Monday, November 26, 2012

A Town Called Romney

In the wake of the recent national election extravaganza which, in my humble opinion, went on way too long, my fellow road warrior Michael G. Stewart and I recently set off in the pre-dawn hours on a long anticipated road trip across a scenic swath of central Maryland and the West Virginia panhandle.  I also thought it might be fun to visit Romney, West Virginia with the idea for a post election blog with little or no politics in it.  Why not visit a town that shares it’s name with one of the presidential candidates?  Romney seemed the best bet since Obama, a city located in the Fukui Prefecture of Japan, did not seem a practical choice.

Our trip first took us across the undulating Maryland Piedmont Plateau, from the northern outskirts of the Washington, DC metropolitan area, past Frederick, to Harpers Ferry, the easternmost town in West Virginia situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains.  This entire area is rich in Civil War history, and West Virginia owes its statehood to that conflict.

Cutting across the narrow eastern neck of the West Virginia panhandle we passed into Virginia and we soon found ourselves in Winchester and the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley.  Michael and I were here on a road trip about this time last year and so we did not tarry here long.  A few miles west of Winchester on US Route 50, also known as the  Northwestern Turnpike, is the tiny unincorporated town of Gore, another locale sharing a name with a prominent political figure of the recent past, situated in the Valley and Mountains region of northern Virginia.  Gore lies in Back Creek valley and serves as the western terminus of the Winchester and Western Railroad which runs via Winchester and Martinsburg, West Virginia, to Hagerstown, Maryland.  The American author Willa Cather was born here in 1873 and her birthplace, and her childhood home in nearby Willow Shade, survive to this day.  The family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1873 and Cather’s writings are associated with her later life on the Great Plains.

Departing Gore we passed over several eastern ridges of the Allegheny Mountains and soon arrived in Hampshire County, in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia.  We cross the Cacapon River at Capon Bridge, and continued through lilliputian Augusta, Pleasantdale, Shanks and a handful of other hamlets before we arrive at our destination.

Romney, with a current population hovering around 2000, is situated on the South Branch of the Potomac River and is the seat of Hampshire County. It shares the claim to being the states’s oldest town with Shepardstown, over in the eastern panhandle, having been settled by trappers in the early 1720s when it was first known as Pearsall's Flats.  Nearby are the sites of Fort Pearsall, Fort Kuykendall and Van Meter Fort, dating from the 1750s and the French and Indian War.  The town was formally chartered and incorporated on December 23, 1762 by Thomas, Lord Fairfax of Cameron who renamed the town Romney in honor of one of the five English Channel ports in Kent.  As far as I can ascertain, the town has no historical or genealogical associations to the ancestors of George and Mitt Romney.  It did, however, vote for Romney in a 2-1 margin over Obama reflecting the town’s current voter registration.

Driving and walking around Romney, which is celebrating its 250th  anniversary this year, it is difficult to understand what drew people to the area, or why they have stayed.  There does not seem to be much going on.  It is the country seat, as well as the home to the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind dating back to the late 19th century, but other than that it is just a small shire town where local folks come to do their business.  Still, I love to visit small places with big histories.

On May 23, 1861 the citizens of Virginia voted in a statewide referendum to approve the Ordinance of Secession and join the Confederate States of America. Although Hampshire County voted almost four to one to approve Virginia’s ordinance of Secession in 1861 while raising monies to support the Confederate war effort, it was among the several northwestern counties of the Old Dominion that subsequently chose to secede from Virginia and the new state of West Virginia was eventually admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863.  Nevertheless, a vast majority of the local men chose to wear the gray and butternut.

No Civil War battles of any lasting significance took place in or around Romney which is situated astride a natural invasion route to the Shenandoah Valley, to the south, and to the main stem of the Potomac River and the adjacent C&O Canal and B&O Railroad, to the north.  General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson conducted a campaign in this area in January 1862, severing Union transportation routes along the Potomac north of here.  Scourged by both the Federal and Confederate armies, the town, with a wartime population hovering around 450, changed hands 56 time between 1861 and 1865.

Romney is perhaps significant for Civil War history by the fact that one of the very first Confederate war monuments anywhere in the United States was erected in the town’s Indian Mound Cemetery on September 26, 1867.  It stands there today flanked by Old Glory and the first Confederate national flag (used until 1863 when West Virginia seceded and joined the Union).  The cemetery, named for the ancient Native American burial mound found there, is the original site of Fort Pearsall and the final resting place of many of the soldiers, mostly Confederates, who died in and around Romney during the war.  Many of them, as their markers state, are known only to God, and their graves were decorated with small Confederate flags when we visited.  Also buried here are two former governors of West Virginia, a former Secretary of the Army, several state politicians and local notables, and a former owner of the Washington Redskins.  We wandered around the cemetery taking note of some wonderfully carved tombstones.

