FARMS AREN'T something you notice much in eastern Loudoun County these days. Strip malls, big-box retailers, chain restaurants and subdivisions proliferate along traffic-clogged Routes 7 and 28, an area laden with fields and livestock before Dulles International Airport opened in 1962.
Tucked away in wooded parkland, not far from all that congestion, one parcel of land could pass for a holdover from the area's bygone days. A windmill turns and rows of cornstalks wither in the chill air. Barns and various other weathered structures punctuate the rural landscape. The main attraction, however, lies inside a new but traditional-looking building, a long brown barn containing the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum's exhibition hall.
"Where we are was pastureland for dairy cows," says museum Manager Mary Novotny of a site now devoted, according to the museum's mission statement, "to collecting, housing, researching and exhibiting objects, documents and photographs related to the history of agriculture and rural life in Loudoun County."
The ambitious project started in the early 1990s, Novotny says, when a group of concerned citizens banded together intent on preserving a way of life rapidly disappearing. The idea grew into a museum concept, and the collective found an ideal location in the Lanesville Heritage Area, already earmarked for development as an interpretive farm within the county-owned, 357-acre Claude Moore Park in fast-growing Sterling. The museum, operated by the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, opened in September 2003.
A single, spacious room showcases the museum's collection, which includes large farm machinery from various eras scattered among modular displays, each devoted to a different theme and featuring text, photos and agricultural artifacts such as historic ledgers, hand tools and awards.
"It really is a story of people more so than simply a collection of farm implements," Novotny says.
"One of the first things the original professional staff did was to start collecting oral histories," she says. The material laid the groundwork for the museum's permanent exhibit, "The Country People," which describes the lives of 10 Loudoun residents and spans the county's history starting from 1726. Each display puts the featured subject in historical, economic and scientific contexts.
Arranged in loose chronological order, "each one of these pods represents a generation in time, and each person represents how each generation left its mark" and led the county down an agricultural pathway, Novotny says. A life-size, three-dimensional scene tops each exhibit, giving visitors a quick overview of subjects, including a boy raising bees, an African midwife and a future equine veterinarian. At each display station, visitors can read about an individual's lifestyle and contributions and view items associated with the person (or in one case, animal).
A setting featuring a tree trunk and old wooden tools describes the tasks of George Wenner, a German pastor's son responsible for keeping his family's two straw bee skeps, or hives, in Lovettsville in the early 1700s, when families depended on the insects to pollinate their apple trees. Dried native plants used for medicinal purposes accent the exhibit on Silvey Mason, an African slave and midwife/herbalist who delivered babies -- both for slaves and for the master's family -- and who treated illnesses with herbs, fruits and vegetables. Other subjects range from the poignant -- Civil War-era wife and mother Catherine Dowell, who lost five of her 10 children in infancy -- to the optimistic, highlighting 14-year-old Hamilton resident Maggie Nichols, who dreams of becoming a horse doctor. This display offers the scenario that in 2020, Maggie will set up a molecular veterinary practice using the latest biotechnology.
Visitors may be most surprised by the museum's featured animal. Loudoun County was home to the "Bull of the Century," a Holstein named Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, born in 1965. Reared in Airmont, the bull "fathered," through artificial insemination, 60,000 daughters and 10,000 sons. The exhibit, with the massive bull's picture as a backdrop, features items not commonly seen by the non-farming public: a bull semen shipping tank and assorted tools from a typical artificial insemination kit.
"You have at some point drunk milk that was produced by one of Elevation's progeny," says Novotny, noting that Elevation is responsible for about 10 percent of the genetic population of Holsteins. The museum plans to display one of the bull's living descendants next year, Novotny says.
The museum drew 8,000 visitors during its first fiscal year (and gained added exposure when it served as a new polling place last week). School groups make up about half the attendance, Novotny says, drawn to the museum's Standards of Learning-based programs and hands-on exhibits adjacent to the permanent collection.
"We've designed the children's areas as an interactive play space," Novotny says of the Claude Moore Children's Farm, highlighted by a little red barn containing Milkie, a life-size imitation cow fitted with a motion detector and sump pump enabling her to moo and squirt liquid from her teats when a visitor "milks" her. Across the aisle from the friendly bovine, a row of nesting boxes contains rubber hens and eggs, which kids can rearrange and collect while pretend-farming.
Other hands-on highlights for kids include pedal tractors, a ball pit in a wooden bin, pumpkin and apple tic-tac-toe, a sandbox filled with dried corn kernels, and dress-up farmers' clothes such as overalls, aprons, straw hats and bonnets. School groups sit on hay bales to hear programs on such topics as apples and simple machines.
Next to the children's area, kids and adults can explore the Waxpool General Store, a rebuilt replica of a store that operated from the 1880s to the 1940s not far from the site of the huge Wegmans Food Market that opened a few months ago in Sterling.
"When the shopkeeper closed the store, he did not liquidate the contents," Novotny says. Inside the little one-room exhibit, visitors walk on the wood-planked floor from the original building. Upper shelves protected by plexiglass windows hold original inventory such as ink bottles, door knobs, liver tablets, horse liniment, glassware, zippers, blue jeans and playing cards. Lower shelves feature removable items for suggested activities. Families can play with paper dolls wearing early 1900s clothing, put a penny in a mechanical clown bank, try on suspenders and rub Bag Balm on their hands. And children can weigh items on the store's old-fashioned scale; fill bags with canned goods and assorted plastic fruits, vegetables and loaves of bread; or play shopkeeper and record orders on replicas of old forms. Visitors also can play post office, stamping and arranging laminated old envelopes and postcards.
"Ancestors of the original owners of the store come in and say, 'This was your great-grandfather's store,' " Novotny says.
The museum plans to serve as a gateway for exploring the county's current agricultural economy, including agri-tourism, vineyards and horticulture, more prevalent in the western part of the county, Novotny says. "Agriculture's not dead, but it's becoming something else."
The museum draws a lot of people who are from this area that "want to know more about their agricultural heritage," she says.
Plans for the museum's future include restoration of other buildings on the property, an interactive animal exhibit and an interactive landscaping area with a vegetable garden and apple orchard.
LOUDOUN HERITAGE FARM MUSEUM -- Claude Moore Park, 21668 Heritage Farm Lane, off Cascades Parkway, Sterling. 703-421-5322. www.loudounfarmmuseum.org. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 5. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 ages 2 through 12 and free for ages younger than 2. The museum has a gift shop with a variety of farm-themed items and a small library. Temporary exhibits include "Get Out and Vote," a display of election-related items from the Waxpool General Store, on view through Nov. 26; "Banshee Reeks Visits the Museum," a hands-on look at the county's Banshee Reeks Nature Reserve, on view Dec. 4 through Jan. 7; and "Valley Apples," a collection of photographs and oral history excerpts from apple growers in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge regions, through July 9. Visit the Web site for details about special events starting in January.