Saturday, April 15, 2017

Shepherdstown: A Town of Endearment

         After dropping my daughter off for her early Saturday morning lifeguard shift, I stopped at the same four-way intersection of route 480 and German Street I stop at every day, but this time I took pause to notice my surroundings.  It’s a crisp October morning, and other than two moving cars, the town is quiet and still, and the sun is just finding its way over the mountains to the east.  The street curb is lined with brightly colored autumn leaves, and the steeple of the Episcopal church seems to be watching over the town as it slowly comes to life from its fall slumber. Soon the brick sidewalks will be filled with adults and children alike, all celebrating Halloween through a variety of BooFest activities, while on Shepherd’s campus, the American Conservation Film Festival will draw a crowd of conservation enthusiasts to watch a diverse showing of award winning films.  As someone who has traveled the world, I have found Shepherdstown to be the most endearing and unique small town I have ever visited.
Early Morning Shepherdstown

It seems almost impossible that this street, this quiet, peaceful street, is the same road that thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers traveled, most in dire need of medical attention after the bloodiest battle in American history, turning this entire sleepy town into a make-shift hospital. In A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam[1],  Mary Bedinger Mitchell wrote of the experience “Our women set bravely to work and washed away the blood or stanched it as well as they could, where the jolting of the long rough ride had disarranged the hasty binding done upon the battle-field. But what did they know of wounds beyond a cut finger, or a boil ? Yet they bandaged and bathed, with a devotion that went far to make up for their inexperience.”  Many towns may have become unwelcoming to outsiders after the trauma of seeing so many wounded soldiers languish and die on their streets and in their homes, but the people of Shepherdstown did not close their doors after their experience with the war. Instead, the town continued to move forward, supporting inventors, the arts, and education, and becoming a weekend destination for travelers from the Washington, D. C. area.
When West Virginia became our 35th state in 1863, Shepherdstown found itself home to the first two free schools in the state.  Eight years later, when the town lost its status as the county seat, Shepherd College was created and housed in the former courthouse.  Just one year later, in 1872, West Virginia designated Shepherd College as a State Normal School[2], which was the beginning of its long history as a teaching college. Shepherd College was renamed Shepherd University in 2004, and has grown from its one founding building, to over 25 buildings and several athletic fields.  The original building, called McMurran Hall, continues to be used for classes, and one of the two free schools is now home to Shepherd University’s Veteran’s Center.
Shepherdstown is known to many as a hub for local musicians, and on almost any given night you can stroll through town and find musical entertainment.  The Opera House, which showed films when it first opened in 1909, now regularly hosts a variety of concerts and other events, including a Young Artist Series, which features the musical talents of local students.  On Wednesday nights, you can find live music in the form of open mic night at the Blue Moon Cafe on Princess Street, ranging from blue grass to jazz to ska.  If you are in the mood for a nostalgic walk down memory lane, head over to O’Hurley’s General Store on a Thursday evening.  You can wander through the store, taking delight in the many old-fashioned toys, as you follow the sound of music and singing to the large room in the back of the store. If you are visiting in the cooler months, you may find an iron kettle of hot cider hanging over fire in the large fireplace.  Pour a ladle full of hot cider into a cup to warm your bones, then find a seat and enjoy the live music, which usually features dulcimers, harps, or other Celtic instruments. It would be wrong to not mention the historic Mecklenburg Inn when talking about music in Shepherdstown.  Another local favorite, often referred to as “The Meck”, offers live entertainment in both the garden area behind the building, as well as inside the tavern.  There are several other establishments in town that provide live music, including Town Run Brewery, Domestic, and Devonshire Arms Pub to name a few.
The dining experience in Shepherdstown has something to offer even the pickiest of eaters.  In less than a one mile radius, you can find Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Pizza, American, British fare, German, French, vegetarian, vegan, and bakeries, each different and delicious.  Of course, my family has its favorite restaurants, which I’ll focus on.  Maria’s Taqueria was started by a Shepherd University graduate, and offers fresh Latin cuisine.  I know there are many people who enjoy Mexican food covered in cheesy sauces, but as someone who has traveled to Mexico and several countries in Central America, I can tell you cheesy is not authentic.  My favorite menu item is the fish taco, topped with cabbage, cilantro, and jalapeño aioli sauce, and I always order pico de gallo and chips.  