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.

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