It was one of those warm evenings in mid to late July – when the air feels almost as thick as honey, but you don’t even mind, because you’re in a beautiful place, enjoying a unique cultural event in about the coolest setting in the world. My first visit to Oatlands – in the summer of 1997 – I checked out a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by one of the local theatre troupes; they used the front of the Greek Revival mansion for the opening sequence- appropriately set at the Athenian Capitol, and some of the later forest scenes utilized the surrounding greenery. If there were a better way to charm a famous local landmark into one’s heart, I’m unaware of it; Oatlands Plantation became – and has since remained, for me – synonymous with grace, character – and maybe even a little magic and fantasy thrown in for good measure.
Now – I realize that there are a myriad of perspectives on this historic site – including its challenge to remain pure and intact in the face of the developers’ bulldozers, its coming to terms with the past (including acknowledgement of the use of slave labor), and the never-ending effort to offer its guests a one-of-a-kind experience in tourism that will spread by word of mouth and keep its visitors returning for more. I heard, saw and read about all of the above – at great length – during my 10 years in the little newsroom at Wage Radio in Leesburg; our owner at the time – Jerry Emmet’s family had donated Oatlands – in the mid-1960’s – to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I remember thinking, “What could be better than having a direct family tie to one of my favorite places in Northern Virginia – or anywhere else, for that matter?” I gradually learned more about the extended history of Oatlands – dating back to the opening years of the 19th Century – its immense size at the time (over 3,400 acres during homesteader George Carter’s day), the variety of structures on the property (including an 1810 greenhouse – one of the oldest in the country) and the importance of Oatlands in regional tourism (to the tune of over 60,000 annual visitors from one of my tallies in the old newsroom). Its image even made its way – some years back – onto the ‘Greetings From Virginia’ stamp.
I made new discoveries about the place – and its history – with each assignment. I was utterly charmed by the stories of how the Carter family children spent their Christmas times at the mansion and the surrounding grounds. I attended events at the site devoted to historic land preservation, local tourism, and even a real, live auction in which the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce sold an entire herd of life-sized, decorated horses (some of which still grace various parts of our area). I witnessed – with some concern – the tug of war between the will to develop the adjacent lands around Oatlands, and the protective defense set up by its Board of Directors. The story of this Plantation – over its many years – has not always been light or easy.
But — for— me — the continuous, virtual onslaught of historical information and overwhelming, ongoing popularity never tainted the original charm of the place; I always kind of felt like my emotional connections to the site granted me some sort of honorary, personal ownership – even if only in the heart. Through the process of becoming better acquainted with Oatlands’ images, grounds and deeper story the grandeur remained; the soul of the place always retained its mysterious spell for me.
So- I have, indeed, to paraphrase the Bard- had a most rare vision. That warm night in July — now years gone — began with a scene from one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays — with lovers’ anticipation, jarring conflict, mortal threat, and finally — escape into a magical world. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, imagination eventually prevails over the harsher confinements of governmental and societal will and expediency; likewise, the archetypal- but to us, familiar — mansion of Oatlands rises above and survives the varied travails of its ongoing history. May it always remain a frequent visitor to my nights’— and days’— dreams — of all seasons. Not for an age, but for all time. Lord, what (beautiful) fools (we) mortals (can sometimes) be!