Shepherdstown, a little town that grew up There's No Place Like Home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was once a quiet, sleepy little town overlooking the banks of the Potomac River. Shepherdstown, W.Va., was serenely picturesque, with its mill wheel, shady streets and monument to the true inventor of the steam boat.

It was also a college town, right out of an old Andy Hardy movie.

That was the Shepherdstown I grew up in, a place where Sunday mornings were spent at St. Agnes Catholic Church and the hour after Mass was spent at Betty's Restaurant on Main St., rejoicing in a cherry sundae.

Shepherdstown is still located along the banks of the Potomac River, and Betty's Restaurant seems nearly unchanged. As for the rest, the quiet, little town of my childhood has grown up and changed. Just 90 minutes from Baltimore by car, it is also the lively destination for day-trippers from Baltimore and Washington search of the quaint, historic getaway that provides sightseeing, fine dining and overnight accommodations.

This month, it also will be the destination of theater lovers, as four plays by American artists are presented at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd College. It the fifth season for the festival, which runs July 5-23. This year the themes are passion, myth and truth.

I don't know of another place where passion, myth and truth mix so well as in my hometown.

From the time of its inception -- which itself has been a matter of passionate debate for a few hundred years -- Shepherdstown has lent itself to all three.

Take that monument to the steamboat inventor. It is not a monument to Robert Fulton. Fulton may be given credit for the invention of the steamboat everywhere else in the world, but not in Shepherdstown.

The monument, surrounded by a park where my friends and I picnicked as elementary-school students, is to James Rumsey, who in 1787 -- 20 years before Robert Fulton's Claremont steamed up the Hudson River -- built and successfully demonstrated a working steamboat on the Potomac just below the cliff where the monument stands.

At the time, Fulton was Rumsey's assistant, and, as anyone who ever attended Shepherdstown High School knows, Fulton basically stole Rumsey's invention and beat him to the financial resources necessary to gain a patent.

Of course, there was the mystery of how that could happen and the passionate debates with non-Shepherdstown residents over

the truth of the story.

But there sits the monument, we natives say. Debate that.

There is a legend of circus elephants buried in the Episcopal Church. There is the suggestion that George Washington considered making Shepherdstown the nation's capital, but was foiled by the Potomac, which was not navigable this far inland.

It is a quirky little town. The library, built in 1800 as an open-stall market house, still stands in the middle of the street. A little two-story house, built with child-size proportions (it's all of 10 feet high and 6 feet wide) as a 1928 summer school project, still attracts the curious on Princess Street.

And of course, there is the long-running debate by historians over just when people settled Shepherdstown. There are records indicating settlers here as early as 1717, when the area was known as "Shepherd's Purchase."

The town was first officially established as Mecklenburg, Va., in tTC 1762. Eventually it was renamed Shepherd's Town in 1798, after founder Thomas Shepherd, and finally became Shepherdstown in 1867, when it was granted a charter by the then new state of West Virginia.

It is the oldest town in West Virginia.

Long-time resident Charles Van Metre recalls that on Saturday nights in the 1940s, "You couldn't walk on the streets for all the people." It was a bustling center for the local farming community. In the evenings, the streets would be alive with families who came to town to pick up supplies from the five groceries and meat markets, to have dinner at one of the three restaurants or to attend a movie at the Opera House.

In a way, it is fitting that there should be a theater festival here, given the history of the Opera House, which first began showing movies in 1910. My dad remembers that when he was a kid in the 1930s, he and his brothers and sisters used to lean out the second-floor windows of a relative's house across the street from the Opera House and watch the "moving pictures" through the small half-moon window above the theater's front door.

There, virtually in the middle of nowhere in those days, Shepherdstown residents had the benefit of one of the first theaters in the country to exhibit a continuous show, to install a ventilating system and a pipe organ and to sell reserved seats for an exhibition.

According to historians, the Opera House also was one of the first in the country to make the transition to "talkies."

It closed in 1958, but, like much of Shepherdstown, is now restored to its former grandeur and shows foreign and art films similar to those at the Senator and the Charles theaters in Baltimore.

I walk along Main Street now and can hardly believe it. Where once were a couple of grocery stores, two restaurants, a dime store, a newsstand and a barbershop, now there are antique shops, art galleries, crafts stores, a restored pharmacy, a museum and busy restaurants.

A visitor can now buy a cup of cappuccino at both ends of Main Street.

Shepherdstown seems more like Ellicott City now than the Shepherdstown I remember from the 1960s and 1970s. But it still is not as overcrowded as Ellicott City. Finding a parking place is still a relatively easy task.

And I can still get a cherry sundae at Betty's Restaurant, and listen to the locals talk about the weather.

Thomas Wolfe once insisted, "You can never go home again," but as I strolled the streets of my little hometown -- well, not so little any more; the population has grown to 1,500, and a Contemporary American Theater Festival has taken up residence I felt more kinship with the writings of John Howard Payne.

"Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam," he wrote in the 1823 opera "Clari, the Maid of Milan," "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."

Though it's not as humble as it used to be, Payne is right. There's no place like Shepherdstown.

THEATER FESTIVAL

The fifth anniversary season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd College, W.Va., will feature four new plays by four American playwrights.

Opening the festival July 5 is the world premiere of "Psyche Was Here" by Lynn Martin, a love story based on Greek and Roman mythology. "Betty the Yeti" by Jon Klein, a satire on environmental conflict, opens July 6; "Maggie's Riff" by Jon Lipsky, about beat generation poet Jack Kerouac, has its first performance July 7; and "Voir Dire" by Joe Sutton, a courtroom drama, will follow July 8.

The festival, which runs through July 23, also includes two contemporary music concerts and a modern dance show.

A complete calendar of events and more information can be obtained by calling (800) 999-CATF or (304) 876-3473.

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