Back in the days when traffic trickled -- not poured -- through Sterling, Mary Ellen Boyd's brother Ernest decided to let the family dog "drive" the car. As Elmer, an old hound mutt, sat in the driver's seat, Ernest hid below the dashboard, pressed the foot pedals and steered past his house.
"That was our entertainment, see?" said Boyd, 67, recalling a time when Sterling was a sparsely populated farming community with nearly empty roads on the eastern edge of Loudoun County.
Now, more than 50 years later, Boyd, Linda Minshew, 65, and Lucille Pilchuk, 67, three lifelong friends from what they call "old Sterling," are planning a party Sept. 18 for residents of the close-knit community between 1930 and 1960 -- before the arrival of Sterling Park and other major commercial and residential developments changed their way of life. They say they are celebrating because they are tired of seeing old neighbors only on solemn occasions.
"We decided, 'Let's have a party because all we do is meet at funerals,' " said Minshew, who plans to mail 200 invitations to the party, which will be at the Sterling Ruritan Club near the former center of old Sterling. The guest list includes former residents who have moved as far away as Washington state, Texas and Florida. Many are senior citizens. One confirmed attendee from Front Royal is 85.
The community of Sterling was established in 1860 as Guilford Station on the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. The station was renamed Sterling after J.P. Morgan bought the railroad, which ran until 1968, when the right of way became the Washington & Old Dominion trail.
Sterling was "swallowed up" by the development of Sterling Park in the 1960s, said local historian Charles Poland.
Sterling Park "changed the whole texture of old Sterling," said Minshew, who was born in Sterling in 1938 and lived there until 1959. She now lives in Purcellville.
Fishing holes, verdant picnic grounds and mailboxes the girls mischievously stuffed with leaves are the most prominent spots the three friends recall from their childhood stomping grounds. They also remember their two-room schoolhouse and the Sterling train station, a wooden shelter that was only slightly larger than a modern portable toilet.
"Now the fields are filled with houses/And the creeks have gone away/But through the years we've known each other/I've been grateful for each day," Minshew wrote in a poem to Boyd in 1995 to celebrate their friendship.
The building of Dulles International Airport ushered in the construction of countless roads and subdivisions around Sterling and elsewhere in the county, changing the rural terrain and rendering it unrecognizable for some.
"If you're an old-timer and you go back to Sterling, you get lost," said Poland, a history professor at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus who lives on his family's farm in Pleasant Valley, where Route 50 crosses the Fairfax-Loudoun county line.
At a recent weekly party planning session at Minshew's home, she and her two friends jokingly discussed genealogy and community history. They updated the guest list, reviewed donations for the event and discussed what to do with their growing collection of photos and memorabilia. Minshew planned for her son to prepare a slide show for the party.
"We have one who's not a purebred here," Minshew said, referring to Pilchuk, who was born in North Carolina.
When Pilchuk moved to Sterling in 1947 from Chapel Hill, the 10-year-old and her family found that they didn't quite fit in.
"We wasn't happy campers because we talked funny," said Pilchuk, who now lives in Leesburg.
But common experiences -- wearing dresses made from feedbags, fishing with safety pins on strings and avoiding mothers who were quick with the switch -- brought the three friends, and their small community, together.
"We didn't have to lock a door because there wasn't nothing to worry about," said Boyd, who still lives in Sterling.
Women were especially vigilant authority figures and took responsibility for all the local children.
"If we did something bad, [they were] going to spank us and take us home to our mothers," Boyd said. "Anybody's mother would get on you."
As young girls, the three friends and others wore dresses and other garments made from 50-pound cotton feedbags.
"Chicken feed, cow feed, horse feed," Minshew said, referring to the types of bags, which had large or small flower patterns in pink, green, red or blue. "You need about five of them to make a little-girl dress."
"My mom would use them to make our undies," Pilchuk said. "She'd add lace to them at the legs."
Such memories are what the three friends hope will attract former residents to the party. They plan to give prizes to the oldest attendee and the person who travels the farthest. But, beyond a buffet and some quiet keyboard music, they are not planning too many events, so that people can chat and reminisce.
"We don't want loud music because half of us can't hear anymore," Minshew said.
For more information about the party, call Minshew at 540-338-4578.