The Future of History: CCHA Looks Ahead

The Future of History

By David Lillard

It’s a late September afternoon, and the wind is whirling. That hurricane moving north from the Gulf wasn’t expected to hit hard in Clarke County, but the horizontal rains and leaves blowing past the window make you wonder if the forecast has changed. You pull out your smart phone, click an icon, and check the latest weather report.

No matter what device you’re using, or how you get your weather, the source is likely the same: the National Weather Service, a division of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. The weather reports that people all over the United States now take for granted have their roots here in Clarke and Loudoun counties.

Over several months in 1902–03, the Weather Bureau signed contracts to buy land and construct observation facilities atop the Blue Ridge. They renamed a summit on the ridge Mt. Weather, and set up the country’s first weather observation and prediction center.

The Weather Bureau’s activities atop Mt. Weather lasted only a few years, but the legacy of the agency that tracks everything from heat waves to hurricanes begins right here.

You can read all about the short history of Mt. Weather’s climatological observations in an article by Maral Kalbian and Margaret Peters, published in the 2012 Proceedings of the Clarke County Historical Association. You can also learn the locations of Clarke County gravesites for Revolutionary War soldiers and dig deep into archeological investigations at Blandy Experimental Farm.

The Proceedings is one of the quiet ways the Historical Association documents and preserves the historical record of life in the county. Sometimes the research is original, published for the first time. Over the years, their research has been used by others for many applications for the National Register of Historic Places.

But publishing history is only one slice of how the Clarke County Historical Association (CCHA) serves the community.

The group is probably best known for its work restoring and operating the 1785 Millwood or Alger’s Mill in Millwood, which, according to CCHA archivist Mary Thomason-Morris, they acquired in 1964. Built for Nathaniel Burwell by Gen. Daniel Morgan and others in the mid-1780s, the mill had closed its doors in 1953 with the retirement of its long-time owner Ernest L. Alger.  “This wood and stone mill building in the heart of the small village of Millwood stood dilapidated and forlorn until 1963 when Middletown businessman Leo Bernstein bought it, with an idea to convert the building into a restaurant,” wrote Thomason-Morris in her 2009 history of CCHA.

After Bernstein decided against pursuing the project, he sold the mill to the CCHA for one dollar for a working museum on industrial heritage of the Shenandoah Valley. Over time, the group acquired other buildings, enabling them to preserve not just the mill, but the historic landscape surrounding it.

On weekends May through November, visitors from far and near come to see the grist mill at work grinding corn meal of colorful varieties and wheat flour. Much of the yellow and white corn ground at the mill comes from local farms, says CCHA executive director Laura Christiansen.

It’s at the mill that CCHA brings history alive. The volunteer millers offer up one-on-one history lessons to all comers on the inner workings of the gears and grinding stones, the building, and the village that sprang up and flourished around the mill. They also over all the maintenance, “everything from greasing the gears to sharpening millstones, to replacing pieces of the wheel,” said Christiansen.

The team of millers are always on the lookout for new volunteers, said Christiansen, especially younger ones who will stay with CCHA and, over time, become the next generation of millers. No experience is necessary, only a willingness to learn and share that knowledge with visitors. A fascination with gears and all things mechanical helps, too—as does, Christiansen adds, with a smile, enjoying a beer with the guys after the mill is closed.

The volunteers save tens of thousands of dollars each year on the cost of operating and maintaining the mill. Still, it costs upwards of $50,000 a year to maintain the mill and the site around it, says Christiansen.

Raising all that cash to keep the popular attraction going—and to preserve it—relies on the popular Art At The Mill, a twice-a-year art show. Since its modest beginnings in 1990 showing the works of 14 local artists, Art At The Mill has grown to about 200 artists and 1,000 pieces for each of the two shows.

The dates for this spring’s show are April 27 through May 12. There is still time for artists to make the February 25 submission deadline to have their works in this year’s show (see the contact information below).

More than the mill

CCHA stewards a major collection of Clarke County historic documents and artifacts, ranging from a complete collection of the Clarke Courier dating from 1869 to a tall-case clock built in 1780 by Goldsmith Chandlee of Winchester at the behest of Lord Fairfax. In her history of CCHA, Thompson-Morris calls the clock the organization’s first crown jewel.

“We continue to gather artifacts,” said Christiansen, “anything relevant to the history of Clarke County.”

The museum’s reading room has a collection of local history books and resources, too, a fine venue for a quiet Saturday afternoon—and for students working on research papers.

One of the Clarke County Historical Association’s best kept secrets should not be a secret at all. It’s the museum’s “Our Land Is Our Legacy” presentation occupying three rooms downstairs of the museum at 32 East Main Street in Berryville. The exhibit begins, literally, in the primeval forest that predominated the Shenandoah Valley for thousands of years—the landscape occupied by the continent’s original people first encountered by European settlers. A floor-to-ceiling forest mural is the backdrop.

The exhibit continues in two rooms of artifacts complemented by sound and video presentations that take visitors on a journey from early settlement to the modern era.

“We’d love to see many more people visit the museum and experience the Legacy presentation,” said Christiansen. “You can spend as little as 20 minutes enjoying the videos or linger for hours over the displays. And it’s free!”


Now, just a year shy of the group’s 75th anniversary, the history folks are looking toward the future. The board and staff are developing a strategic plan to, as Christiansen says, “be more outwardly focused.” and education oriented.

“We’d like to expand our educational programs and collaborate more with partner historical organizations in Clarke County,” said Christiansen. She says the group also would like to offer programs for local schools, but they lack the resources to develop a suite of offerings adhering to the Virginia Standards of Learning. She welcomes volunteers to propose new education program for people of all ages.

A key to offering more living history programs and workshops is to find ways to use the group’s existing properties. “The mill is an amazing resource for programs like engineering, math, physics, and business—as well as history,” she said. “But there are other programs we can offer right now.”

Christiansen says CCHA may also become more involved in historic preservation, offering programs that help people unlock the history of their own homes and the Clarke County landscape. One such program is the upcoming “How To Research Your House,” a 2-hour workshop taught by CCHA board member Maral Kalbian, where you can learn how to begin uncovering the stories associated with the place where you live—or even one you’ve always admired. The workshop takes place February 23, from 10am till noon. The cost is only $5 (free for CCHA members).

History is more than the nation’s founding or stories of the Civil War. It’s the evolution of farming over time, the stories of our small towns, the distinctive communities like Josephine City, the way buildings have been altered over time to incorporate changing times—like the firehouse on Berryville’s main street that became a town hall and police station, and is now an art gallery downstairs and a photography studio and newspaper office upstairs, where this story was written.

The Clarke County Historical Association captures it all—or at least as much as they can. They welcome locals and travelers alike to visit the museum and spend some time with Clarke County’s rich history.


The Clarke County Historical Association is located at 32 East Main Street, Berryville. Museum hours are 11am–4pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Call 540-955-2600 or visit