their pick of day-care centers; instead, they face daunting waiting lists.
To attract customers, Kettler & Scott drew enthusiastically on history. The land, the sales brochure exclaimed, ran down to the Potomac River, "throughout centuries . . . a source of inspiration" that "courses through our lives, baptizes our spirit and follows our lives."
Cascades promised to be "a throwback, really . . . and walking will be the dominant mode of transportation, just as it was in the towns of yesterday when people strolled down sidewalks . . . and stopped to chat with friends along the way."
It didn't quite work out that way. At the close of the 20th century, the notion of walking to the stores seems quaint. It is neither convenient nor safe, with traffic whizzing down the landscaped parkways at 45 miles an hour. "The kids don't walk anywhere," said Jenkins, whose wife, Kathryn, uses the trails for jogging, but only when it's light out. "You see adults jogging on the trails, but that's about it."
If the developer's hyperbole didn't close the sale, the lure of more house for less money usually did. In 1989, houses ranged in price from the mid-$100,000s to about $400,000.
The opening of Cascades stirred fear among established residents of Fairfax County and the already-settled regions of Loudoun that more new people would crowd stores and highways, bringing sprawl to what was supposed to be the suburban hinterland.
The public clamored to close the door on new arrivals. But at the end of the 20th century, the lure of open space was powerfully tempting.
The significance of the frontier in American history, as first outlined by historian Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago, still resonates in the westward expansion of the Washington suburbs. Suburbanites flocked to the edge of the urban sprawl, reaching for the rural and transforming it as they moved.
Roughly midway between his job a block from the White House and his parents' house in Clarke County, Cascades was an ideal spot for Jenkins. He doesn't do much in the District besides work. He eats, shops, golfs and socializes in the western suburbs--which aren't western, in his view. They are the center of it all.
The land between Sugarland Run and Broad Run had been many things--skirmish grounds, farmland, hunting territory--but for centuries, it was one of the least developed tracts in Loudoun.
A no man's land in the Civil War, at the turn of the century this was a place travelers from Leesburg, Winchester and other western hubs passed through on their way to somewhere else.
Landholders organized hunts for deer and wild turkey. They grew corn and sold hogs from farms in places such as Lowes Island--the name eventually given to the most elite section of Cascades, where houses now fetch up to $1 million.
For two centuries, the Keenes--whose family farming implements now fill the Loudoun Museum in Leesburg--held land in present-day Sterling and near the cemetery in Cascades.
Bobby Edwards, a great-grandson of Newton Keene, recalls many an afternoon spent visiting an uncle or cousin, Edwards coaxing out stories about daily life, about the last family gathering at the cemetery, at the last turn of the century, when the cornfields were so dense a path had to be hacked to the burial grounds.
Edwards got his father to tell of winter horse cart rides to the Potomac, his father and his uncle on board, ice saws at the ready.
"Daddy once told me that in the wintertime, the men would get the horses and carts and bring the ice back to the farm, haul it to the ice house," said Edwards, 67, a retired school administrator in Virginia Beach.
The Keenes rigged a sleigh to deliver the milk from their dairy farm to market in Alexandria via the now-defunct railroad spur in Sterling.
"If you remember it as I remember it from childhood, it was a Garden of Eden," Edwards said. "Those lovely, rolling hills. From the home place, you could see the Blue Ridge in the distance."
When Edwards's father, Hugh Keene Edwards, was dying of cancer in 1963, he returned to the ancestral land, visiting his mother's grave and sleeping in his old bed at the farmhouse in Sterling. Then he went home to Richmond, where he died the next day.
"I don't go very often anymore because I get very, very sick when I do it," Bobby Edwards said. "It just wells up inside of you to see what it looks like today."
The scramble to snatch up tracts of the land that is now Cascades and prime it for a subdivision began in the 1970s. In 1985, Sequoia Building Corp., of Fairfax City, held a contract on 1,200 acres on which the company planned to build Cascades. Six years of arguing with the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors opened that land to a development then envisioned to include 2,052 houses--less than half the number eventually built.
By 1988, Kettler & Scott had bought the land from Sequoia and merged it with an additional 1,800 acres to form the largest community built on the Potomac River in decades. Splashy advertisements ran in The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, part of a $160,000 blitz.
The developers sought buyers who were "socially conscious and achievers," said Patricia M. Leader, former vice president of marketing for Kettler & Scott. "Socially conscious means they love open space, nature, the proximity to the river," Leader said. Achievers "want to feel that they have arrived."
From a ranch house on Mirror Ridge--named for the spot 354 feet above sea level from which soldiers in training for the Spanish-American War relayed signals--Ezra and Sally Howland watched Cascades take shape in the marshes.
Arriving from Falls Church in 1960, they had thought they were the last pioneers. "We said, 'We're not going any further: This is wilderness,' " said Ezra Howland, 79, a retired air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport. "Across the street was hunting property--deer, turkey, squirrel. It was all one-lane dirt roads, dairy farms. When you went out, if there was a cow coming down the road, you had to find a place to pull over."
In the early days, most new residents of Cascades migrated from nearby towns--Herndon, Falls Church, Centreville. Jenkins and his friends formed a social committee for golf outings and barbecues. They lived it up. At a block party in the early 1990s, Jenkins recalled, neighbors put two kegs of beer and and a blaring stereo on the street. The noise soon attracted two police cruisers.
"They thought they'd found the teenage hangout, and here people were, pushing their strollers and tricycles," Jenkins said.
Then came the development bust. The recession of the early 1990s stalled housing sales. Facing financial difficulties, Kettler & Scott turned Cascades over to its lender.
Loudoun supervisors allowed Kettler & Scott to shift the 19th-century town square concept into one featuring big-box stores. The arrival of a Home Depot store in 1992 brought the community--then about 1,000 people--together in protest.
When the recession ended, Cascades was a different place. Now, if people got to know one another at all, they grouped themselves into social circles based on when they had moved in, or whether they shared a pipestem--a spur road off a cul-de-sac.
At the end of 1999, the settlement of Cascades is nearly complete, with about 15,000 residents. Busy, two-income families set up house, appearing only as silhouettes in the Toyotas they parked inside garages. They found themselves enduring long commutes as the wilderness they thought they'd found transformed into Dulles, the country's newest high-tech corridor.
Dining and golfing companions were there one day and gone the next, courtesy of a new job or military transfer. The Jenkinses have lost all but a couple of close friends. They no longer look to the community for social life. Mike Jenkins paid $22,000 in 1997 to join a country club near Leesburg--River Creek, which he calls "a much more stable social activity than doing things in the neighborhood."
Professionals with children, who made up such a large portion of the new residents, were too busy to volunteer for the community. The schools got their time, if anyone did. By mid-decade, retirees filled many posts on the community association's board, whose meetings featured listless debates about fence heights and swimming pool hygiene, privacy and safety having become prominent concerns as the community grew crowded.
If there is community in Cascades in the late 1990s, it was created by the opening of new schools and complaints about traffic, lines at the supermarket and long waits to get into day care.
On rainy days, sitting in traffic with time to daydream, Jenkins lets his mind wander to the future--say, 10 years down the road when he and his wife might be considering retirement.
The future he envisions does not include Cascades. He'd like once again to feel like a pioneer, to know the local lore. That's something he just can't find in a subdivision between Dulles and Tysons, with more people arriving daily.
Jenkins, like many who explored the frontiers of the suburbs in Washington throughout the 20th century, is once again looking beyond.
"I would love to live out west more," he said.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company