“Planning really moves the needle,” Amanda Merrill says when discussing how to build financial stability.
Merrill, a wealth advisor for Buckingham Strategic Wealth, is a certified financial planner with a law degree from Case Western Reserve University. Though everyone’s economic situation is unique, she offers some general tips to consider.
Putting together an emergency fund is first on her list. Life has unexpected surprises ahead for everyone. However, with at least six months of income set aside, disruptions lose a bit of their sting. Merrill notes, “An emergency fund assures a person can avoid portfolio liquidation at depressed rates. Volatility is upsetting. It’s always prudent to prevent [unnecessary] selling when investments are down.” Having money tucked away and ready for the unexpected moments in life can prevent one from accruing avoidable debt and neglecting other needs.
Additionally, Merrill encourages people to take the time to know where their money is and how it has been allocated. This allows one to adjust and customize their holdings. Being cognizant of interest rates for savings accounts and comparing them to other possible investments helps investors make strong decisions.
The best mix of stocks, bonds, and alternative investments varies with a person’s appetite for risk, their stage of life, and even their anticipated longevity. Life expectancy is projected to continue rising — according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average life expectancy for Americans will grow by six years and rise to an average of over 85 by 2060. Merrill confirms that increased longevity and family history of longevity are important considerations in financial planning for retirement.
On average, everyone can expect to experience at least one recession during their lifetime. Economic slumps can create opportunities to “capture a tax loss.” Painful and counterintuitive as it might be, selling investments at a loss may be a good idea in some cases — later, when the market improves, these losses could offset gains.
A free and straightforward task for individuals looking to build their financial stability is to access their personal credit reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. These companies are required by law to give a free report to consumers annually which they provide on their websites. The three reports differ slightly, so checking each one is important. Doing so allows one to correct any errors and to track changes in credit worthiness.
Another potentially profitable and very simple action to take is to check for unclaimed money. Virginia’s Unclaimed Property Program returns “money, stocks, bonds, dividends, utility deposits, insurance proceeds, tangible property and more” to residents who may have moved, lost a check, or forgotten about a bank account. VaMoneySearch.com is the place to start. The federal government has additional information on finding unclaimed money at their USA.gov site. A few years ago, Merrill’s mother checked for unclaimed property belonging to her and discovered a small retirement fund from a long-ago teaching job.
An annual review of insurance coverage can also save consumers money. Supply and labor costs have increased in recent years due to inflation and old insurance levels might not be adequate. For Hunt Country residents who own historic homes and lands, the need for special skills or materials to restore damaged properties may justify increasing insurance levels.
Merrill notes that umbrella insurance — policies which provide extra insurance beyond standard home, auto, and boat insurance — is “tremendously affordable.” Umbrella insurance can kick in and provide coverage when homeowner, auto, or boat insurance has tapped out. It also may cover claims excluded by other insurance policies. Individuals who serve on boards, own horses, employ staff, or have a high public profile might consider buying umbrella insurance, Merrill advises.
Finally, Merrill recommends people have an estate plan (at minimum, a will) and review it for completeness. This may include arranging appropriate guardians for children who are minors and other dependents. The Commonwealth of Virginia has laws covering those who die without a will. Property in that case is dispersed among relatives using a formula set by the state. For instance, in an example of special interest to equine owners, horses whose owner has died could end up the property of a relative who may not have the resources or interest to properly care for them. Merrill notes that a trust may include horses, with specific language to assure their wellbeing.
When it comes to financial planning, Merrill makes it clear that simple actions and attention can reap rewards in the future. ML
Buckingham Strategic Wealth
112 West Washington Street, Suite 204
Middleburg, Virginia 20117
Telephone: (540) 931-9051
This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue.
A few steps from the hustle and bustle of downtown Middleburg’s shopping district is a massage therapy studio that has comforted the community since 2018. BodyBloom, nestled on a quiet residential street, offers all who enter the promise of tranquility in the capable hands of Peggy Finnegan.
The name “BodyBloom” refers to how massage and bodywork can help one’s body “bloom” with an improved sense of strength and wellbeing according to Finnegan, the owner and therapist. “I create a peaceful, private, and unhurried experience for my clients from the moment they arrive,” she explains. “My cozy studio is designed to feel restful and inviting. Clients receive my undivided attention for their entire appointment.”
Finnegan works as a solo therapist. She starts by carefully listening to her clients’ preferences and needs. From there, she works quietly using skilled, compassionate touch and a slower pace to help soothe the nervous system while softening and loosening muscle tension. “For most people, it’s a welcome treat to have this uninterrupted downtime with zero demands on them,” she says. “Clients tell me they feel totally safe and cared for when they’re on my table.” Each session includes comforting extras like a heated table, eye pillow, hot stones, and steamy towels — the perfect accoutrement for an exceptionally relaxing experience.
Taking care of people comes naturally to Finnegan. She was a United Airlines flight attendant for 20 years, exploring the world while providing front-line safety and service to the traveling public. “On my days off from flying, I did rewarding work as a certified nursing assistant and also served for many years as an in-home hospice volunteer,” she says.
