By tradition, April is cleanup month in Loudoun County, and it all began with two roads and two ladies. The roads were Route 15 from Leesburg south to Gilbert's Corner and Route 50 from Gilbert's Corner west to the Blue Ridge. The ladies were Eugenia Fairfax, widow of Civil War colonel and state senator Henry Fairfax, and Edith Kennedy Sands, wife of horseman and Middleburg Bank president Daniel C. Sands.

Mrs. Fairfax lived at Oakham, east of Middleburg, and Mrs. Sands at Benton, west of Middleburg. They were good friends, and often their chauffeurs motored them between their homes as well as to Leesburg and Winchester.

In those days, the 1920s, Routes 15 and 50 were heavily traveled by onlookers who attended the many race and steeplechase meets in the area. As the visitors and the participants were usually quite well heeled, signs on sticks proliferated along the roadsides, advertising products, lodging and real estate for sale.

Some of the signs had cute messages, and various highway departments mimic them today. One sextet read:

He Played

A Sax

Had No B.0.

But His Whiskers Scratched

So She Let Him Go

Burma Shave

Novel, those signs, but they spoiled the ladies' view. So Mrs. Fairfax and Mrs. Sands had their chauffeurs help them uproot the offending advertisements. They claimed to have dismantled 1,000 of them.

But the signs kept reappearing, and they decided that help was needed. At an Oakham luncheon in late October 1930, they formed a County Conservation Committee "to preserve the county as Nature wrought it." Mrs. Sands headed the committee, and she was joined by Mrs. Fairfax and several socialites: Nannie Fred, Dora Frost, Agnes Boeing Ilsey and Charlotte Noland, from the Middleburg area; Adelaide Massey, of Upperville, and Mary Constance Lyon from Black Oak Ridge, near Silcott's Springs. At each place setting, the servants placed a small hatchet to assist the ladies in their task.

Mrs. Lyon gave her hatchet to her young sons, Moncure and Robert, and told them to chop down the signs. Bob doesn't recall chopping any down, but that hatchet would play an important role in his thinking a half-century later.

The other ladies went about their appointed task, removing signs--wearing their white gloves, Agnes Harrison reminded me. When I asked Mrs. Harrison what they did with the signs, she replied, "They dumped them into Goose Creek."

By the late 1930s, many of the signs had been replaced by billboards too large to chop down, and when the ladies sawed away the supports of a billboard at Route 50 and Snickersville Turnpike, the advertisers put it back--on steel posts.

That billboard, the last in Loudoun County, was removed in 1975 after a 33-year court battle. Its final messages were "Visit Historic Aldie" and "Win the War in Viet Nam."

The court case began after the county banned off-premises advertising Jan. 27, 1942. The pithy words of the Board of Supervisors' resolution noted that the ban's object was "to protect the natural beauty of Loudoun County against commercialism."

The fight against billboards was led by Vinton Liddell Pickens, a newcomer to the county from North Carolina. Armed with a booklet issued by the Associated Garden Clubs of Virginia, "Protecting Our Roadsides for Permanency," she appeared before the supervisors several times beginning in the summer of 1941, asking the board to adopt a zoning and anti-billboard ordinance.

When I interviewed her in 1980, she recalled that when she first appeared, "old Mr. [Michael Henry] Whitmore, then chairman [since 1913], was not even roused from his customary sleep to concur in thanks for my coming. Mr. Irvey Baker usually woke him, summarized whatever had been discussed and indicated the board's opinions. Mr. Whitmore then voted and went back to sleep."

Supervisor Baker, the only Republican on the board, and Supervisor J. Terry Hirst had been attending meetings of the League of Virginia Counties in Richmond, and Hirst told me that as they passed by ramshackle wartime buildings in Caroline County, he would say to Baker, "We don't want anything like that in Loudoun County." Baker kept mum.

"He was very slow in taking hold of anything," Hirst told me, "but when he sat it out, he was in back of it."

Mrs. Pickens commented that "being good politicians, they did not openly support me, knowing that Loudoun 'bides its time' "--as the county motto goes--"in all things."

When the vote came, Baker, Hirst and Daniel C. Sands voted for the zoning and anti-billboard ordinance. Three voted no, so Judge W.A. Metzger was called upon to break the tie. He voted yes, and Loudoun had its zoning ordinance--the first in rural Virginia--and its prohibition of off-premises advertising, the first in the United States.

