By Carolyn Kleiner
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 19, 2002
Jim Price is the one and only historian laureate in West Virginia. But while he has been known to spin many a drawn-out yarn about Shepherdstown -- the state's oldest town, founded in 1734, and his home for the past seven decades -- at the moment he is single-mindedly focused on the present, rather than the past.
"Many historic towns survive on the premise of what they were, like Williamsburg, but Shepherdstown is what we are," says Price, 71, a retired veterinarian, longtime amateur history buff and my tireless tour guide during a recent getaway to the area, a scenic 70 miles from Washington. "This place is alive," he says."It's really jumping."
I must confess that "jumping" is not the first word that comes to mind as I survey the sleepy streets one Saturday morning. Still, while those jaded souls -- like me -- who are used to navigating Dupont Circle will likely find Shepherdstown (population 1,250) a decidedly peaceful refuge, the area has experienced a bit of a boom of late. Namely, an influx of both tourists and new residents, many of whom have retired from government work in the Foreign Service, say, or the CIA. The result is an almost urban air about the place.
"Shepherdstown is real eclectic these days," says the grandfatherly Price, still spry in khakis and dark shades, whose family roots here go back to 1740. "I never, never could have imagined all of the changes."
He notes, with particular glee, a woman with blue hair and a nose ring, and a new byway that skirts downtown traffic, and then, with disdain, mounting parking woes. "But the important things stay the same," he adds.
Indeed, in Shepherdstown, old and new seem to coexist seamlessly. Take the picturesque, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it downtown -- basically a two-block length of German Street -- which is lined with upscale shops and eateries housed in restored brick and log buildings, some more than 200 years old.
Modern art and jewelry galleries stand alongside dusty antique retailers; the funky Lost Dog Coffee Shop makes mochaccinos and exhibits local art while the Pharmacy Cafe serves up old fashioned ice cream sundaes and ammonia Cokes (for good health) from behind a 1911 soda fountain. Betty's Restaurant -- the local greasy spoon and gossip clearinghouse that offers up a massive 99-cent pancake -- sits opposite a bustling sushi bar that once housed the Sheetz rifle factory. There is also an organic grocery, an outdoors store, two bakeries and a cozy bookstore.
The heart of town is Shepherd College, an ever-sprawling public institution, founded in 1871 after the county seat moved to Charles Town and residents were left with an empty white-columned courthouse (now the admissions office). Though its 4,600 undergrads are long gone for summer, the dead-giveaway signs of a college town remain, from a tie-dye-hawking head shop to a thriving live music and bar scene.
The school is also the site of the highly regarded Contemporary American Theater Festival, which runs from July 12 to Aug. 4 this year. "It's interesting that the oldest town in West Virginia is producing the newest plays in America," says director Ed Herendeen, as he reviews pencil sketches for sets of upcoming shows, including "The Late Henry Moss" by Sam Shepard. Two-thirds of the festival-goers are from out of town.
"I've seen a few [of the plays], but usually it's just not my cup of tea," confides Price, who favors old-school expressions like "oh my soul" and "good golly" and who, not surprisingly, cites occasional language in the scripts -- like effusive use of the F-word -- as a problem for some old-timers.
Price is happier describing Shepherdstown's rich and vibrant past. Located three miles from Antietam, the town served as a makeshift hospital for more than 5,000 soldiers wounded there, and the local cemetery is dotted with Confederate battle flags marking 240 graves.
The bare-bones Historic Shepherdstown Museum covers everything from local son James Rumsey -- who rarely gets credit for demonstrating the first working model of a steamboat here in 1787, some 20 years before Robert Fulton -- to the Israel-Syria peace talks, which brought President Clinton and Mideast power brokers here for several days in January 2000. (Consequently, more than a few residents have when-I-met-the-president stories that they remain all too happy to share, or a photo with Bill still prominently on display.)
After checking out the spectacular views at the Rumsey Monument, a sky-high obelisk that overlooks the Potomac, the C&O Canal and the Blue Ridge, we bid farewell to Price. Then my boyfriend and I leisurely stroll around town, popping in and out of stores and inspecting lovely merchandise we can't afford, which really doesn't take too long.
We sit on a central stone wall watching passersby, drinking in the charming small-town-ness: People who smile and engage strangers in conversation as they walk by; a town clock that dings on the hour; and, in the distance, an occasional train whistle.
Later, we head to the revamped Opera House movie theater, circa 1909, which now runs independent and art house flicks. It also serves delectable fresh popcorn, along with gourmet bottled root beer and ginger ale. As I happily settle in for a showing of "Monsoon Wedding," which I could never seem to make time for back in the city, I can't help but enviously eye those neighbors who've brought their own chair cushions, an inspired idea given the rather hard, historic seats.
For dinner we head to the Yellow Brick Bank, which is, in fact, located in an ornate building made of reddish brick. (The owner thought of the name, then found out the bricks couldn't be painted.) "That's where the city folk always eat," Price had told us, but tonight we are surrounded by locals -- a roomful of giddy, decked-out promgoers -- which only heightens the festive atmosphere here on weekends, when there's live jazz. The mostly continental cuisine is decent, but for dessert we scarf down ice cream and a slice of warm berry pie at the Pharmacy Cafe. The strains of some local funk wafting from the Mecklenburg Inn catch us on our way out, and we stop in for a few tunes, beers and a quick game of darts.
By 11:30 p.m., the streets are dead, save for an errant note here and there and a couple of stragglers, so we head back to the Bavarian Inn, whose owners do, indeed, hail from Bavaria. True to its name, the resort is a brown-and-white, Alpine-style mirage on the banks of the Potomac, with stunning views and, of course, large murals of dancing milkmaids and boys in lederhosen.
By the end of our two days in Shepherdstown, I feel as if we've covered it all. So after a down-home breakfast at Betty's, we hit the farmers' market behind the library, where local growers sell everything from oven-fresh brioche to organic steaks.
I feel relaxed and content, but more than ready to get back to my apartment in Dupont, sure to be jumping -- really jumping -- even on a Sunday evening.
And that's just fine with Jim Price.