Where We Live: Paeonian Springs, an enduring refuge
Kitty and Don Dawson live in a former schoolhouse on three-quarters of an acre in Paeonian Springs, a village hidden just off the bustling Charles Town Pike west of Leesburg. Loudoun County prohibits the construction of any more residences on the Dawsons’ property, yet it sends the couple three tax bills a year, one for each of the quarter-acre lots that originally made up their tract. That quirk is a legacy of the village’s colorful origins.
Back in pre-air-conditioning times, when Washingtonians would take the train to western Loudoun to escape summer in the city, Theodore Milton thought he had a moneymaker in the spring that bubbled up on his property. Folks in those days were great believers in “taking the waters,” and the train already ran right past his spring. So, in 1889, he founded the Paeonian Springs Co. to “develop the pecuniary value of the waters.” In Greek mythology, Paeon was the god of healing, the physician to other gods.
Soon, Milton was shipping “nature’s own remedy” to as far away as Chicago; even Congress got deliveries. He also set about creating a spa around the spring and laid out about 200 building lots, many of which, like those of the Dawsons, were a quarter-acre. Thus was born Paeonian Springs, which is considered to be the first modern-day subdivision in Loudoun County.
Stores opened, the train stopped eight times a day, and at one point visitors could stroll a mile-long boardwalk. Several boardinghouses began operations, including Chanbourne, today the home of Shally and Tim Stanley. The Stanleys moved to Paeonian Springs from Springfield almost a dozen years ago to have a big yard and a big house for their family, and Shally Stanley loves the quiet they found there. “It is a phenomenal community,” she said.
Both Chanbourne and the Dawsons’ house, which opened in 1903 as the Paeonian Spring Academy, are part of the village’s historic district. Paeonian Springs is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Those designations came about almost as a byproduct of a struggle the village people waged against Dominion Power, which in 2006 wanted to put soaring electric lines along the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail, which runs smack through town.
“People around here don’t boss easily,” said Cornelius “Corky” Shiflett, who was involved in that fight. Shiflett and his wife, Betty, who have lived in their 1890 house for more than 50 years, literally would have been in the shadow of the 150-foot power-line towers. To add insult to the injury, although frequent outages are a common complaint in the village, the new lines were to carry electricity elsewhere.
Pat Sloyan fought the power company, too. In fact, he said, “I led the charge.” The 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner (for coverage of the Persian Gulf War for Newsday) and his wife, Phyllis, moved to Paeonian Springs from Takoma Park 43 years ago. Like the Stanleys, they wanted more room but couldn’t afford closer-in prices. They drew a 50-mile circle around Washington and found their 1892 Victorian, complete with turret, in Paeonian Springs. “The village was a great place to bring up kids,” said Phyllis Sloyan.
It still is, said Becky and Chris Shore, who moved there about 13 years ago. Becky runs an environmental education program called Wildlife Ambassadors, and her husband is a law enforcement officer. They say the village is affordable and neighborly and that crime is a non-issue. Now that they have three small children, they especially value “the sincere old-time feel.”
That old-time feel has been retained in part because the villagers eventually prevailed against Dominion Power. “We tied it up for five years,” Sloyan said with obvious satisfaction. In April, the relocated lines finally went up along the Route 7 bypass, where, despite their proximity to Paeonian Springs, they are largely invisible from the village. Just the same, Sloyan regards them as “a permanent scar on the face of Loudoun County.”
More permanent, perhaps, than Milton’s grand plan for a resort proved to be.
Although the spring still feeds the Stanleys’ well, and Shally Stanley pronounces its quality “fantastic,” the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 put an end to unsubstantiated claims about the water curing everything from insomnia to kidney disease. The spa gradually went into decline, and the only presence of the spring now is a small, brackish pool housed beneath a latticework structure across the street from Chanbourne. A few businesses line a nearby section of Charles Town Pike, which is considered part of Paeonian Springs, but the post office is the only commercial enterprise remaining in the village itself.
The locals don’t mind. Although some have had septic problems because of the combination of underground water and tiny lots for drain fields, they like living in a place where the biggest events of the year are the Fourth of July parade — featuring many children and pets — and Christmas-tree lighting. They also say that while much of Loudoun has been transfigured by development, their village has changed little from the days when handcars plied the now long-gone railroad tracks. The walks are still scenic and the neighbors friendly.
“Everyone is real here,” Becky Shore said.
M.J. McAteer is a freelance writer.