Finnegan was ready for a change after 9/11 and chose to follow her therapeutic spirit. She knew a quieter and more intimate setting appealed to her. After graduating from massage school and getting her license in 2012, Finnegan began work at a luxury spa and opened a private practice in Hudson, Ohio. For the next few years, she juggled both jobs, took advanced training classes, honed her skills, and built her clientele. In 2016, everything came to a screeching halt due to an unexpected health crisis which left Finnegan physically unable to do massage therapy work for nearly a year. “During my recovery, I experienced immense healing from a variety of complementary therapies including reflexology,” she says. That’s when she decided to make use of her time off from massage by getting trained and certified in the Ingham Method of reflexology which she has proudly offered at her Middleburg studio since she moved to the area with her husband.
Since opening its doors, BodyBloom has been a retreat for anyone looking to decompress in a peaceful atmosphere. Finnegan is trained in a variety of therapeutic modalities including deep tissue massage, neuromuscular therapy, and Thai massage. She has chosen to focus solely on restorative relaxation work “because it’s what I love the most and I believe that [it] is exactly what a lot of folks need,” she shares. Finnegan helps many people seeking relief from general muscle tension from physical activity or from long hours sitting at their computer. “I also see many others who are feeling stressed out, anxious, or overwhelmed.” Her clients include all genders and range in age from 16 to 93.
Massages not only restore the body, but also the mind. Finnegan says the relaxation massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces your body’s stress reactions. This is also known as the rest and relax response. “As the physical touch of massage activates the parasympathetic system, your heart rate naturally slows down. Then breathing also slows and your blood pressure lowers. Your hormones are also affected.” Stress hormones like cortisol drop off and serotonin, the feel-good hormone, spikes. This provides that improved sense of wellbeing and peacefulness that people feel after a massage. “I believe that the additional nurturing and care [clients] receive at BodyBloom just adds to those good feelings,” Finnegan emphasizes.
Finnegan also strives to build a nourishing relationship between client and therapist. “My favorite part about having my own practice is being able to take the time to get to know my clients as people, not just bodies,” Finnegan says delightedly. “I love building a therapeutic relationship of trust with my clients, getting to know their needs, likes, and dislikes. I don’t like to rush, and I never want you to feel rushed, so I leave myself plenty of time between my appointments so your whole experience feels relaxed and unhurried.” ML
BodyBloom Massage & Reflexology 107 West Marshall Street, Suite 106 Middleburg, Virginia 20117
BodyBloom specializes in restorative relaxation services including massage therapy, foot reflexology, and luxurious body scrubs. Those considering booking can do so through the BodyBloom website: bodybloommassage.com.
This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue.
Written by Sarah Hickner Photos by Callie Broaddus
On West Washington Street, just a few doors down from Middleburg Common Grounds, is an unusually PLAYful store. Even for an adult, a step inside feels like walking into a magical place.
A wall lined with books beckons young readers to take a seat on the bench and dive into a new tale. Wooden cars beg for little ones to zoom them around. A rideable toy horse stands proudly, greeting customers. Whimsical pendulum clocks ping back and forth on the wall behind the checkout counter. And, for the holiday season, adorable fabric animal ornaments adorn lit Christmas trees and colorful stockings hang in every corner of the shop.
Keep going, and customers will find a mini theater set, ready for whatever productions a kid can dream up, a book tree, a busyboard fire truck, a magna-tile build area, and a huge Lite-Brite!
More than just the quantity of toys, it’s their quality that adds to the appeal. Years ago Michelle McNaughton, owner of the PLAYroom, read an article explaining that when toys are aesthetically pleasing, adults are more likely to get involved with playtime. The retro wood kitchen and toy rotary phone sitting next to a display of eccentric fabric dolls proves that the article’s argument rings true.
One of McNaughton’s favorite things about her business is watching the families she serves grow. “We’ve only been here a year and a half,” she shares. “But even in that time, we had ladies come in who were expecting, and now their kids are a year old!”
In owning a toy store, McNaughton has become a toy expert. One thing she has learned is that kids don’t need a large collection. Instead, a handful of good toys is plenty because it encourages children to exercise their imagination more. Often people will hold up a toy and say, “What does this do?” She responds with a big smile and a twinkle in her eye: “Whatever you want it to!”
Most items in the store are made from wood, fabric, or paper. McNaughton works hard to provide products made of sustainable and natural materials. “When we do carry plastics we try to make sure they’re healthy plastics, so mostly food grade,” she says. McNaughton also loves to support small vendors and stock plenty of American-made toy options. “We want to have things you can’t get at the big box stores,” she says.
When asked about her favorite toys in the store, McNaughton made a beeline for a set of car tracks called “Way To Play Roads.” They are simple pieces of black silicone that can be pieced together to make a track for toy cars. Her face lights up as she talks about her son playing with them every day. “We play with them in the snow. We’ve made monster mud pits, and I just hosed them off when we were done. We brought them to the beach and played in the sand!”
McNaughton is undeniably passionate about play. She dreams of her store being a place for people in the community to read, play, and imagine. “Our goal is really to be a part of the community. We’ll have folks come in on a Wednesday and read and play for thirty minutes. We want to be a resource for those families to come in and think of new things they haven’t seen before…and think about play a little differently than just ‘how do I entertain my kid?’”
With the holidays around the corner, McNaughton shares her advice for gift buying.
“The key to buying a gift for someone is your own excitement about it,” McNaughton explains. “If you’re not excited about it, I say just put it back. Then get the item that excites you.” If you are still on the fence, give the staff the chance to do what makes them come alive — helping you choose the perfect gifts for the kids in your life. You won’t be disappointed and neither will your child. ML
The PLAYroom is located at 108 West Washington Street in Middleburg, Virginia. Hours are Monday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This article first appeared in the December 2022 issue.