My husband almost always orders the pork chimichanga, and our daughter loves the beef burrito.  We have never had a bad experience at Maria’s, with either the food or the service.  Another family favorite is the Blue Moon Cafe, whose original building housed a gas station back in the 1930’s.  In the warmer months, you can sit in the patio area, which is covered by a canopy of trees, and listen to the gentle bubbling of the town run as it flows by on its way to the Potomac.  The menu offers options for vegans and carnivores alike, and the food is all locally sourced.  Just like our experience at Maria’s, we know we can get dependable service and great food here.  For those rare date nights, my husband and I love The Press Room.  We’ve learned to call ahead and make reservations, but it has always been worth the wait.  Usually starting off with oysters on the half shell or a delicious burrata cheese appetizer, then finishing our evening by sharing a lavender creme brûlée, we always leave happy.  Lastly, I cannot talk about the cuisine in Shepherdstown without mentioning The Sweet Shop bakery, whose famous (and delectable) Christmas stollen has been featured on the FoodTV network.  Ask my daughter what her favorite item to buy in this store is, and she’s sure to tell you it's a tie between their cupcakes and homemade whoopee pies. 
Without a doubt, one of the most special features about Shepherdstown is the sense of community and volunteerism. From locals coming together to raise money and much needed items for flood victims, to raising money for breast cancer research, there always seems to be good happening in this town.  In June, 2016, parts of southern West Virginia were completely devastated and destroyed by raging flood waters.  Many local organizations and churches held fund raisers and accepted donations of money, clothes, furniture, and food, which was sent down to distributions centers. I know of an individual who took it upon herself to solicit donations, volunteers, and even found a large box truck, and drove the donations down herself (she also happens to be a fantastic real estate agent).
Another example of volunteerism is the annual potato drop.  I had no idea what a potato drop was, or why people were bagging tons of potatoes in the middle of the street, until I met one of my  friends who helps out with the project.  The annual potato drop event is usually sponsored by the Shepherdstown Rotary Club in support of the Society of Saint Andrew Potato and Produce Project.  Through this one event, several goals are reached.  Tons of potatoes that would have otherwise been thrown away due to blemishes or imperfections, are salvaged by the Society of Saint Andrew and delivered to various organizations throughout the United States.  Volunteers will then bag the potatoes and deliver them to local food banks.  This project not only helps supply local food banks, but helps to show Americans just how much food is wasted each year because it isn’t “pretty”. 
Over the past few years, one of my favorite events in Shepherdstown has been the DogFest.  This free, weekend-long event, offers fun and games for families and pets, movies, demonstrations, and even has a Blessing of the Dogs by a local Reverend. The best part of this event is the attendance of multiple animal rescues, who bring awareness to the homeless animal population in our area and provide information about adopting the animals.  Shepherdstown embraces the philosophy of it takes a village.
Not only was Shepherdstown home to the first free schools in West Virginia, it was also home to the first and second newspapers to be published in the state, and it was where James Rumsey gave the first live demonstration of a steamboat. This historic town, long-settled along the bank of the Potomac river, also offers an abundance of outdoor activities, has hosted presidents, first ladies, and international peace talks, sees thousands of visitors each year, yet still manages to remain a humble, small town community. Its history, sense of community, and lively, eccentric culture have all endeared it to my heart.  Sure, you may find a few of the same qualities in other small towns, but Shepherdstown is different.  Shepherdstown has all those qualities.
Sunset in the sideview 

Works Cited
Forbes, Harold Malcolm Newspapers e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 May 2013.        Web.
Redding, Nicholas A. A History and Guide to Civil War Shepherdstown: Victory and Defeat in      West Virginia's Oldest Town: Lynchburg: Schroeder Publications, 2012. Print
Hoffman, Ellen. “Tide Runs Against Steamboat 'Inventor' : History: A group called the       Rumseian Society is trying to replace Robert Fulton's name with that of their namesake's      as thecreator of the steamboat.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. 24 January            1993. Web. 19 January 2017
“Shepherd Free School.” History Tour of Shepherd University’s East Campus. Web. 19 January   2017.
Johnson, Robert Underwood and Clarence Clough Buel. Battles And Leaders Of The Civil War.   1st ed. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1887. Print.
“Potato & Produce Project”. Society of St. Andrew Gleaning America’s Fields ~ Feeding    America’s Hungry. Web. 20 January  2017

[1] Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume II by Johnson, Robert Underwood, 1853-1937; Buel, Clarence Clough, 1850-1933
[2] A Normal School was a school that trained teachers