The town’s architecture is a mixture of old and new.  The stately neoclassical courthouse in the center of town, was erected in 1922 to replace the original 1833 brick building on the site which burned the previous year.  The oldest structure along Main Street is the Davis House (now the Davis History House), a log cabin erected circa 1798.  It was truly a house divided; the Davis family sent three sons to fight for the Confederacy although one later joined the Union army.  It is now a Civil War era museum operated by the adjacent county library.  Unfortunately it was closed the day we were there.  A few doors up Main Street is the Literary Hall.  Constructed in 1870 to replaced the first Literary Hall (1825) destroyed in 1862, it was the home of the Romney Literary Society established in 1819. Prior to its destruction during the Civil War, it contained the largest library west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Society also established the Romney Classical Institute on the eastern edge of town in 1846.  Its campus was eventually sold to the state for the deaf and blind schools, and the Society disbanded in 1886.  The building is now a museum (also closed that day).  Liberty Hall (1858), on Main Street, was Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters in Romney. 

We enjoyed a nice lunch at Shirley’s Diner, just off Main Street on Marsham Street.  The small building housing the diner was originally Cresap Creamery, and later a saddle and tack shop and a taxi stand.  The sign over the door reads “Come a stranger, leave a friend”.   The food was good and the service fast and friendly.  A nice way to end our visit to Romney.

We took a different route home, making our way to the small hamlet of Paw Paw, West Virginia.  Located on a bend of the main stem of the Potomac River, it was once a thriving town along the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal and its nearby Paw Paw Tunnel, and home to a large tannery that operated here in the 1930s. George Washington use to pass through this area when he was a member of the party surveying this region for Lord Fairfax. There is not much here to speak of today, and we turned westward following the Cacapon River and crossing the Appalachian ridges to Berkeley Springs (originally Bath for the natural springs located here), another West Virginia town with a close association with George Washington and his family who were some of the first landowners in this area.

Driving north we crossed the Potomac at Hancock, Maryland and set our sights for home.   After dropping Michael off I pulled into the garage thirteen hours and over 300 miles later.  A good road trip for sure.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

4th Anniversary of "Looking Toward Portugal"

Four years ago today I launched this blogspot with the following post: I have been kicking around the idea of starting my own blog. For a long time now I have been reading those of others and so I think it is time for me to chime in. I will try to update this every week, or whenever the inspiration comes. So stay tuned.

Just a few days ago I passed the 75,000 hit threshold for the 200+ postings to date! I had no idea when I began this site it would be as successful as it has become.  Above all, it is a satisfying outlet for all the things I have chosen to write about over the past four years.  I still have a lot more to say and I am not going anywhere.  I hope you will join me in the coming weeks and months as I continue to share my random notes from the edge of America.  So stay tuned.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

49 Years Ago

This is not the first time I have written on this subject, but sitting here on this beautiful, sunny Thanksgiving morning, I am reminded of a darker time almost a half century ago.

I was sitting in my 7th grade math class in Asheville, North Carolina when the principal’s static voice came out of the classroom squawk box mounted over the blackboard. President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas.  “I’ll keep you posted” he told us as he asked us to return to our studies.  How was that possible?  A short time later the bell rang and we moved to our next class.  In my case, it was art appreciation.  As I arrived in that classroom our teacher walked in, eyes red and tears streaming down her face.  “The President is dead.”  Classes were dismissed early on that clear, late autumn Friday afternoon.  I grabbed the books I would need for the weekend and I caught the bus home.

When I arrived my mother was crying, watching the news from Dallas.  There, for the first time, I saw those now iconic images of Walter Cronkite replaying on our black and white television.  White shirt and dark tie, with papers scattered around him, trying to make sense of the conflicting reports out of Texas.  Of course I already knew the outcome, but watching those replayed images of Cronkite I thought maybe it was OK.  Maybe the president had survived.  Then came that image I will never, ever forget.  Cronkite taking his glasses on and off . . . those thick-framed glasses . . . as he told us of blood transfusions being given to the stricken president, of a Catholic priest being called to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital to administer the Last Rites.  Later he shared Dan Rather’s report from Dallas saying that President Kennedy had, in fact, died. Then came that moment when Cronkite put his glasses back on and ran a finger quickly along the edge of his nose.  A pause as he removed his glasses again, looking at a studio clock as he told us what we already knew.  From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 pm Central Standard Time. 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.  Trying hard to keep his composure Cronkite went on to tell how the ship of state would continue to function.  It was a lot for a twelve year old boy to grasp.  Thinking back on it today . . . 49 years later . . . it is still difficult to grasp.

