Shepherdstown, West Virginia (population under 2,000) matches the historic charm of a Shenandoah Valley retreat with the energy and entrepreneurship usually found in a more urban setting. In the competition for best in class among small communities, Shepherdstown punches above its size and weight.
Ignore the pre-Revolutionary founding (1762) and the advantages of geography (77 miles from the center of the Washington, D.C. metro area and 10 miles from two National Parks made famous by the Civil War). Shepherdstown has thrived because of the commitments by average citizens, the constant effort to offer events and activities that showcase local resources, the relationship with a local liberal arts college, and a capacity for entrepreneurship.
On a single weekend, a resident or visitor in Shepherdstown can listen to live Blue Grass music at the restored Opera House, spend all day outdoors in a town park celebrating Earth Day, visit renovated historic homes as part of a countywide Garden Club program, buy fresh ramps (seasonal onions) at a farmers market or stroll the shops and restaurants of German Street, the main street.
While there is one significant vacant storefront along German Street, what you notice are the wide well-maintained sidewalks and the excellent condition of the older buildings – each having significant architectural qualities. These conditions of course don’t happen by accident. They are the work of average citizens, anchor institutions, and the local government taking action in support of an entire community’s prosperity. The outcomes are the tangible result of entrepreneurship and civic pride.
The historic Reynolds House for example, is a circa 1869 property on a lot laid out by town founder Thomas Shepherd and lovingly restored to its original condition by the current occupants. Shepherd University has two properties in the heart of downtown. The Greek Revival building now known as McMurran Hall, formerly the town hall, was the school’s first building and remains in use today. A smaller building just up the street houses a center for Civil War studies.
The Entler Hotel, at the east end of the main street, thrived for most of the 19th and part of the 20th century as a commercial inn but deteriorated to a state of near collapse by the 1970’s. Saved by the municipal leaders and a special act of the West Virginia legislature, the Entler is now managed as the Historic Shepherdstown Museum. The Visitor Center for Shepherdstown is also housed in this building.
Ultimately, it is the people one encounters that makes a beautiful place truly inviting. The volunteers in the visitor center are gracious and knowledgeable. A growing crop of well-managed and reasonably priced restaurants and niche shops have owners and staff (often college students) who seem truly delighted to see you in their establishments. Even a casual brush with the locals, as visitors seek directions or point with a quizzical look at the old stone carriage steps, makes for an experience in hospitality and enjoyment.
Shepherdstown is a place people want to visit and a place to which they want to return. There will always be challenges but the people and the institutions seem well suited to meeting those challenges and keeping one step ahead of changing conditions.