Chloe’s of Middleburg has always been a popular boutique for women, offering both fashion-forward and classic apparel, accessories, and unique gifts. Now, fans of the shop have a new reason to visit with the arrival of a curated pet line called Lily and Oliver’s. After all, pets are an extension of the family – and as such, deserve the best gifts!
At Chloe’s, you won’t find the ordinary pet toys that you would see in a big-box store. Lily and Oliver’s pet line is carefully researched and selected by Chloe Osborn, the shop’s namesake, and daughter of owner, Wendy. “Every single product in our store, and with Lily and Oliver’s, is something we ourselves would use,” says Osborn, who knows “quality is paramount.”
Endowed with her mom’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of animals, Osborn decided to launch the pet accessory line this year because she felt more options were needed in Middleburg — especially for cats. As a feline owner, she understands the market well. The brand’s two namesakes are Lily, the family cat, and Oliver, a kitten that Osborn rescued while studying at Vassar College last year. “I instantly fell in love with him,” Osborn recalls.
Osborn’s cats have been loving the new line, which has been popular in the boutique. Osborn explains it’s not simply aesthetics that she looks for when considering inventory. She inspects everything for durability and animal safety standards. “I love our cat toys because a lot of them are made from boiled wool which is really good for cleaning [cats’] teeth,” Osborn says. The fibers of the wool help remove plaque. A popular cat toy is a four-inch, catnip-filled shrimp for $12. It’s made from natural wool and dyes and is a fair trade product that is manufactured by craftswomen in Nepal. Working with vendors who use fair trade business practices is something Osborn looks for when selecting products to carry with the brand. Other similar cat toys include adorable sushi rolls filled with catnip. Each piece of sushi is $10.
For dog owners who love designer swag and bubbly, the “Woof Clicquot” champagne bottle is a must-buy. Made by Haute Diggity Dog, the soft, plush toys with a squeaker inside will have every pup going wild to pop the bottle. They come in multiple sizes, ranging from $15 to $25 in price. Another swanky dog toy to gift this season is a 100% cotton “pom pom tree” squeaker toy. It’s made with all-natural dyes and is also a fair trade product. For a fashionista pet, the “Wagentino Sandal” dog toy ($18) is another top choice, which is a clever take on one of today’s most popular shoe designers, Valentino.
And if your dog has a taste for macarons, Lily and Oliver’s has you covered. The Bonne et Filou dog macarons box ($24) includes six macarons which come in cheese, peanut butter, or pumpkin flavors. All macarons are handmade with natural ingredients. For December, dog owners will also want to pick up an advent calendar ($70) filled with Bonne et Filou dog treats including yogurt-covered dog bones, truffles, and macarons.
In addition to treats and trendy toys, pets can be fashionably dressed with the line’s dog clothing items. Chloe’s offers a selection of pet sweaters from a company called Little Beast. “They offer the most adorable pet sweaters,” Osborn says. “The quality is amazing but they’re also super fun.” One of the sweaters, known as the “love sweater” is pink with red hearts on it and “gives kind of that fun, whimsical feel,” Osborn says.
Since Osborn is finishing her senior year at college, her mom, Wendy, also knows the ins and outs of Lily and Oliver’s. “She’s instilled a lot in me,” says Osborn about their mother-daughter work relationship. They often collaborate on what items to consider for the shop.
Osborn says Lily and Oliver’s will continue to roll out new products and she encourages shoppers to visit often to see what’s new. Pet coats and stylish pet beds are among the many products that have been added in time for the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. For those looking to make their pet’s gift extra special, Chloe’s offers custom dog beds and monogrammed collars. If you cannot make it in person, you can shop Lily and Oliver’s online at chloesofmiddleburg.com. The brand also has its own Instagram account @lilyandolivers. ML
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.
On November 1, Eloise Repeczky took on the role of executive director of the Windy Hill Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing to low-income individuals, families, and seniors, and also those with disabilities in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties. A month in, Repeczky reflects on what brought her to Middleburg, her plans for the foundation, and her hopes for the future in an exclusive Q&A with Middleburg Life.
ML: What brought you to Middleburg?
ER: My husband, Will Nisbet, was offered a position to work in the development department at The Hill School. We moved out here in June of 2017. It was such a great opportunity and we already enjoyed visiting the region on weekends, but I kept my position in DC and was commuting in [while] I decided what to do with my career.
ML: What is your professional background?
ER: After graduating college, I initially wanted to work for a non-profit. Unfortunately, I also had student loans, and paying for student loans with a small salary was not sustainable in DC. So, I applied for an international trade and arbitration legal assistant position. I did that for two years and decided I liked working with attorneys, I liked type A [personalities], having the opportunity to learn different subject matter, and working on different projects. Then, I moved into a business development and marketing role and did that for eight years at different law firms in DC. In one of those roles, I managed a 280-attorney nationwide real estate and land use practice.
ML: What led you to apply for the Windy Hill position?
ER: During the pandemic, I was working remotely, and, like many people, I reprioritized and thought about what I wanted to do. With my husband’s encouragement, we decided it would be nice for me to take some time off and really think about my next career step. In July of 2021…I went on a three-plus month road trip across the US with our dog, Soufflé. When I came back, I really focused on what I initially wanted to do, which was work with a non-profit.
