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Shepherdstown: delightfully off the beaten path

The weather was dreary, and my mood was grim -- until my husband mentioned that his plans for the day had fallen through.

"Let's go somewhere," I said, seizing the moment. That's how we ended up in Shepherdstown, W.Va., seeing the sights, wandering through some shops and enjoying a few tasty meals.

Why Shepherdstown? Why not?

Shepherdstown, population 1,800, is the oldest town in West Virginia. In 1787, the newly invented steamboat was tested here to much success.

In 1862 -- after the bloody Battle of Antietam in nearby Washington County, Md. -- more than 5,000 Confederate casualties found their way across the Potomac River to Shepherdstown. According to the local historical society, "Every house, building, church, alley and street was filled with the wounded and dying."

More than 100 Confederate soldiers died in the Battle of Shepherdstown, fought just outside town three days later on Sept. 20, 1862. Nearby Elmwood Cemetery holds the graves of 240 Confederate veterans.

But Shepherdstown is not lost in time. This has been home to Shepherd College since 1871, and the students keep the town moving forward. The college buildings are downtown, and folks in their 20s are everywhere. They work in the shops and congregate at the coffeehouses and restaurants.

Shepherdstown has a thriving arts community, and works of all types are showcased. Crafts range from traditional to contemporary, as does the music. The Contemporary American Theater Festival staged each summer attracts professional actors, directors, costume designers and others. This month, the Half-Week Residency program brings an acclaimed New York theater company to town for a nominal ticket fee.

All in all, Shepherdstown has a bit of something for everyone.

Getting there

Shepherdstown is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from downtown Baltimore. Pick up Interstate 70 west and follow it past Frederick to Route 340 west. Stay on Route 340, following the signs that direct you toward Charles Town, W.Va.

Don't worry when you cross the Potomac and then the Shenandoah rivers and find yourself in Virginia. You'll find yourself in West Virginia in just a moment.

As you continue toward Charles Town, watch for Route 230 on your right. Follow Route 230 for about nine miles. You might wonder if the road is really leading anywhere, but drive on, and before you know it you're crossing the railroad tracks into Shepherdstown.

Once you cross the tracks, take your first right on Princess Street. Follow that to a quick left on German Street, Shepherdstown's main drag.

This rainy Friday, we're fortunate to find a metered spot open. We park and walk to the Shepherdstown Visitors Center (102 E. German St.). We pick up a map, brochures and some helpful advice from the woman at the desk, who warns us that the police check the metered spaces frequently.

There is no official visitors' parking in Shepherdstown, but you can park on the side streets. Watch for signs warning that you need a residential permit. We leave our car on Church Street, just up the block from Trinity Episcopal Church.

Attractions

Even in the rain, we don't want to miss the scenic view from the James Rumsey Monument (Mill Street). Follow German Street east and hang a left across from Tommy's Pizza. Wind through the residential neighborhood to the small park on your right. From there, you can't miss the monument reaching high into the sky.

Standing on the marble steps you get an unbelievable panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. Directly across the river is Washington County. It's still drizzling when we get there, but the view extends for miles in spite of the weather.

The plaque at the monument's base commemorates Rumsey's successful steamboat demonstration "300 yards upriver from this site" on Dec. 3, 1787. What a majestic sight the boat must have been as it steamed down the Potomac and into history.

We also stop at Elmwood Cemetery and contemplate history of a different sort. The cemetery is just outside town on Route 480 south, and its most prominent feature is the Soldier's Graveyard immediately inside the front gates. Here lie 120 Confederate veterans mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam. (Another 120 Confederate veterans lie elsewhere in the cemetery.) The white marble headstones are gray with age, but still they stand. Small Confederate flags wave on some graves.

I read the cemetery's self-guided Civil War Tour brochure and search for notable graves. As I look, I notice one well-carved stone nearby, the signature "A H Lyeth, Balto" still visible in small letters at the base.

