Residents of tiny Clarke County, a rural area near the Blue Ridge Mountains on the West Virginia border, are celebrating their 150-year heritage with pomp and reverie.
Saturday's sesquicentennial birthday party for the original county charter included a parade and ceremony featuring men dressed in the garb of Abe Lincoln and Civil War troops. The events were part of a yearlong schedule of events that will include tours of historic homes in the spring; another parade and a mock battle on July 5; a September "Country Living Day" demonstrating life styles in 1836, the year the county was chartered; a steam train excursion, and the opening of Greenway Court, the former home of Lord Fairfax, as a tourist attraction.
The celebration "has created an awareness and cohesion and certainly a historical concern," said Charles Burrell, a lifetime county resident who lives in Millwood. Burrell went to all of Saturday's events, including the 37th annual Blue Ridge Hunt point-to-point races at nearby Woodley Farm, where the second race was dedicated to the Clarke County Sesquicentennial.
Like many residents, Burrell described his community as a "separate" place that has escaped the trappings of development. "Across the mountains, there's a more transient feeling," he said. "The people who come here want to settle and use the land, become a part of the community."
If the number of participants who dared Saturday's bone-chilling temperatures is any indication, spirit and pride thrive in this agricultural enclave, which has a population of 10,000 within its 174-square-mile area, some of which was originally surveyed by George Washington.
Shortly after 10 a.m., the first marchers came down this county seat's Main Street and unfurled the new Clarke County flags, which are green and adorned with the colorful county seal, as about 300 people looked on. A gray-clad group dressed as Confederate troops filed by silently, followed later by more upbeat Union troops dressed in blue and led by a sprightly fife-and-drum band.
Their destination was the courthouse square two blocks away on Church Street, where a crowd gathered to see a rider on horseback deliver the county charter to Eustace Jackson, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "Clarke County was made up of the caring and independent minded, and with beautiful land it is very rich," Jackson said.
The ceremony brought together the "commanders" of the Union and Confederate troops, including those dressed as members of the First Minnesota Regiment -- which, as the first Yankee unit to march into Berryville, took over the county's newspaper in 1862. A wreath was laid in honor of the Civil War dead.
The Clarke County High School Band struck up the tune of the new county hymn, but later had to stop because its instruments had frozen. "They have frozen valves, no problem. We have frozen feet," said Billy Thompson, the chairman of the sesquicentennial committee, who spent the day bustling about in an ankle-length raccoon coat.
Bundled up and watching the action was Clarke County native Louise V. Huyette, 78, proud that her family farm has been passed along through six generations. "I love it here, it's home," she said.
Sally Trumbower stepped to the rostrum to announce the opening of a county history exhibit in the courthouse. Trumbower moved to the area six years ago and helped start the local museum, and also has promoted historic preservation. "There's a very strong historical continuity here," she said. "Farmers tend to stay on the land in their ancestral homes, so the [historic] collections don't get dispersed . . ."
In closing the ceremony, the Rev. Benjamin Layton gave the benediction and members of local church choirs gathered to sing one last song.
But the parade and ceremony were only a small part of the celebratory spirit that captured Clarke County on Saturday.
At Clarke County High School, women were frosting a cake for 500 that would be cut after that night's performance of "Passages: Clarke County Folklore." The cake contained 54 eggs and 25 pounds of sugar and was made by local residents. performances.
The play, written for the sesquicentennial, used only local talent. Barbara White, who moved to Clarke County 20 years ago from Long Island, said the oral history in the play was entertaining as well as educational. "It gave the people a feeling of belonging," she said.
Back on Church Street at the post office, a special stamp cancellation was offered to mark the event. Temporary postmaster Shosana Grove, who commutes from Washington to Berryville, said she'd like to stay in the county. "It doesn't take long to get to know everybody," she said. "I've missed this small-town feeling in the city."
At every turn, on the front lines or behind the scenes, the moving force behind the celebration was chairman Billy Thompson, a native of White Post who has taken a leave of absence from his automobile restoration business to promote the sesquicentennial full time.
A wiry man with endless energy, Thompson attended to every detail: making sure the horse delivering the county charter was "band broken" so that it wouldn't spook at the sound of a bass drum, encouraging participation by black residents and arranging the donation of 48 cases of Clark candy bars -- then adding an 'e' to each bar before the candy was placed in sack lunches for the troops. He has even arranged to have an Easter egg commemorating the Clarke County sesquicentennial included in this year's Easter Egg Roll at the White House.