No one in downtown Leesburg yesterday needed to be told the time. All they had to do was glance at their wristwatches, cell phones and pagers or the tiny display clocks atop their mountain bikes.
But Julien Schrenk, 79, spent the afternoon ringing an old brass hand bell and announcing the time to strangers and friends anyway. That's the way they did it back in the late 1700s, and that's the way Schrenk did it yesterday.
"Oyez, oyez! Eleven o'clock and all is well!" Schrenk cried as he walked slowly through the streets of Leesburg's historic district, where several hundred men, women and children congregated for an annual street festival that attempts to re-create a bygone era.
For one weekend each August, the heart of Leesburg undergoes a Colonial transformation, as people dress in period costumes, the boom of musket fire echoes across the grassy courthouse complex and Schrenk dons white knee-high stockings and a brass-buttoned wool overcoat to play town crier.
"He was really the local newsman of the day," Schrenk said of the role he has portrayed since August Court Days began in 1976.
Court Days is a curious commemoration of life in 18th- and 21st-century Loudoun County. Back then, the monthly sessions of the county court system took on the feel of community gatherings in August, when farmers had time for a bit of leisure between planting and harvest and people shopped, gossiped and sat in on sensational trials.
This year's re-creation of those sessions drew local families and tourists to four blocks of King and Market streets, where vendors and groups sold fresh-squeezed lemonade, jewelry and wooden, moss-covered birdhouses. In the red-brick courthouse, a white-wigged judge presided yesterday over a mock trial involving a land dispute. On the courthouse lawn, costumed soldiers drilled with their muskets.
As Schrenk passed at his relaxed, horse-and-buggy pace, one reenactor advised: "If you want to be targets, tarry here, please." Schrenk and his companion quickly picked up their pace.
The festival, sponsored by the Loudoun Restoration and Preservation Society, raises money for preservation projects and helps give residents and visitors of the rapidly changing county a break from a "hustle-bustle atmosphere," said Mike Megeath, the society's vice president. The point is to "just stroll and relax and socialize," he said.
Indeed, the event is a slow, old-fashioned way for the nation's fastest-growing county to spend a summertime weekend. During its first few years, Schrenk, a retired U.S. Department of Transportation supervisor and a longtime Loudoun resident, recognized many of the faces in the crowd. Now, with the county's population having soared from 86,000 in 1990 to about 235,000 today, Schrenk sees many more new faces than familiar ones.
The Court Days festival, he said, provides a "touchstone to the people who are just moving out here, who have not known this way of life. . . . We're trying to make sure that people don't lose touch with their heritage."
History is important to Schrenk, a member of the Restoration and Preservation Society. That's why he found himself digging through the trash at the county landfill a few years ago after losing his gold wedding band on a trip there -- though preserving the past is only part of the reason. "It was also the fear of God if I came home without it," he said.
The ring, which had been on his hand since he and Betsie Schrenk married in December 1949, eventually was recovered by a determined recycling coordinator -- and Schrenk hasn't parted with it since. "Those who ignore history," he said as he rang his bell, "are destined to repeat it."