Robert Pickens, Mrs. Pickens's husband, told her he thought the supervisors took the vote just to get rid of her. But Mrs. Pickens and Hirst believed that Dec. 7, 1941, was a major factor, for the war raised temporary buildings, and manufacturers didn't need to advertise because they now produced goods for the military.

After the war, Hirst and Clarence Ahalt, a Loudoun planning commissioner, went down to Warrenton, as the Fauquier Board of Supervisors had expressed interest in sign controls. But, Hirst said, "Tom Frost, chairman of their board, owned a Ford dealership, diner and other businesses on the Warrenton bypass. He didn't think much of it. That was the end of that."

Loudoun's billboards disappeared, but there remained trash, especially throw-away bottles. During the late 1940s, Mrs. Harrison and her husband, Powell, lived on North Street in Leesburg, and the end of the street had become a repository for beer bottles. "I had great sympathy for these workmen who worked hard all day and deserved a beer on their way home, but I didn't want them to throw the bottles on our property," she recalled.

"One day I chased some of these men in their trucks. They went one way and I went the other, and I blocked their path right in front of the county jail. So this very gentle sheriff [Roger Powell] had to come out and stick his head in the pickup and tell the men they shouldn't litter that way. That cured the problem."

There was no organized roadside trash pickup until 1970, the year after Yttive Weatherly, of Lovettsville, founded Keep Loudoun Beautiful, under the auspices of the Purcellville Garden Club. "I got on her bandwagon quickly," Mrs. Harrison told me, for KLB would help forward statewide legislation to ban throw-away bottles.

Year after year, she persuaded then-state Sen. Charles L. Waddell (R-Loudoun) to sponsor the legislation, which was supported by every environmental group and opposed by every distributor and business lobby. They argued that returnable containers meant collecting the containers and that the added cost would be passed on to the consumer.

After a decade or so, Mrs. Harrison told Waddell and another main supporter, Fairfax Sen. Clive DuVal, to give up. "It wasn't helping their reputations to be attached to a failure," she said.

Keep Loudoun Beautiful continued cleanups--which have been held in April as long as anyone can remember and include the county's streams and the Potomac River, though it belongs to Maryland. Early in 1982, the group introduced its mascot, Kaleb the goat, to the public. Ray Preston, Sue Kane and Nan Shay coined the name, and Jane Thompson fashioned a Kaleb puppet, soon to grace KLB's stationary and T-shirts.

Of numerous individual efforts, Bob Lyon's deserves special note. After picking up Maryland trash for many years, he returned to Black Oak Ridge, the family home, in 1984. And like his mother a half-century before, he began to remove stick signs from roadside rights of way.

To make sure it was legal--a question that had not bothered the ladies several decades before--he asked then-Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney James Forsyth, who said that as far as he was concerned, signs in a public right of way were considered abandoned property. So he teamed up with Joe Maio, of Round Hill, and later Scott Frizel, of Ashburn Farms, and together, they call offenders, photographed signs and at their own expense, carted the signs to the dump.

Then Lyon would filed complaints with the magistrate, and summonses were issued. Company representatives appeared in General District Court, and most did not contest the $100 fine. When five complainants believed that certain signs were a "public nuisance," the case could be sent to a grand jury. In those cases, prosecutors usually accepted a plea bargain and a donation to the county Parks and Recreation Department, enabling the company to claim a tax deduction and a little good publicity.

In 1998, however, an attorney representing Midas Muffler argued that Lyon had no standing to go to the magistrate on his own--that only the state transportation commissioner could enforce the sign law. Forsyth, now a District Court judge, agreed, and the county did not appeal. An individual can still pick up signs but can't lodge a legal complaint against the offender, although the grand jury route is still available if five or more people complain.

Virginia's Adopt-a-Highway program, begun in 1988, encourages individual action--especially trash cleanup--and April 22 is its spring cleanup date.

A squib from their spring 2000 bulletin, "The Clean-up Express," notes that the Virginia House of Delegates General Laws Committee voted 25 to 0 to "pass by indefinitely" a bill that would require consumers to pay a 10-cent deposit on metal, glass or plastic beverage containers.

One trusts that the 25 will be out picking up trash April 22.

Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.