Road Trip

The Sleepy Little Town That Woke Up

Shepherdstown, W.Va., is cosmopolitan, but it hasn't lost its small-town charm.
Shepherdstown, W.Va., is cosmopolitan, but it hasn't lost its small-town charm. (2002 Photo By Dale Sparks For The Washington Post)
Sunday, March 15, 2009; Page F02

Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHY: Diva designs, foodies for thought and rock-and-bluegrass.

HOW FAR: About 11 miles, from start to finish, and about 65 miles from Washington.

Sure, you could come to this Colonial-era outpost on the Maryland-West Virginia border for antiques shops, countrified knickknack boutiques and farm markets. Heading west through Maryland toward West Virginia, there's also no shortage of graveyards, battlefields and other serious monuments to the past and passed-away. This is Civil War country, after all. But if all you saw were flea markets and handmade furniture, you'd be missing the point.

In recent years, Shepherdstown has transformed from a dozy stop to a cosmopolitan and artsy destination, driven in part by its summer avant-garde theater festival. It also has grown into a foodie destination, with half a dozen restaurants along German Street serving craft beers and high-concept meals, and a live music hot spot, with at least three venues hosting regular gigs, such as the Thursday night Appalachian jams at O'Hurley's General Store.

The town, which was founded in 1734 as Mecklenburg (try saying that three times fast) and renamed Shepherdstown in 1798, claims to be the oldest community in West Virginia. Originally, its economy was driven by the brickmaking industry, but now its breadwinners are tourism and Shepherd University, a nearly 140-year-old college that attracts students looking for a small liberal arts institution.

"There are a lot of people who live here who have lived in other places where theater, film, art . . . were parts of their lives," says Jeanne Muir, who moved here six years ago from New York to run the Thomas Shepherd Inn on German Street. "They bring those interests with them. It's definitely more vivacious, more diverse -- and it's more fun."

-- Robbie Whelan

© 2009 The Washington Post Company