HarvFest Offers Annual Chance to Reconnect with Farm Heritage

Locals and visitors reveled in food, fun, music and history at Clermont Farm just east of Berryville, Virginia on Saturday. HarvFest, Clarke County’s annual summer celebration at Clermont Farm’s historic 360 acres, provided a venue for city folks and country folks to come together to acknowledge the importance of farmland to modern America and to honor farmers, past and present, who have fed our country for generations.

“Elizabeth Rust Williams left this beautiful farm in her will to benefit the public” said Clermont executive director Robert Stieg. “Her vision was for Clermont to help people connect with their agricultural, economic and social heritage. This property has been farmed by white people and black people for 150 years and Elizabeth Rust Williams wanted that heritage to be more visible and accessible to all people.”

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The late Elizabeth Rust Williams was the last living descendent of the McCormick family, owners of Clermont since before the Civil War. Williams’s ancestor, Ellen McCormick sold property from Clermont Farm to previously enslaved African Americans after the Civil War. The area went on to become what is known today as Josephine City.

HarvFest offered something for young and old alike; from crafts to music, from pony rides to heritage tours. Guided tours included Clermont’s historic main house, the slave’s quarters and a 1917 bank barn. But if history wasn’t a high point on Saturday’s “must see” list for Clermont visitors, kettle corn, crafts, great food and beautiful music were easy alternatives.

Farmer Matt Szechenyi and Cornelius Conway offered smooth guitar jazz as their audience strolled among the many exhibits and vendors assembled for the day. The Berryville Grille served up delicious bar-b-q sandwiches while the Childs family offered lamb and beef sandwiches.

Nearby Geneva Jackson sold her world-famous baked goods but took a moment to reminisce about the days that she spent as a young girl working at Clermont Farm.

“It’s a good feeling to be here again, to be back home at Clermont” Jackson said. “I worked here for three years when I was about fourteen-years-old. Those were good days.”

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The Top of Virginia Quilting Guild offered raffle chances to win a quilt made by the Winchester stitchery club. “Our quilting guild has 65 members and we meet at 1pm in Middletown at the gray stone church on the first Thursday of each month” said quilter Sue McDonald of Winchester. Top of Virginia guild chairman Janet Miller added that proceeds from the Guild’s annual quilt raffle go to support the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation.

Keith Lilly of Clarke County amazed young onlookers with her seemingly magical ability to transform colorless wool yarn into vivid hues using materials like sumac berries, walnut husks and South American dried beetles called “Cochinial”.

“I’ve been interested in plants and natural dyes since I was a little kid” said Lilly. “I like to weave but my greatest love is dyeing yarn.”

Lilly, who has worked in Loudoun County’s agriculture extension office for 39 years, demonstrated different techniques for staining and dyeing to several young ladies who had gathered around Lilly’s pot of boiling natural dye.

“Watch what happens to the color as I pull this yarn out of the Indigo” Lilly told the girls. “Oxidation causes the color to change from light blue to dark blue in just a matter of seconds.”

Not far from Lilly’s exhibit, Suzie Moberly and Terry McLaren demonstrated techniques for spinning yarn from wool.

“We’re seeing a lot more young people becoming interested in spinning wool but I’m not sure why that’s happening” Moberly laughed. “Maybe because it’s a lot more fun to spin than it is to sit in front of an I-Pad or a TV!”

Moberly used her barefoot to work the treadle of a spinning wheel while her hands pulled and rolled a mixture of Cotswold fleece and Angora wool into thread. Occasionally Moberly stopped to wrap the length of newly spun thread around a wooden device Moberly referred to as a “knitty-knotty”.

“Each time I wrap the thread around the knitty-knotty I know that the length is one yard” Moberly explained. “So if I need 200 yards of thread for a sweater I can easily tell whether I have spun enough thread for the project.”

Morgan, a rising fifth grader standing nearby, watched as Moberly and McLaren methodically created thread from a box of raw wool positioned close to the spinning wheel. “I’m really interested in how they do it” Morgan said. “I’d like to be able to spin thread someday too.”

Clermont’s link to Clarke County’s African American heritage remains strong today and is rooted in the experience of enslaved African Americans who toiled on the property prior to the Civil War and then later purchased the section of the property from Elizabeth Rust Williams’s ancestors that became the Josephine City community. Representatives from the Josephine School Community Museum displayed school desks and other memorabilia from the community’s original schoolhouse that still stands on Josephine Street in Berryville.

“We are today here to honor Clarke County’s rich history” said Adeela  Al-Khalili, a member of the museum’s board of directors and a school teacher at Boyce Elementary school. “You can’t talk about Clarke County’s history without remembering its African American descendants.”

Many families attended HarvFest on Saturday and children found plenty to do thanks to pony rides offered by Bar-C Ranch and a crafts tent staffed by Clarke County Parks and Recreation.

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Dana LaMaster and her three young children travelled just a short distance to reach Clermont but they were still excited to explore the event.

“We live in Berryville but we’ve never been here before” said LaMaster.

Clermont’s Bob Stieg said that her expected up to 800 people to visit HarvFest by the end of Saturday’s festivities.

“The Clermont Foundation and its trustees have a goal of supporting Elizabeth Rust Williams’s wishes” Stieg said. “She requested that the buildings here be preserved and that the property continue to always be farmed. HarvFest is a start and first step, one day a year, for honoring her wishes and opening Clermont to the public.”