At Reston's Neil Armstrong Elementary School, 65 fourth graders chose a small Virginia town to study for a month and to learn well enough to sell, as if each child were working for a travel agency.

The Fairfax County pupils were required to write business-perfect letters to the Chamber of Commerce of their chosen towns and gather information through research, telephone calls or visits in preparation for "Tour Virginia" night.

On Oct. 29, the fourth graders stood in a large circle next to travel posters they had made while parents and family members walked around the room. The nascent travel agents hawked the worth of a visit to places quite unlike the subdivisions they returned to that night.

The monthlong project was the brainstorm of Bill Hamilton, the fourth grade social studies teacher at Armstrong Elementary.

"It hit me that these kids just don't know their own state," Hamilton said. "It's hard for kids to realize that history is important to them and that the area they live in is important {and} has an impact on their lives."

Hamilton designed the project as a cooperative effort between the pupils and their parents.

Bradley Westerman, 9, said he was initially skeptical because before the project "I wasn't really that great with history and I didn't understand it much."

Bradley's assigned Virginia town was Smithfield. Two weeks after mailing a letter to the Smithfield Chamber of Commerce, Bradley had not received a reply. Enthusiastic and undaunted, Bradley and his parents, Carol and Frederick, decided to pay Smithfield a visit.

"We were trying to get information but the library was closed," Bradley said. "And the Chamber of Commerce was closed. We went into a drugstore to see if they had any postcards, but they didn't."

Bradley learned from his mother that the distinctive tastes of Smithfield-style hams comes from feeding the hogs peanuts and hickory-smoking the pork. "We were going to stop off at the place where they make the ham and stuff," Bradley said, "but it was closed, too."

Nonetheless, with the help of a $15 book and some ham purchased in Smithfield and the firsthand experience of seeing houses bunched together for protection on the frontier, a river that "ran right through the town" and "this big humongous church," Bradley said his "Tour of Virginia" display was a success.

"I put some pictures {on a poster} of what it looked like awhile back, in 1750" next to pictures of present day Smithfield. "It was like the pilgrims and the Indians. They were trading trinkets for corn. Back then the houses didn't look so old. They looked brand new and painted," Bradley explained.

And to persuade potential tourists, Bradley said, "Would you like a piece of Smithfield ham?" as he handed out ham on crackers. "Well, most of the people took me up on it and once I was talking to them a couple people asked me about {Smithfield} and they asked how long it would take to get there and which interstate to take."

Debbie Cusher, 37, said she had known nothing of Winchester, in Frederick County, before her daughter Stephanie, 9, brought home her assignment.

"All I knew was that it was west of here," Cusher said. The Cushers moved to Fairfax County from Cincinnati two years ago.

Among the things Stephanie and her family discovered on an outing to Winchester was a glimpse into George Washington's life that cannot be had in a book.

"It was really neat," Stephanie said. "We got a tour of George Washington's office. He was a surveyor and he surveyed lots of Virginia. There's artifacts that dated back to when {he} was around. You can see actually where George Washington really was . . . . Also, we saw a lock of George Washington's hair that Martha had cut."

Scott Harris, 10, announced that he had chosen Scottsville, a town of 276 people that sits at the head of the James River in Albermarle County, for two reasons: "One, my name is Scott. And two, I'd never heard of it. When I found it on the map it was very, very little."

In Scottsville, Scott and his mother, Margaret Harris, found not just the requisite historical buildings but witnessed the living history of the town as well.

"Scottsville gets flooded a lot because it's right on the James River," Scott said. The town has suffered three floods this year alone. "They're trying to build a . . . ," Scott said, asking his mother for the word -- "levee" -- to complete the description.

Scott was invited to the town by Dr. Edward Russo, a dentist, who as president of the town Chamber of Commerce mailed Scott a handwritten response to the initial query.

Besides touring the town, Scott and Margaret Harris spent some time with Russo and his family. "I gave him a little bit of the local history, not anything you'd find in a book," Russo said. "The real story of Scottsville is the people."

Debbie Cusher, Stephanie's mother, said that same "closeness of the community" is what endeared her to Winchester. "That's one thing, it's such a transient area here {in the Washington area}. You're here today and gone tomorrow. It's hard to form fast friendships."

But she said her daughter's project, like all the projects, served as a reminder of "that certain friendliness that always seems to exist in a smaller town."