Standing in the rain on this windswept day, I'm struck by the suffering of those interred here, particularly that of a woman only a few years older than I when the Civil War was fought. In about a year's time, the war claimed Shepherdstown resident Laura Parran's son-in-law, second husband and only son. The cemetery is nearly empty, and traffic on Route 480 ceases. Suddenly, it's easy to imagine Parran, grief-stricken in her black widow's weeds, as she buried the men she loved.

Among others highlighted on the tour is Col. Henry Kyd Douglas. Douglas was imprisoned twice and wounded six times and still managed to survive the Civil War. The cemetery lot of Douglas, a lifelong bachelor, also holds family graves, including those of his father, brother and stepmother. The brochure notes that an unaccounted-for grave marked "Louise" is rumored to be that of a beloved African-American maid who served the Douglas family for many years.

We move on, but the Historic Shepherdstown Museum (corner of Princess and German streets) is closed. So is the town library, which has also served as a hospital (after Antietam), a fire hall and a jail.

We find the little white brick building charming -- especially when some local middle-schoolers set up before it with their saxophones and flutes. The girls stumble through a song or two, surreptitiously glancing at the instrument case open at their feet, watching hopefully for passers-by to toss in a few coins.

Eats

When we arrived in Shepherdstown around 11 a.m., the rain and our rumbling stomachs sent us scurrying into Betty's Restaurant (112 E. German St.). Don't be put off by Betty's plain-Jane exterior; the place has been a Shepherdstown landmark for 44 years. Those "Reader's Choice" certificates in the front window are there for a reason.

I tuck into a Rumsey Burger, "like a Big Mac, only bigger and better," according to the young guy who takes our order. It's twice the size of its fast-food model, with two thick beef patties. I can barely finish it. My husband, Todd, has a grilled ham and cheese and french fries. Our check comes to $11.50 with tip.

For a town so far off the beaten path, Shepherdstown is home to a surprising variety of restaurants. My family has been coming to the Bavarian Inn, located just off Route 480 north as you head to Maryland, for nearly 25 years. On one memorable visit, we brought my German great-grandmother for lunch. The authentic German fare -- sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, rindsroulade and the like -- passed muster with her.

On previous visits to Shepherdstown, I've also dined on fine gourmet fare at the Yellow Brick Bank (corner of Princess and German streets). According to the menu posted outside, appetizers on the day we were in town included grilled baby octopus with sweet peppers and capers on mizuna, served with a lemon vinaigrette ($7.50). Among the entrees was sand dabs -- small breaded flounder fillets pan-fried with lemon, parsley and butter and served with haricots verts and Klondike Rose potatoes ($18).

Shepherdstown also has the requisite college-town pizza joints, a few taverns, some cool coffee shops (all independently owned, no Starbucks here), as well as China Kitchen (101 W. German St.), known among the locals for both its Chinese dishes and its sushi.

Before leaving town, Todd and I stop for an early dinner at the Old Pharmacy Cafe and Soda Fountain (138 E. German St.). We're seated in the first dining room, which really was the town pharmacy for many years. Old pharmacy bottles, photos of Shepherdstown and other memorabilia fill the antique cases.

I order a pesto pita pizza ($5.95) topped with mushrooms, grilled onions, peppers, mozzarella cheese and the aforementioned pesto. My husband gets the German Street sandwich ($6.50), piled high with roast beef and cheddar on a fresh roll. Other choices include bourbon chops ($18.50) and Gypsy pasta ($13.95), made with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and black olives in a white wine, garlic tomato sauce.

If it had been a bit later in the evening, we might have bellied up to the big oak bar in back. Someone is already setting up sound equipment for the night's scheduled entertainment, a group called Progressive Blues Experiment.