Over the next three days the American people were flooded with lasting images as the nation, shrouded in grief, said farewell to its leader, and perhaps to its innocence.  The muffled drums, the riderless horse with the boots turned backwards in the stirrups, the crowds in the streets as the cortege passed down Pennsylvania Avenue, a young son saluting his father for the last time, the broken note as a bugler played “Taps” at the hillside grave in Arlington National Cemetery.  Those who watched will never forget them.

Now . . . finally . . . it all seems so long ago.  But will we ever really forget?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wishing Everyone a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing all of you a happy and festive Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends wherever you happen to be.  Please travel safe.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Being a Haligonian for a Day

 I launched this new poem last night at a reading at the Nora School, in Silver Spring, Maryland.  

                     walking along
                    Gottingen rain blows
                    hard & cold
                    she touching hands
                    whispering cryptic
                    words so gently
                    what is this place
                    why are we here
                    walking along
                    wet pavement
                    Gottingen in the rain
                    song says winter
                    is so cruel here
                    into a Sally Ann
                    seeking warmth
                    for heart & soul
                    nothing there for us
                    walking along
                    Gottingen rain blows
                    hard & cold

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Two New Poems . . . .

I launched these two new poems on Sunday evening at the Iota Club & Cafe, in Arlington, Virginia.

I will be be a featured reader at Iota along with Jonathan Vaile on December 9 at 6pm.

I will also be reading at the Nora School in Silver Spring, Maryland this Thursday evening at 7:30pm.

I hope to see you there.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Celebrating Our Nation's Veterans

To our fathers and mothers and friends, and to all the men and women who have served in uniform . . . our sincere and deepest gratitude for your sacrifices. Our country celebrates our soldiers and veterans. I only wish it took better care of them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

America's First Precinct

The Ballot Room in the Balsams Resort Hotel in 2010
The Ballot Box
I always enjoy writing about the North Country of New Hampshire.  I have written lovingly of the time I have spent in Maine each summer, but when it really comes down to it, it is the rolling forested hills of Northern New Hampshire, its myriad lakes and streams, that are  true God’s Country for me. I would like to thank my friend Donna Jordan, the managing editor of the Colebrook Chronicle, the voice of the North Country of New Hampshire, who provided me with a running commentary of last night’s balloting in Dixville Notch.  Thanks, too, to Chronicle reporter/photographer Angie Wheeler for the photograph appearing at the end of this posting.  Now the rest of the story . . . .

“The Epicenter of America” - this is what the Granite Staters would have us believe about the great state of New Hampshire.  This could have been the case earlier this year when several prospective Republican presidential candidates were tripping over each other on the chicken dinner circuit in the weeks and days leading up to the first Presidential primary in February (the date remains  flexible to insure that it remains the nation’s first primary).  The eyes and ears of the country - even the world - were attuned to what this gaggle of candidates was promising to the sometime taciturn inhabitants of this small and relatively sparsely populated patch of New England.  Each candidate in turn told the local folks why he or she should be the next President of the United States.  Each hoped that by winning the New Hampshire primary he or she would become the heir apparent to the Republican nomination.  The Democrats didn’t have to fight over New Hampshire this time around having already decided to anoint President Obama for a second term.  The political obituary writers were already sharpening their quills.

Every four years the first Granite Staters, indeed the first Americans, to cast their primary and general election ballots are the small handful of registered voters in the  hamlet of Dixville Notch which is situated in the rooftree of New Hampshire just a few miles below the Canadian border.  They assemble in the waning hour of the day before the primary and general, and at the stroke of midnight they cast their ballots.  New Hampshire state law provides for the closing of a poll once all registered voters have cast their ballots.  The votes are tallied, the results posted, and everyone goes home to bed having done their civic duty. 

This tradition was begun in Dixville Notch during the 1960 general election when Richard Nixon won all nine votes cast.  And it continues to this day, having correctly predicted every Republican nominee since then.  The balloting has taken place in numerous locations; at the latex rubber products company found by Neil Tillotson, as well as at the adjacent Balsams resort hotel which Tillotson bought at auction in 1954.  It is Tillotson who is credited with creating the midnight voting tradition at Dixville Notch which was incorporated for the singular purpose of allowing local citizens to vote near home rather than travel dozens of miles to the polls.  In 1948, a neighboring community, tiny Hart’s Location, began its own midnight voting tradition which continued through the 1964 election.  It resumed this voting in 1996, but it is Dixville Notch, with fewer inhabitants than its neighbor, which completes its balloting so quickly and therefore continues to lay claim to “First in the Nation.”