I was thrilled when Windy Hill became an opportunity because it’s in town, it’s local community members, and I get to know the residents and their needs. I felt like I could have a deeper impact here than elsewhere.
ML: Was the foundation new to you or had you been previously aware of its work?
ER: Years ago, we were introduced to Windy Hill through Beth Ann Mascatello, a former Windy Hill board member who was involved with the fashion show, gala, and many other endeavors throughout the years. We had been invited as her guests to the Windy Hill gala.
ML: Just a few weeks in, how are you settling in at your new post?
ER: It has been wonderful! As with any new job, any new industry, [I] certainly have a lot of information to understand, a lot to learn in a very short amount of time, and [I am] trying to get up to speed on projects that are already three-quarters of the way finished, or just beginning. But it has been fantastic! The Board is incredibly motivated. They have been really helpful in providing a lot of historical information.
And, I’ve also been meeting with residents to better understand their needs, and with our volunteers to get a full picture of what we are doing now and what we can do going forward.
ML: Speaking of moving forward, what plans do you have for the future of the organization?
ER: It has been a phenomenal organization with an incredible mission for over 40 years. 2023 will be the 40th year. I am at the stage of understanding what we’ve done and the incredible story.
Also, I think there are a lot of people who would be eager to get involved with Windy Hill, and who may not know how they can participate. Reaching out to the community to see what services we can provide our residents and what they need is going to be really exciting.
ML: Are there any particular programs you are looking to revamp or expand?
ER: We have a great community of children. We have been leaning on the local churches and schools for programs, so continuing to partner with them and make sure that our children are taken care of is a priority.
We’re also looking at introducing group therapy or vocational training and other educational opportunities to support our residents.
ML: Since taking the role, have you felt embraced by the community?
ER: I definitely feel that way. Again, the board has been really helpful throughout my whole [on-boarding] process and very open with communications, as have our numerous partner organizations. Also, there are a lot of community members who knew me through my husband, and who have known I wanted to be locally based. It’s been really thrilling that so many people are excited.
ML: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
ER: There are a lot of different needs that people have. So, whether it is working with Windy Hill or the organizations we partner with, it is really important to support our community. I would encourage folks to find something [they are] passionate about and then use the skills [they] have to help [a] neighbor who might need assistance. ML
This article first appeared in the December 2022 issue.
“It’s a whole world of possibilities. And you are only limited by your imagination,” shares Rebecca Brouwer of her many crafty endeavors at Shepherds Corner Farm in Purcellville, Virginia. Visitors to her studio and Christmas cabin can witness Brouwer’s seemingly limitless imagination on display in all shapes and forms from wool wraps to eco-printed silk scarves, and a little bit of everything in between.
Brouwer’s passion for fiber arts started early. “When I was young, I started sewing. I’d see something in the store and say, ‘I can make that,’” Brouwer laughs. Even more, she always wanted to get her materials straight from the source. “I always wanted to have sheep.”
But the opportunity to pursue and combine both interests wouldn’t present itself until later in life when she and her husband made the decision to settle down on an acreage near Purcellville. Originally mid-westerners, the couple would spend much of their marriage moving from suburb to suburb. With a husband in the Navy, Brouwer explains, “We had lived in San Diego, Florida, Texas, and Ohio. For the first 17 years we were married, we moved 11 times.” She adds that moving to Purcellville was “the first time we ever moved somewhere because that is where we wanted to live.”
In 1999, the Brouwers and their children moved into a 1500-square-foot cabin dating back to the 1790s while they built their forever home on the property. “It was the five of us. And the dog and a cat,” Brouwer reminisces. In 2000, construction was completed on their house, and over subsequent years Brouwer would begin to put in place the facilities required and expand on the skills necessary to make the products she now sells. “About eight years after we moved here, we built the barn for the horses…And then in 2016, I started to get the urge again to own sheep.” She found and purchased Gotland sheep prized for their lustrous, curly gray locks.
As for equipment and training, she says, “I knew I wanted sheep because years and years ago I won a spinning wheel. So, I started dabbling in spinning. Then, I started to take workshops and go to weaving classes. I now have a loom.” She continues, “Then I started with felting. I had taken wet felting classes, and needle felting with a machine. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with all the wool my sheep were producing.”
The answer? Something Brouwer calls “slow fashion,” or the art of transforming something from raw material to finished product no matter the time frame. “Being on the farm I have all these things available to me. I have my sheep and I have my wool. It can be a two-year process by the time a product is finished…People ask me, ‘How long does it take for you to make a scarf?’ And I say, ‘Well, if you start with the lamb…’” she ends with a chuckle and adds, “It’s important to me that my process is sustainable, from beginning to end. Raising sheep helps to maintain good soil, and making natural fiber products that are locally sourced helps the rural economy as well as the environment.”
A more recent endeavor of hers, eco-printing, also called botanical printing, is perhaps the epitome of her slow fashion philosophy. The art of eco-printing is achieved by arranging leaves on damp fabric made of natural fibers, like a silk scarf, rolling it tightly, and heating it so that the leaves will imprint a design onto the fabric once removed. After the recent purchase of a Gingko tree, she explains, “It is not uncommon for artists using live plant material to plan for future designs by enhancing our landscapes and gardens to achieve the desired results in our product designs. What is so beautiful about this process is that you take what nature gives you.” She even makes her own indigo dye to give silk scarves a deep blue hue.
