In 1864, during the heat of the Civil War, Union soldiers burned 230 barns and eight mills in Loudoun County, in retaliation for Confederate raids. They slaughtered and drove off tens of thousands of farm animals, and destroyed tens of thousands of bushels of grain. As the county lies right on the edge between the North and the South, it was ferociously contested and a hotbed for conflict.
Sara Brown, whose family has lived at Oakland Green in Lincoln, VA for nine generations, has a desk chockfull of photos and letters that pieced together form a picture of the farm’s rich history. One of the family’s favorite stories tells why the farm’s pre-Civil War bank barn is still standing when almost all of the other barns in the county were burned. As Sara tells me – “and who knows if it’s true, but it makes a good story” – her ancestor William Brown was standing atop Oakland Green’s high point, counting fires from the barns burning on surrounding farms. William counted ten fires, then spotted a hawk swooping down on his chickens. He called for his son, Nathan, to come fast to shoot the hawk. Just as Nathan set off a couple of shots, two Union soldiers approached on the road with the intention of setting fire to Oakland Green’s barn. But when the Union soldiers heard the shots, they assumed Confederate soldiers were protecting the farm, and believing they were outnumbered they turned back.
Thanks to a combination of luck and care, Oakland Green’s barn – and the home and most of the outbuildings – are still standing today. The history of Oakland Green stretches back about 130 years before the Civil War, all the way to 1730, when Quaker farmer Richard Brown (sixth grandfathers ago for Sara) built the original log house. Subsequent generations built stone and brick additions, as well as the barn and other outbuildings.
The farm was passed father to son through the Brown family until the 1960s, when Sara’s Aunt Helen owned the farm, but had no children to take over. As Sara relates, “Helen’s sister was also an old maid, and they wrote these amazing letters to each other. I have letters that Helen wrote about taking calves to market, driving cattle for two days to get to Alexandria, about making honey. She writes about nursing a sick calf. I imagine her sitting here in this room with a calf, feeding it whiskey.” Sara continues, “I can’t imagine how she lived here all by herself. Understandably, the house became very run down.”
Photo: Chris Warner
Luckily for Oakland Green, Sara’s father, who worked in DC in the House of Representatives, bought the farm from Helen in the 1960s. Because the house was in bad shape, Sara’s parents decided to take down the log house and reconstruct it piece by piece. They numbered the deconstructed logs, treated them, replaced some of them and put them back in place. They built the house back up and made it taller, salvaging some and replacing other floorboards.
Oakland Green’s 200 acres have been farmed consistently throughout the Browns’ nine generations of ownership. When Sara was a child, her parents, who were not farmers themselves, leased the land to other farmers for raising cattle.
Sara’s maternal grandfather, however, had always been a farmer, and when he moved to Oakland Green he continued doing what he always had done. He raised chickens and geese and reestablished the vegetable gardens, planting 96 tomato plants one year and turning the harvest into tomato sauce, juice and paste, refusing to waste any of it. Sara says she could hardly stand to look at a tomato by the end of that summer.
Photo: Scott Maison
When she was 10 years old and a member of 4-H, Sara raised her first steer at Oakland Green. She got a heifer next, and bred her. That was the beginning of her present herd; she now has 52 Black Angus. Initially, Sara used her cattle money to support her horseback riding hobby – she says she could ride before she could even walk.
“We used to have what’s called a cow-calf operation,” says Sara. In other words, they sold their calves after weaning to a feedlot in Pennsylvania, where they were finished on grain in preparation for slaughter. About seven years ago, Sara had a big “ah-ha” moment. She realized that her animals, which had good pedigree and which she cared for so well, were high quality, and that it was a shame to send them to a feedlot.
In lieu of sending them to a feedlot, then, Sara began to finish the beef herself and sell directly to the consumer. Today, Sara raises her cattle on pasture, and finishes them on grain for the last 75 days. The herd always has free access to hay, pasture, and clean water.
For the first three years of direct selling, Sara sold beef exclusively by the side. For the past four years, she’s also offered individual cuts, in order to make the beef more accessible to people who can’t necessarily buy a whole side.
“I care about animal welfare as it relates to human welfare,” says Sara, “and the direction we’re headed with mass-production of everything is not always best. This isn’t something I’d ever envisioned doing when I was 15, but it’s what I know; it’s something I came to care deeply about. I have a passion to make a little area of the world better than it was before.”
Sara sells about six animals by the side every year, and reserves three for retail. She’s keeping it small for right now, she says. Regardless, Sara’s beef business is remarkable considering that she works full time in DC as a project manager for AOL, in addition to hosting the Oakland Green B&B.
Every time there’s a beef recall, Sara says she gets a lot of phone calls. “I think it’s great that people are trying to see where their food comes from,” says Sara, “because for such a long time, we didn’t have the option. There were so many farms around here but it all went into feeding the industrial system.” Ironically, she says, the same development that drove away the farms has led to a resurging demand for local farm products and a desire to protect the farming community.
Oakland Green guests stay in the original log portion of the house, with its downstairs sitting room and piano, upstairs bedroom suite, and one and a half baths. Guests can also enjoy the main parlor, decorated with portraits of stoic Browns from different eras of the farm’s history. A full breakfast is served in the lovely dining room, with local pork sausage, eggs and seasonal fruit, sometimes berries from the farm itself. The wide front porch, with its old rocking chairs, faces north to keep cool even on hot summer days.
Jean Brown, Sara’s mother, started the B&B at Oakland Green in the 1980s, making it one of the oldest B&Bs in the county. Sara was in elementary school at the time, so it’s a business that she’s been around for most of her life. In 2009, Sara took over the B&B from her mother.
Oakland Green is also available for weddings and special events.