By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 22, 2009 4:00 PM
The last time I was in Lewisburg, W.Va., was about seven years ago; we stopped at the Wal-Mart off the interstate to get rain boots for the kids. Then somewhere along the way I heard that Lewisburg is one of those small American towns that have kept their early-20th-century charm while spiffing up enough to give 21st-century visitors a reason to stop over for a night or two. In other words, the town has become an attraction in itself.
Tucked in the rugged heart of the Allegheny Mountains, anomalous little Lewisburg is a town of fewer than 4,000 souls, where artists, retirees and shopkeepers live in Colonial and Federal buildings on neat, shady streets. Summer visitors browse herbal remedies and local crafts in boutiques. And instead of closing down at dusk, the town stays lively with fine restaurants and performance venues. I found all this out at the visitor center, where I also picked up a walking-tour map of about 70 historic sites and buildings dating as far back as 1770.
I drove in on Jefferson Street, the north-south corridor, which locals think has heavy traffic, but the fact is you can jaywalk with ease just about anywhere, not that such law-breaking is recommended, of course. I parked on Church Street and walked past the African American cemetery. Here lies Dick Pointer, defender of nearby Fort Donnally during a Shawnee attack in 1778. Granted freedom in 1801, he petitioned for a pension but was denied. I learned more about his story a block away at the North House Museum, an 1820 building that serves as headquarters for Greenbrier County's historical society. Linda Babcock showed me the hulking 50-pound gun with which Pointer saved the town. Since he received no pension, grateful townsfolk pitched in to buy him a house; he later drank himself to death.
North House was built as a home by a wealthy lawyer and later converted into a hotel. In another room, Babcock pointed out the balcony from which guests watched the Battle of Lewisburg on May 23, 1862. The short but bloody skirmish resulted in a Union victory over an untested Confederate force. In a clearing on a hill just to the south, a cross-shaped mass grave holds the remains of 95 unidentified Confederate soldiers. When asked if the county sided with the South during the war, Babcock hesitated, then admitted that it's a complicated question.
Remember that West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1863, and the Southern cause had never been particularly popular in the mountains. But for most of the war, Lewisburg was a Confederate outpost, the seat of a county that attracted slave-owning planters to its mineral springs. Babcock told me that not one vote was cast for Abraham Lincoln in the county; on the other hand, lots of freed slaves lived here. Elsewhere around town you find portraits of Lee and other Confederate heroes, as well as black history memorials, and you get the feeling that modern Lewisburg shrewdly straddles the historical battle line.
The Old Stone Presbyterian Church, dating from 1796, served as a hospital during the Civil War. Today you can go in and enjoy its unadorned, white-walled sanctuary, should you need even more peace than that afforded by strolling the sidewalks. The adjacent churchyard occupies prime real estate, the dead getting the best location in town. I tried to complete the walking tour, but there were too many houses, and all the friendly benches around town made diligence seem pointless.
I headed up Washington Street, the main thoroughfare, past late-19th-century commercial buildings with decorative cornices. Just beyond the restaurants and galleries of downtown, the white-columned but unprepossessing General Lewis Inn welcomes visitors with an ample front porch. It was a little early for lunch, so I sat in a rocking chair until I began to feel like a patient at a fancy sanatorium.
When lunchtime arrived I went over to a place that a guidebook described as a pre-Depression-era meat market and lunch place, where farmers and businessmen sit together at folding tables. It was gone, replaced a few years back by the Stardust Cafe, which was serving panini and pasta -- a fine-looking place, but not what I had a taste for.
There had to be some country cooking somewhere in town, though when I entered the Stonehouse General Store I had given up the search. The store purveyed wines and local pickles, honey and jelly. In the back, a half-door gave onto a kitchen; you could order whatever takeout lunch they were serving that day. Something about the place and the women who worked there -- the hairstyles and country voices -- gave me the feeling that this was the real thing. The cook told me that, in fact, she had modeled her "lunches to go" after the old Clingman's Market I had been in search of. I thanked the ladies at Stonehouse and went out with my carryout container.
The spreading lawn outside the old Carnegie Hall had a number of picnic tables, shaded by big maples. In 1902 industrialist Andrew Carnegie put up the money for the stately Greek Revival performance hall; it has hosted the likes of Isaac Stern and Wynton Marsalis. I sat at one of the tables with a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni with sweetened tomatoes (a local recipe) and a buttermilk biscuit -- definitely the real deal.
"If you stay here for a while," Babcock had told me, "you'll see what a unique, vibrant place this is." A local in a bookshop confided that she loves the town and "we don't want too many people to find out about it." Yet another said that the best thing about Lewisburg is that "you know everybody. And that's good and bad." The only thing another townswoman misses is a shopping mall (the nearest one is an hour away). But as an outsider, I have to think that Lewisburg is better off just the way it is.