Part of the excitement of eco-printing is not knowing how it will turn out. Depending on the leaf, prints can show up lighter, darker, or a surprising color. In a sense, each scarf is a little gamble that pays off in volumes of joy for Brouwer. She says, “It’s not just about the process of making something. It is about the process of doing something I love.”
The products of her labor of love can be found in many forms scattered all around her barn studio and Christmas cabin display room. Embroidered decorative pouches of lavender, tea towels, silk scarves with felted wool backing, hats, stockings, shawls, and even felt flowers exploding with color are just a few of the items she makes for sale or just for fun.
She sells her wares on the farm tour, artist studio tour, the local market scene, and on her website she.farm. At the recent Purcellville Artisan Studio Tour, held November 5 and 6 at her farm, she sold freshly processed botanical print scarves as quickly as they came out of the steamer. Her eco-printing demonstrations also drummed up interest in the craft. This winter, she’ll open her Christmas cabin to the public on December 3, 4, 17, and 18 from 11 a.m – 4 p.m. And, in the spring, when plant material is more abundant, she plans to offer interested parties the chance to make their own scarves at her studio.
In addition to live demonstrations, Brouwer says she is interested in doing more work on commission. “I like when I make things and I know who I am making them for,” she says. She is also planning to expand her product lines and experimenting with new techniques. “Wool has a lot of potential. I’ve thought about a product line, doing more tableware, combining more techniques. Quilting, I am doing a bit of that too.” She adds, “I’d like to come up with a line or kind of an ensemble of things. And doing it in a more deliberate way.”
As for the future of her many crafts, Brouwer says, “The sky is the limit…I have been doing this a while, but I feel like I am just getting started.” It’s safe to say with her creative spirit and slow fashion philosophy, Brouwer will continue to create, with new projects coming sooner…or later. ML
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.
A few hours before the 11 a.m. Hunt Review, the traditional start of the Christmas in Middleburg Parade, Tara Wegdam helped her employees move crockery-laden tables to expand the aisles of Crème de la Crème, the Washington Street gift and tableware shop she owns with her husband Ben. “The parade brings thousands of people to town,” Wegdam explains. “We get so many people coming in dressed in big winter coats, we don’t want them bumping into each other or anything else.” When she heard the parade had begun, she went outside to watch the Middleburg Hunt, resplendent in their crimson and black coats, trotting down Washington Street under a crisp, blue winter sky.
In front of the riders came the hounds. One broke away from the pack and turned toward Wegdam. She felt a woosh of chilly December air, and by the time she saw the brown and white tail disappear through her open front door, the other 35 hounds had also rushed through on either side of her. She reached the shop’s front door and saw the interior had literally gone to the dogs. “They went everywhere, around every table, up and down every aisle. Then they came out and were back on Washington Street before I could say a word. They didn’t break a thing,” she recalls. Then she saw a pastoral painting that had been propped up against one table. It had slid to the floor in the commotion and in the center of the picture was one big, dark pawprint. “[It] sold almost immediately because the person who bought it couldn’t believe what had just happened and thought it was hilarious — what better souvenir for the day,” Wegdam remembers.
For Wegdam, the entire experience was magical. “There are other Christmas parades in other places, but nothing like this. Ours is really, really special.” Current co-organizer Michelle Myers offers another word to describe the parade: Unlimited!
“Last year we had to limit everything because of COVID-19. This year everyone is contributing, everyone is part of it,” Myers says. This year, the parade will include — for the first time ever — a marching reunion of at least 10 members of Middleburg’s undefeated 1971 Little League team, most of whom haven’t seen each other in 50 years.
From dawn to dusk on Saturday, December 3, Route 50 and Washington Street will be closed to automobiles to make room for as many as 20,000 spectators. Parking for participants and spectators will be confined to intercept lots along the outskirts of town (see ChristmasinMiddleburg. org for more details). Most restaurants in town will be open during the parade’s midday pause to serve lunch. They will be supplemented by food trucks.
Jim Herbert, a commercial realtor who has helped organize the parade as far back as 1979, calls it “a genuine celebration of love and the Christmas message. It is also the best time of the year to show people what the Middleburg community is all about.”
He ticks off the statistics: A mile and a half long, beginning with the Middleburg Hunt (and their hounds!) and ending with Santa Claus on a horse-drawn carriage, lasting over an hour and a half (with a break in the middle for lunch) with spectators lining Washington Street “in every kind of weather,” including the blizzard of 2009.
“We all met at 6 a.m. when we heard that snow was expected. There was talk of canceling the parade, and if we had known what we were getting into, we probably would have,” Herbert says. But they didn’t.
The snow came down just as the hounds hit Washington Street, and photographers snapped what Herbert calls the “iconic” shots of the parade: the hounds leaping before 140 riders in bright red and black jackets peppered with big flakes that would soon fill the region in nearly nine inches of snow.
Penny Denegre, joint-master of the Middleburg Hunt, also has fond memories of the blizzard. “We have concerns when the weather gets very cold, but that time, and every other time the weather seems to be against us in Middleburg, it was magical.”
The Middleburg Christmas Parade is one of the hunt’s most important yearly activities, one that emphasizes the town’s unique relationship with Hunt Country and the traditions that go all the way back to Virginia’s colonial history. It is one of the only times when people who don’t hunt can watch the hounds and riders that do. And the horses know it. “We don’t have spectators normally. On the parade morning, the horses are always a little concerned when there is something out of the ordinary,” Denegre shares.
