Generals, ghosts and a cozy elegance

Leesburg, Va., is rich in history, antiques and characters

Short Hop

February 15, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Catoctin Mountain rises in the distance on my right as I cruise down Route 15 past wheat-colored meadows and pastures dotted with sleek, long-legged horses.

I've left Frederick and crossed the Potomac River, the line between Maryland and Virginia, on my way south to Leesburg.

My husband's schedule didn't permit a winter getaway and friends weren't available, so I'm on my own. But after a long holiday season spent catering to my nearest and dearest, I'm primed for a selfish couple of days away.

I had stumbled on an old Leesburg brochure while cleaning out a drawer, and it seemed like a good destination choice. The brochure promised history, antiques, art galleries, food, vineyards and charming accommodations.

Normally, I'm a comparison shopper, but when I phoned the Norris House Inn and Roger Healey, the cheery English owner, informed me they had bargain rates through the end of February ($80 including a "sumptuous breakfast"), I jumped at it.

Nearing Leesburg, I felt a niggling fiscal guilt at my hastiness. But when I pulled up to the 1760 brick inn in the heart of the historic district, its greenery festooned in tiny white lights and its side and back garden starkly beautiful even in the dead of winter, I knew I'd made the right choice.

Roger welcomed me into a cozily elegant drawing room where a fire burned in the grate. The only other guest that Monday was an architect from New York. My room on the third floor was attractively outfitted with a quilt-covered brass double bed, and there was a lovely rooftop view out both the back and front windows.

I dropped my bag and scurried back downstairs to warm myself by the fire. Then I quick-marched down the block through an arctic wind to the dapper Loudoun County Museum.

Compelling stories

Housed in two 19th-century buildings, the museum offers an overview of the area's history from prehistoric tools to 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century artifacts. It also makes much of the town's late resident, Gen. George C. Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. A long, glass case protects photos, memorabilia and Marshall's uniforms. The museum's big focus, though, is on the Civil War, inextricably knit into the community's consciousness.

Treasures include some marvelous 19th-century rifles and other weaponry as well as a lovely collection of antique patchwork quilts and samplers.

You can almost see those Southern belles stitching away while their men marched along Route 15 with Gen. Robert E. Lee, a descendant of Thomas Lee, for whom the town was named.

The museum also honors the lives and struggles of Loudoun County's African-Americans. A coming exhibit on local opposition to slavery includes letters -- striking for their grace -- from Mars Lucas, a former slave who emigrated to Liberia in 1830, to his former master, Townsend Heaton.

"I have been blest with very good health from the time I left home to this present date excepting a little seasickness, but nothing of consequence," Lucas writes in elegantly flowing script.

A museum walking tour includes nearby Leesburg Training School, one of nine black schools operated in the county in 1883 and the focus of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's challenge to the notion of "separate but equal" education.

"We have a rich history here," says Marybeth Mohr, director of the Loudoun County Museum. "And the county has grown so fast in the last 30 years -- we've gone from about 20,000 to about 220,000 -- that it's important to hang on to it."

Much of that history is compelling. Glenfiddich House in particular, a Lee family property, is worth a visit. It was here that Robert E. Lee planned his invasion of Maryland, which ended at Antietam.

It was also at Glenfiddich House where Col. Erasmus Burt bled to death after being shot during the Confederate victory at Ball's Bluff, and where, 118 years later, James Dickey's violence-filled novel Deliverance was written. Not surprisingly, there are said to be a fair number of ghosts floating around.

"The Lady in White, who haunts the Lynch House across the street from us, is the most documented ghost in Virginia," says Mohr. "And Colonel Burt is reputed to haunt the Glenfiddich House."

"Two lady guests claimed to have had a visitation here one night by two hairy gentlemen," adds Roger Healey. "But they had each had a bottle of wine with dinner that night, so who knows what they saw."

The Virginia Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society investigates potential ectoplasmic episodes by request. And while such spectral events usually occur near Halloween, there is plenty of year-round action to keep visitors entertained.

Puppet shows, community theater, concerts, antiques fairs and First Friday -- a candlelight art gallery crawl with wine and cheese held the first Friday of the month -- are only a sampling. Nearby Oatlands Plantation showcases gorgeous gardens on a 260-acre estate just south of town.

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