Politics are a little different in Virginia's smallest incorporated town.
Hillsboro, population 115, is located nine miles northwest of Leesburg on Rte. 9. It has streets with no names, homes with no addresses, black snakes guarding the spring house, and handwritten town meeting agendas tacked to the post office wall next to the elementary school lunch menus.
It also has an election coming up in less than six weeks, with six seats to fill and only one declared candidate.
Council member Randy Allen is the only one who has formally thrown his hat in the ring. But residents are sure that after the votes are counted on May 6, there will be a mayor and five council members, just as there always have been. They will be elected with write-in votes, residents say.
Although it is not unusual for Hillsboro's candidate cupboard to be bare, this is the first time in residents' memories that only one candidate has been officially registered.
Several reasons for the reluctance to declare candidacy have been put forward by current and former Hillsboro officers, not all of whom are willing to be named. Said one, "I think it's considered bad form to appear too interested in being elected. It just isn't done here."
Said another, "If you register to enter the election, you can lose and it's humiliating to be defeated. If you are a write-in candidate and you lose, you can always say you weren't running anyway."
But council member Ruth Farwell, an elementary school teacher in Purcellville, thinks she knows the real reason that, so far, only Allen has come forward. "Whoever gets elected will inherit the water problem," she said. "There are no politics in Hillsboro -- it's all water."
Farwell, who is married to former mayor Byron Farwell, was referring to a proposed replacement for the 50-year-old water line that runs through town. Although its cost is estimated at a little more than $8,000, there is disagreement among the townspeople on how it should be funded.
Nobody wants to be the one to raise the $2 monthly water rates. But according to Penny Grabb, director of the Northern Virginia Planning Commission, who spoke to the town council this month on the town's chances of getting a state grant to pay for a new water line, water rates will have to be raised no matter what method is finally chosen. After listening to Grabb, the council decided to postpone the decision until after the election.
Says four-term mayor and current council member Evelyn Turbeville, "Politics in Hillsboro is unique; I've been in office here on and off since 1947 -- woke up one morning and found myself mayor that year on a write-in vote -- and I haven't figured it out yet."
That election made Turbeville Virginia's first female mayor and she too was faced with a water problem. The town's only supply comes from a spring on Short Hill mountain. The town didn't own it at the time, and funds to maintain it were collected door-to-door once a year. Not everyone paid. Turbeville filed a condemnation suit that resulted in the town being allowed to take possession of the spring and send out monthly bills.
Water commissioner Sandy Muir, himself a former mayor, likes it that way. "We're proud of the fact that our residents have all the clean water they can use for only $2."
The water commissioner's post is dubbed by many in Hillsboro as the "most important job in town," despite the fact that it is an unpaid position. During Muir's 1982-84 mayoral term, the council bowed to the wishes of the state health department and installed a chlorination system at the spring.
It's Muir's job to climb Short Hill mountain every day and make sure the chlorinator is working properly. He also checks on the town's black snake, which lives in the stone spring house, and is said to eat mice, rodents and other, less welcome snakes, a menu that makes him an important member of Hillsboro's water team.
Not everyone felt the addition of the chlorination system was a positive move. Former mayor Byron Farwell still objects strenuously to its installation and use, claiming that chlorine and certain types of waste combine to make chloroform. "Nobody under the age of 80 ever died in Hillsboro from drinking the water," he says. He would not accept a write-in candidacy this time, Farwell adds. "I didn't want to deal with the water problem either."
One who was actively seeking write-in-votes is town recorder Elna Gripp. "I've been recording the town meetings since 1984," she says, "and I want more of a voice in what goes on."
Why didn't she register as a candidate with the county election board? "To tell you the truth, I forgot," she says.
Randy Allen is serving his eighth year on the council. He is running, he said, because he thinks public service is important and he registered because "that's the proper way to do it." He said he does not want the mayoral slot that is being vacated by Alexandra Spaith because his job as an attorney in Vienna does not allow the time necessary for to the office.
According to former mayor Hobart Rowe, being Hillsboro's top office holder can be time consuming.
"They used to get me out of bed if someone parked in front of their house, if there was a barking dog, if somebody had a snake in their attic. The mayor of Hillsboro is chief executive officer and he's held responsible for everything."
The tiny post office is the social and political heart of Hillsboro, residents say. Because there are no mailboxes, residents must pick up their mail, so candidates and officeholders get to know them all.
Fittingly, the post office doubles as the town hall where council meetings are held the second Tuesday of every month. The meetings, say officials, are not crowded. The reason for that, one official ventured, "is that there are no real problems here besides the water. Everyone just expects things to go smoothly -- and they do."
Added Ruth Farwell, "You'll probably never solve the water problem. That's something we'll always have with us in Hillsboro."