But when they round the corner at the top of the hill and the hounds take off, “it becomes this lovely outpouring of warmth.” When the parade resumes at 2 p.m., few groups are as highly anticipated as the thirty Middleburg Charros who demonstrate Mexican rope wrangling and rodeo skills that, according to Charro rider Juliana Ortiz, have been passed down through her extended family for generations. “What we do is rarely seen in the east,” says Ortiz, who, when not teaching horses how to dance, is an accountant. “The decoration, the dances, the roping, and the salutes are all part of our heritage, so it is important for us to be in the parade and show everyone how exciting and magical it can be.”
New for this year will be even more of Ortiz’s cousins standing on horseback, jumping through ropes. “It started last year with one or two [of us] having some fun. Now everybody wants to do it!” she says.
The more than 100 corgis that follow are always a huge hit with children “because they are incredibly cute!” says Holly Hudimac, who will be joined by her dogs Abby and Panda. “This is hysterical and a lot of fun and the children love the dogs because they’re small and adorable. Where else are you going to see so many corgis in one place?”
Competing in cuteness will be the 70 children, ages 4 to 8, from The Hill School, dressed as elves and gift-wrapped presents. Having decorated the front windows of the Washington Street Safeway Supermarket during the previous week, some ride on The Hill School’s float. First grader Adelaide Hottel enjoys the float “because I get to ride with my friends, and we see a lot of people.”
“When I first saw the parade ten years ago, it was pretty spectacular. Of all the nice things you can do in Middleburg, it’s just wonderful to watch the town literally celebrate itself in the warmest, funniest, kindest way. To be part of this, even if it’s just to keep track of the kids and wave at the people, it’s pure joy,” shares Kelly Johnson, the school’s enrollment director.
The pure, distinctively snorting growl of thirty motorcycles decorated with antlers and flashing holiday lights, all ridden by members of the Winchester Harley Owners Group, is music to the ears of club president and Winchester motorcycle dealer Barbara Grove. “I prefer to watch from the sidelines and let the others get the glory,” says Grove, who is hoping to snag a table at the Red Horse Tavern, where, on any other weekend, bikers hailing from every point on the compass tend to congregate. “We love that ride to Middleburg so much that around fifteen years ago, we decided to help out,” Groves explains. For the past two months, members of the biker group have brought food on their rides from Winchester and given it to Seven Loaves food pantry. This year alone, the Harley Group has donated well over 1,000 pounds of food. “Canned goods, turkeys, whatever might be appreciated,” Grove adds. “We may not live here, but Middleburg makes us feel at home.”
Weaving in and out of the parade you are likely to spy Suzanne Obetz, the executive director of the Middleburg Museum, in her “emergency Mrs. Claus” suit. In addition to presiding over the town’s tree lighting ceremony (at 5 p.m. on the Friday before the parade) and handling any and all letters to Santa children may leave at the museum, Obetz is one of more than 100 volunteers who will “basically do whatever is needed to be done.” She adds, “You’d be surprised how often a child’s happiness, or the fate of the entire parade itself, can depend on a needle and thread, scissors, or, heaven forbid, a Band-Aid.”
The parade typically ends with Santa who bears an astonishing resemblance to Lost Barrel Brewery’s tap room manager, Bobby Martz. “It gives me an opportunity to see the magic on everyone’s face,” he says. “The holiday is all about magic, bringing back those nice childhood memories when everything happened to make you warm, and happy to be with family and friends. What better place to celebrate than Middleburg!” Mr. Claus likes Middleburg so much that he promises to visit Lost Barrel on Saturday afternoons following the parade, where, in addition to being available for photos, he will serve a range of non-alcoholic drinks and snacks for kids. When asked how he intends to slip up and down Middleburg’s numerous chimneys on Christmas, he simply responds: “It’s magic!”
This story first appeared in the December 2022 issue.
Written by Laticia Headings Photos by Shannon Finney Photography
While walking the 340-acre property where the Salamander Resort & Spa now stands, actor Robert Redford suggested to his friend, owner Sheila Johnson, that she start a film festival. The conversation ignited a chain of events that ultimately led to the launch of the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival in 2013, the same year the Salamander Resort opened.
Now celebrating its tenth year, the Middleburg Film Festival is a tour de force that rivals the likes of Sundance and Telluride. It quickly gained a reputation as a must-attend contender festival on “the road to the Oscars,” and has even received a prominent write-up in the October 5, 2022, issue of Variety Magazine, the entertainment industry’s leading weekly publication. “We set out to build something special that would be embraced by film lovers and ten years in, we’re proud of where we are and of what this festival has become,” Johnson says.
Longtime film producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, founders of Bona Fide Productions, have been on the festival’s advisory board since year one. Over the past three decades, they have produced dozens of Oscar-winning and nominated films and audience favorites, including “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Election,” “Cold Mountain,” and “Nebraska.” Five of their films have been screened in Middleburg, including this year’s “Somewhere in Queens,” starring and directed by Ray Romano, who was also in attendance. Yerxa says, “I’m a big, big supporter of this festival because no other film festival has music, the kind of community, discussions and films, and this level of guests.”
