-- Some of the families in this wooded, remote Caroline County community go back many generations, so self-sufficiency was familiar to them, even if that meant drawing water from a well out front, pumping a septic tank out back, even having an outhouse.
They didn't worry until human waste began surfacing in their yards.
But there was little they could do about the brown ooze that started rising decades ago from the soggy earth around their homes, leaked into their water supply and caused the region's top public health official to declare a state of emergency in December after nearly a decade of talk. It was the earth itself that was causing the problem, soil too poor and wet to allow privies and septic tanks to drain properly.
So the residents of Dawn's 250 homes boiled their water and poured bleach into their wells.
Now, however, growth has intervened, reaching down from Washington and up from Richmond to make Dawn's water crisis impossible to ignore. With more than $3 million in grants, workers will begin installing a new sewer system in the spring. Then they will rebuild some homes to include indoor plumbing.
In large part, Dawn became a priority not because of the people who had long endured unsanitary conditions but because of the people who wanted to move in and were unable to build houses because of new, tougher septic standards. At the same time, northern Caroline gradually became a Fredericksburg suburb, and the county invested in a new wastewater treatment facility for gas stations, restaurants and some homes. Then, last year, the Virginia state fair decided to move to a sprawling farm just down the road from Dawn. The community's turn had come.
"We never even thought about it before, never thought it was possible," said Irene Fields, a retired social worker who was born in Dawn. She wouldn't give her age but said her father was born here in 1897.
Fields was among a trio of volunteers who canvassed the community three times when sewer grants seemed possible, though they never were received. "When I first announced in church that the grants came through, everyone went into a hand clap! You have no idea the excitement going on," she said.
Fields said that when she returned to Dawn in 1984 after living in Queens, N.Y., for 30 years, she built a white picket fence around the ugly well in her front yard and placed a large statue of a black eagle on top of it. The lack of such necessities as clean water and adequate sewer is so ugly to some residents that many refused to talk about life with outhouses or about the coming project.
"I just can't do it," one woman said, flustered.
"People come over and say, 'Where's the bathroom?' and you have to point outside. . . . It's embarrassing. How would you feel?" said Henry Quash, 74, a retired utilities foreman who lives with his wife, daughter and grandson.
Fields said the Rappahannock Area Health District tested the water and didn't release the results. Department officials said that tests were never done and that the state of the community's groundwater was evident in the condition of its yards. Residents began having their water tested privately in the 1990s, Fields said, and "people won't tell" the results. "One lady I went to said she didn't want to alarm the neighbors."
Tommy Thompson, an environmental health supervisor for the district, said residents were angry when his department stopped issuing septic tank permits because of water contamination. "It was difficult to say no to people," he said. "These systems were permitted, even by me." Without the permits, new homes could not be built.
In December, Don Stern, the district's medical director, declared the situation "a major potential health hazard" in Dawn, where 68 percent of residents are of low to moderate income and can't afford repairs or upgrades. "Some residents pump their septic tanks hoping for relief," he wrote. "Others just wait for the groundwater to go down so that they can eventually flush their toilets."
The residents of Dawn are not the only ones without modern sewer and water systems. Housing and Community Development officials estimate that thousands of people in Virginia have no indoor plumbing. The 2000 U.S. Census reported that almost 671,000 of the nation's homes, .64 percent, lacked "complete plumbing facilities."
In Maryland, .46 percent of homes lack complete plumbing, in Virginia, .73 percent, and in Caroline County, 2.52 percent. In the county's Reedy Church District, where Dawn is, it is 6.04 percent. But Allen Ramsay, county public works director, said a more accurate estimate is that as many as 20 percent of the houses in Dawn have no plumbing or plumbing that doesn't work.
The $1.5 million in grants announced this year by the state Department of Housing and Community Development will cover rebuilding for only the worst 160 homes in Dawn, Ramsay said.
In the spring, officials plan to start installing a decentralized wastewater system with $2 million in county and federal funds. Then they will begin rebuilding 20 to 30 ramshackle homes without indoor plumbing. Then they will need money for the remaining homes and a water system.
Residents say the project is a boost to a poor, isolated part of the county where most people commute to Richmond to work, go to a white church or a black church on Sunday and wish their children didn't have to move away to find jobs and better lives.
But for now, the people of Dawn said they feel as if they finally are on their way, and every little step seems like a victory.