On August 25, 1937, Bess McClung Ott typed a brief letter to her 13-year-old niece, Louise. It was the first of more than a dozen letters and postcards that Miss Ott would send her over the next six years.
Little did she imagine that those letters would find their way back to Leesburg, more than 70 years later.
Miss Ott was a public health nurse, born and raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and based in Leesburg as of 1936. In 1941, she would become the first public health nurse in the newly created Loudoun County Health Department.
The letters from Miss Ott to her niece offer a small glimpse into life in Leesburg and Loudoun County, including public health services, more than seven decades ago. She had a post office box – number 182 – and a telephone number, Leesburg 135.
I did a little research and found Bess Ott, age 49 and single, listed in the 1940 Census. She was boarding in a house on what was then called East Market Street in Leesburg, and is now the downtown stretch of Edwards Ferry Road.
The landlady was Nellie M. Carr, a 60-year-old widow. Others listed in the residence were Mrs. Carr’s 21-year-old daughter, M. Elizabeth Carr, who was working as a bank secretary; Mrs. Carr’s sister, Annie (Nan) McIntosh; and Betty Nolan, a 22-year-old lodger who was working as a teacher.
Neighbors on Market Street included bank executive Frank Osburn, bank clerk Louis Titus, bank examiner Neville Bradfield and insurance broker Augustus DiZerega.
In November 1939, Miss Ott penned a note to her niece on a postcard depicting Belmont, a mansion described as “the residence of the Hon. Patrick J. Hurley, former Secretary of War. This mansion was built in 1800 by Ludwell Lee, son of Richard Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence.”
The manor house still stands in the Belmont Country Club development, which has since been built on the site of the old Belmont Plantation.
In May 1940, Miss Ott sent her niece a graduation gift – a check to buy a pair of slippers.
“We have practically no shopping facilities here, and I’m not sure just when I’ll be in Washington,” she explained.
She said that she had recently driven a Mrs. Adams to Baltimore to visit her sister, who had been “quite ill.” The countryside was beautiful, “more beautiful than it will be at any time this year,” she said, adding that “we’ve had more dogwood this year than for a long time.”
She had also been working on her garden.
“It gives me so much satisfaction and pleasure – we’re right much in bloom,” she wrote.
That fall, Miss Ott began addressing her letters to her niece at the State Teachers’ College in Farmville (now Longwood University), where Louise was a 16-year-old freshman.
In November 1940 she made arrangements to visit Louise at college over Thanksgiving. Miss Ott would be transporting an intellectually disabled boy to “the Colony” at Lynchburg, and then bringing a man back from a tuberculosis sanatorium near Farmville, so she would be able to stop by the college then.
She said that she had recently helped with four tuberculosis clinics and made several visits, and was now getting ready to go to the County Medical Society meeting.
“We’ve not had any good movies lately,” she observed. “They seem to come in spots.”
On January 20, 1941, she wrote that she had gone to Washington with Miss Bundy, the home demonstration agent, and Mrs. Melvin, a former caseworker, to see Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated for a third term as president. The ladies drove to the city where they saw the Ginger Rogers movie, “Kitty Foyle,” which they liked. Then they rode to the inauguration on a streetcar to see FDR take the oath of office.
“We did not stay to hear his address (as we could read it more comfortably from the papers) but came back up town on the car and got a sandwich at a convenient drug store, then went to our reserved seats at the Treasury Building to see the parade,” she wrote. “It was cold, but we managed to stay fairly comfortable. Both of us had on two pairs of stockings (Bundy put on two pairs of pants!) and we put my heavy car robe around us, and sat on newspapers."
Next week I’ll finish the story of Miss Ott’s letters and how they found their way back to Leesburg nearly 70 years later, after a journey that took them thousands of miles around the country.