Other prominent guests attending the festival this year included actor Brendan Fraser and screenwriter Samuel Hunter (“The Whale”), writer-director Rian Johnson and film editor Bob Ducsay (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”), director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King,” “Love and Basketball”), director Noah Baumbach (“White Noise,”“Marriage Story”), director J.D. Dillard (“Devotion”), and actors Micheal Ward (“Empire of Light”), Anna Diop (“Nanny”), Stephanie Hsu (“Everything, Everywhere All At Once”), and Dolly De Leon (“Triangle of Sadness’).
Yerxa adds that the international acclaim the four-day event has received makes it a desirable destination. “Studios and production companies feel like they need to have their film here, their clients, their director. They want to be here,” he says. “The festival has a lot of pre-existing conditions to support it but it’s mainly Sheila and Susan [Koch] being unrelentingly ambitious, and it’s paid off.”
Executive Director Susan Koch explains that the hard-earned success comes with year-round planning and extensive logistical execution. “It takes a tech crew of 15 working for four days to turn four venues -—Salamander Ballroom, Middleburg Community Center, Hill School’s Sheila Johnson Performing Arts Center, and the National Sporting Library — into state-of-the art movie theaters,” Koch says.
A large outdoor tent is also set up to accommodate additional events, special concerts, and Saturday night’s after party at the Salamander. The resort’s elegant library is a favorite spot to hear Q&A’s with notable filmmakers, writers, directors, actors, and composers. “I love the library for conversations,” Yerxa says. “For seeing films and meeting people, this is the best film festival out there.”
This year’s milestone celebration was preceded by a Middleburg Film Festival 10-Day Countdown. Each night, a different local business hosted a free community event from 5:30 to 7 p.m. “We’re very grateful to the Town of Middleburg for all their support,” Koch emphasizes.
The Salamander Resort & Spa kicked off the countdown followed by Mt. Defiance Cider Barn, Boxwood Estate Winery, Lost Barrel Brewing, Master of Foxhounds Association, McEnearney Associates with co-sponsors Middleburg Life & Greenhill Vineyards, the National Sporting Library & Museum, Middleburg Community Center, The Hill School, and Old Ox Brewery.
Terry Harrak and David Leifer, residents of Vienna, Virginia, attended three of the community events. “It was the best. We met all of these people and everyone was so welcoming, it was just like a big hug,” Leifer says. “We come to Middleburg all the time but have never been to the festival and didn’t really know anyone.”
The couple attended all four festival days. “When we saw everything that the town was doing to support this, the 10-Day Countdown, we said let’s really dive in,” Harrak remembers. “If it weren’t for the countdown, we wouldn’t have extended our AirBnB and I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable as I did coming into this. I already felt like we had built a community and knew people.”
Community is a big part of what makes the Middleburg Film Festival run smoothly. It relies heavily on its local volunteers and those who make the annual autumnal pilgrimage from surrounding areas just to be part of the excitement. Roanoke resident Warren Dreiling says, “Getting to share and draw on that excitement…is something I really enjoy.”
Dreiling is a first-year venue manager at the National Sporting Library and has volunteered at four previous festivals. “Being able to build people up – our volunteers, special guests, sponsors, film goers — and also help to enable all of this to happen is a big aspect of why I enjoy it,” he says.
Romey Curtis is a Middleburg resident and volunteer who was born and raised in Hampshire, England. As a former actress, Curtis appreciates having the film festival in her backyard. “I love meeting the people and feeling that I’m making a contribution by supporting an artistic event, which is my particular interest,” adds the second-year volunteer who wants to lend her time again next October.
From the beginning, Sheila Johnson focused on making music a key cornerstone of the festival. Classically trained in piano and violin, Johnson has an esteemed musical background and taught music at Sidwell Friends School for three years. “It’s also about celebrating the film composers and the other unsung heroes behind the camera whose names you might not know but whose contributions are invaluable to the great films we screen at the festival,” Johnson says.
Every year, a “Distinguished Composer Award” is given to honor the achievements of a film composer or songwriter, and the honoree is invited to give a live performance. Past recipients include Emmy and Oscar-winning artists Mark Isham, Marco Beltrami, Kris Bowers, Charles Fox, Nicholas Britell, Terence Blanchard, and songwriter Diane Warren.
For the 10th anniversary, a special concert featuring this year’s honoree, Michael Abels (“Nope, Get Out, Us”), in addition to many past recipients, captivated the crowd. During the 90-minute event, each artist gave a live performance accompanied by a 45-piece orchestra while clips of their films and television shows were shown.
“It was such an honor to be a part of that concert with so many incredible composers and artists who I’ve admired for some time. I greatly appreciated being included in that list,” says composer Kris Bowers (“Green Book,” “King Richard,” and “Bridgerton”). “Sheila Johnson is an inspiration, and it means such a great deal to have her support.”
The Middleburg Film Festival is known for its heavy-hitting Hollywood blockbusters, but it also offers a well-rounded roster of something-for-everyone films and documentaries. “I brought my nieces because I wanted them to see all of these powerful leaders and women of color in the industry who reflected what we look like,” says Terry Harrak, who is half Moroccan, and whose nieces are Moroccan and Latinx. “I wanted them to watch a film and then have the experience of diving deeper into its meaning.”
Diversity is a significant consideration when selecting films for the festival, and this year’s 45 carefully curated films were no exception. Sherrie Beckstead joined the Board of Directors in February 2022. “The festival’s mission recognizes and supports the power of film to inspire, educate, and engage audiences of diverse backgrounds and perspectives – and through this it helps build bridges of empathy and understanding,” says Beckstead, Partner of Liljenquist & Beckstead and President of The Lockkeepers Collection.