In more recent years the local voting has been held in the wood-paneled Ballot Room in the Balsams Resort Hotel proper, a small room adorned with photographs of previous candidates, both winners and losers, and other election memorabilia. This past February midnight primary voting took place there despite the fact that the hotel had been sold by the Tillotson family last year and later closed for major renovations. There were nine registered voters, a lot fewer than previous years -  three Republicans, two Democrats and four undeclared voters (there are no “independent" voters in New Hampshire, only “undeclared.” There is a national  Independent Party, which is not recognized as an official party in New Hampshire). When the magic hour of midnight arrived, they cast their open primary votes in less than a minute and the polls closed.  Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman each won 2 votes .  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and US Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) each received 1 vote. Even thought there was no official Democratic primary this year, the three ballots were cast for President Barack Obama. 

Last night the voters of Dixville Notch reassembled to cast their ballots in the general election.  With most of the contents of the historic Ballot Room preserved and stored away until the hotel renovations are completed and the hotel reopened to the public, including a new Ballot Room, the now ten registered voters braved snow covered roads as they gathered shortly before midnight at the Balsams Wilderness Ski Area .  Voting booths, one for each voter, were set up for the balloting.  A few items from the old Ballot Room were on display to maintain some of its former ambiance.  The name of each voter was placed into a pot and names were pulled to determine the order in which each voter cast his or her ballot.

I sat in front of my TV here in Maryland watching CNN and awaiting a live feed from Dixville Notch while monitoring regular Facebook postings by my friend Donna Jordan, the managing editor of the Colebrook Chronicle, who was reporting from America’s first precinct along with fellow members of the Fourth Estate from all over the world.  Even Chinese television, and CBC from north of the border just 20 miles to the north, were there to tell the story of ten Granite Staters exercising their franchise as Americans. Donna reported that everyone was snacking on sandwiches, brownies, fruit and cheese platters, and drinking coffee and trying to grasp a little warmth from a couple of turbo-shot heat blasters brought in for the occasion.

While President Obama and Governor Romney were giving their final campaign speeches elsewhere, each of the Dixville Notch voters were in their individual booths awaiting the countdown to midnight.  In the final minutes all of the heaters were turned off so that folks could hear what was going on.  “All the media are wicked quiet,” Donna reported as the last minutes ticked off.  She had never seen so many camera phones and laptops in Dixville Notch.  Truly the eyes of the world were focused on this makeshift ballot room.

The midnight hour struck and there was a CNN reporter broadcasting live from Dixville Notch.  Each of the 10 voters left their voting booths and placed their paper ballots in a large wooden box.  In less than a minute the polls were closed, the ballots retrieved from the box and quickly counted, and the results for President and Vice President, Senate and the House of Representatives posted.  For the first time since 1960, it came down to a tie with five votes each cast for President Obama and Governor Romney.  For the record, nearby Hart’s Location reported its results after Dixville Notch.  There Obama received 23 votes to Romney’s 9 with one vote cast for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.  Prior to last night’s balloting, the voters of Dixville Notch had a 7-6 record of picking the eventual winner of the general election. It has historically voted 11-2 Republican although in the 2008 election, the vote was 2 to 1 in favor of Barack Obama over John McCain.  The results of this year’s general election are still to be tallied.

This morning I waited for one and one half hours to cast my vote.  I waited until 11am thinking the lines might lessen from earlier in the morning.  Such was not the case.  In fact, the line of voters was even longer when we left the polls. I must admit that I have never seen this many people at the polls for any election I have ever participated in, and I have voted in every election since 1970!  Standing in line, I thought how wonderful it would be to vote in Dixville Notch.  I also thought . . . . how wonderful it is that this many people have exercised their right to vote regardless of the wait involved.

2012 General Election at Dixville Notch [Angie Wheeler/Colebrook Chronicle]

Thursday, November 1, 2012

It's Time to Stand Up and Be Counted

The last thing I want to do is turn this blogspot into my own personal political bully pulpit.  I am not endorsing any candidate for any office in the coming general election; one’s votes are a personal choice and no one need feel compelled to justify that vote.  That said, I want to encourage everyone to get out to the polls next Tuesday (or vote early, if you can, or send in your absentee ballot before the deadline) and make your vote count!  Don’t let a few make important choices for the many.  Voting is a right we should ALL exercise.  See you at the polls.