Shopping

As we drove to Shepherdstown, I had promised Todd I wouldn't drag him into every shop. But I tried to enter as many as I could. Here are some you shouldn't miss:

  • The Herb Lady, 104 E. German St. Filled with unique greeting cards, whimsical clocks, humorous magnets and some neat toys, including the "Great Writers" (Shakespeare, Woolf, Dickens and Tolstoy) finger-puppet sets. Don't miss the 30 kinds of potpourri in the small back room.
  • The Sky's the Limit, 107 E. German St. The quirky paper "starlights" from India, sarongs and tapestries from Indonesia and big, cozy Peruvian sweaters tell you this is a store with a world view. The authentic gemstone jewelry sparkles with everything from amber and iolite to turquoise and quartz.
  • Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery, 100 W. German St. Eclairs, rumballs, cream tarts, croissants and doughnuts -- need I say more? The Sweet Shop sells stollen, that fruit- and marzipan-studded holiday treat, year-round. I buy two loaves of bread -- Bavarian pumpernickel ($3.50) and English muffin ($3.25) -- to take home.
  • Four Seasons Bookstore, 116 W. German St. I fell in love with this bookstore seven years ago when I found a used copy of one of the "Foxfire" books for a steal. (The 11-book "Foxfire" series is sort of a how-to of Appalachian living.) The selection of used books at Four Seasons is always great. I have to will myself away from an entire shelf of Horatio Alger volumes ($8 to $10 each). Walking back to the new books display, I consider buying "At Home in the Heart of Appalachia," a memoir by John O'Brien. The son of a native son, O'Brien tells of his own journey back to the mountain culture his father left behind.
  • O'Hurley's General Store, 205 E. Washington St. Here's a place Todd (the nonshopper) and I can agree on. Every inch of this old-time general store is filled with merchandise. I model straw hats as Todd rolls his eyes. Together we study a case of Swiss army knives, some antique. I look at racks of shoes, shirts and blouses made in reproduction Civil-War style. Todd rummages through bins of reproduction iron hardware. My longing for the twig furniture that fills the back room is even worse. I buy three tin cookie cutters -- a four-leaf clover, a buffalo and a dog bone (all $1 or less).
  • Happenings, 111 Princess St. This looks like your typical gift shop with glassware, tea towels, photo albums and other decorative items. I almost pass by -- until I spy the blue porcelain ornaments in the window. They are commonly called "blueberry muffins," and my mom started buying these for me when I was a kid. To many people, they're a West Virginia trademark. I carefully choose crab, cat and Santa Claus ornaments in addition to an egg painted with bunnies ($4.25-$7.75 each). I can't believe my luck when I stumble over more Dover Little Activity Books than I've ever seen. The $1 books are great stocking stuffers, and all the kids I know love them.Coming events
  • Over the Mountain Studio Tour. Driving tour of eight studios featuring works by 18 West Virginia artisans. Shepherdstown participants offer fine wood furniture, prints, paintings, photographs, ceramic tiles, woodcarvings, stained glass and jewelry. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. See www.ahajc.org. Maps available at the Shepherdstown Visitors Center.
  • The Half-Week Residency of the Aquila Theatre Company. Part of the Performing Arts Series at Shepherd College. Scheduled performances include "A Midsummer's Night Dream" Nov. 14 and "The Importance of Being Earnest" Nov. 16. Frank Arts Center Theater, Shepherd College. $5-$15. Call 304-876-5497.
  • The Shenandoah Coffeehouse Series. "From These Hills: Voices of West Virginia Tour" featuring John Lilly, Kate Long and Todd Burge. Folk/bluegrass performance. Doors open 7:30 p.m., show 8 p.m. Nov. 16. War Memorial Building, 102 W. German St. $10. Seats are first-come, first-served in a small venue. Call 304-876-1920.For more informationThe Shepherdstown Visitors Center can be reached at www.shepherdstownvisitorscenter.com, or call 304-876-2786. The Web site includes a town map you can print as well as information on shopping, dining, sightseeing and accommodations.
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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