Films like “Good Night Oppy” harness the educational component of storytelling. The documentary chronicles the remarkable true story of two NASA robot rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and their mission on Mars to find evidence of water. Oppy, as she was affectionately nicknamed by NASA scientists, was only expected to stay functioning for 90 days, but remained in operation for 15 years.
“Kids are buzzing about the film. We love that an 8-year-old girl seeing a Black female engineer who’s one of the lead NASA scientists on the mission may say, ‘I can do that!’” says Director Ryan White. “This film is about the best of humanity and coming together to do something extraordinary.”
In fact, extraordinary may be the best way to describe this year’s festival of films. “Those who were here felt it! It’s been magical and it will be lasting,” Harrak emphasizes, noting that she and Leifer will mark this weekend on their calendar every year.
The future is bright for the Middleburg Film Festival and for those who want to share in its spotlight. “I am excited to begin planning for the next 10,” Beckstead says. “The human connection and camaraderie is a synergy and the best of what life offers to us.”
“There’s so many rewarding moments but I think the ones that mean the most to me are the comments from filmgoers who tell me they look forward to returning every year and that this is their favorite weekend of the year,” Susan Koch says. “It’s very special to us to experience the genuine sense of community that’s created by a shared love of film.”
Written by Kaitlin Hill Images courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures
Editor’s Note: This article includes a mention of suicide.
This October marked the 10th anniversary of the Middleburg Film Festival, bringing with it A-list celebrities, exclusive screenings, packed houses, and standing ovations. Ray Romano made his directorial debut with “Somewhere in Queens” and Brendan Fraser’s triumphant return to the spotlight was celebrated by raucous applause as credits rolled on “The Whale.” But, arguably, the most powerful moment of the festival occurred on its closing afternoon, in the intimate and understated auditorium of The Hill School, in front of a modestly sized crowd.
The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” produced by Sony Classic Pictures, tells the most curious tale of Mexican-American, Detroit-based singer and songwriter Rodriguez. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s the point. Unlike Prince, Elvis, Sting, or Madonna, the single name is not a signifier of notoriety. Instead, the documentary explores how an artist of a similar caliber of talent could live in absolute obscurity in the United States with, unbeknownst to him, Elvis-level fame in South Africa.
“Searching for Sugar Man” opens on a winding Cape Town highway with a disturbing rumor. “He set himself alight on stage and burnt to death in front of the audience,” says Stephen Segerman, a South African record shop owner, as he navigates a twisting road high above an endless expanse of steel gray water.
Over the course of 86 minutes, interviews with Segerman, guitarist Willem Möller, American music executive Clarence Avant, “Bonanza” actor and record producer, Steve Rowland, Detroit bar owner, Rick Emmerson, and others explore the rise of Rodriguez in South Africa and the shroud of mystery surrounding him as they seek to discover whether he is dead or alive.
Rodriguez’s story unfolds to the soundtrack of his on-the-nose lyrics, percussion guitar, and soulful voice. In his song, “This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues” from his first album “Cold Fact,” released in apartheid South Africa in 1971, Rodriguez lays bare the delusion of the American dream, pinpointing concerns that still dominate headlines over fifty years later.
“The mayor hides the crime rate council woman hesitates Public gets irate but forget the vote date Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting you’re not like all of the rest
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected Politicians using, people they’re abusing The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river And you tell me that this is where it’s at.”
“To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack of our lives,” Segerman explains in the film. “The message it had was ‘be anti-establishment’…We didn’t know what the word anti-establishment was until it cropped up on a Rodriguez song, and then we found out it’s okay to protest against your society, to be angry at your society.”
And music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom adds, “This album somehow had lyrics in it that almost set us free as an oppressed people.”
While some songs provided inspiration for the anti-apartheid movement, years later, others offered clues for Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom in their search for Rodriguez’s origin and outcome.
As the film demonstrates, they used the following lyrics from “Can’t Get Away,” on Rodriguez’s sophomore album, “Coming from Reality,” to find him.
“Born in the troubled city In Rock and Roll, USA In the shadow of the tallest building I vowed I would break away.”
To share too much more of the plot would be to deny potential viewers the chance to experience a masterfully captivating mystery, complete with dead ends, breakthroughs, multiple identities, moments of self-reflection, and a surprise ending. But perhaps the biggest plot twist was the Q&A following the film, where Rodriguez, yes, the Rodriguez, appeared to answer questions from the crowd.
As the audience heaped on their praise, Rodriguez proved to be witty, soft-spoken, and above all, humble.
When asked how he managed to stay so grounded considering his fame in South Africa, he answered simply and with a small laugh, “I’m from Detroit. We are accustomed to some noise.”
And responding to an inquiry from the crowd on what message he would share to inspire others, he stopped, contemplated, and said “Copyright your music.”
Though the crowd gathered at The Hill School was undoubtedly eager for more, Rodriguez, purposefully or not, didn’t deliver, continuing the legacy of mystery that has characterized his whole life. He ended simply by saying, “Goodbye, good luck, and stay well,” a sentiment similar to his song “Forget It” from “Cold Fact.”
“If there was a word, but magic’s absurd I’d make one dream come true It didn’t work out, but don’t ever doubt How I felt about you
But thanks for your time Then you can thank me for mine And after that’s said Forget it.” ML
This article first appeared in the November 2022 issues of Middleburg Life.