Even the Gypsies Had a Car

Shepherdstown, September, 1921, "along in there"

By Jim Surkamp (copyright, 2003)


(The following is taken from researching many old copies of the "Shepherdstown Register" and many tape-recorded interviews with some of Shepherdstown's now-deceased, lifelong and esteemed residents. The directly-quoted vernacular speeches here are not real quotes, it is a writing device. But the facts given are taken entirely from eyewitnesses or local newspaper accounts. The 2003 names of owners are given for mentioned locations. Very special thanks to Margie Blostone for permitting use of her family of Shows and Britners; Gordie Clark for his photos mostly from Clark, Boyd, and Robinson families, and Julia Hartman for use of the Waddy family. Virtually all photos shown are of residents of Shepherdstown and vicinity between 1900 and 1925. - ED)


A tremendous rainstorm drenched Shepherdstown's baking, oil-soaked roads and the tin roves Sunday, September 4, 1921. The Flickinger, Hodges, Malister, Shipley, and Lucas boys splashed in the backed up water in Frog Island over in the Princess Street/Washington Street area.


Ben Hartzell's big vegetable garden near Quagmire Corner (south King Street) got washed out - wouldn't you know it - on the eve of the Morgan's Grove Fair. He'd still have some cucumber dills to enter into the garden vegetables competition.

It had been fiercely hot all summer, driving record numbers of people down to river's edge, despite the stern admonitions by the Dutch Reformed Church minister, Rev. Floyd Flickinger, who mourned Sunday's transformation from "a holy day to a holiday." Every day had its purpose: Monday was washday; Saturday, you shopped in town; Sunday was supposed to be for church, family, and rest.


Around two o'clock, Grocer David Billmyer would close his place one door down from the Farmer's Bank (Mathews & Shank/Jim Kochen antiques), and he would lead a giggling passel of the town's white children down the street, and down to the river for their swimming lessons at Flat Rock.

It was located on the river below the Rumsey Monument and you could get a pretty good dive into water that was clean and clear. Sunday mornings, the black Baptist Church gathered there to sing and baptize the faithful. Tying town homes into a centralized water treatment system in the next few years would carry sewage out through an exit point just above Flat Rock, changing the social pattern considerably. The river is now cleaner than then.


That Sunday storm also flooded out aging freight mail carrier Jim Barnhart's home cellar on New Street (The Benedicts home).


For years he drove with Ben Whiting and the horse "Old Dick," to the Norfolk and Western train station to pick up freight and deliver all over town. Exceedingly meticulous - fussy just about - his poor health and the deluge of mail ever since Sears Roebuck started its mail order catalogue - all just about had Jim beat. He painted his wagon fire engine red, but that didn't make it go any faster.


All of life occurred at the train station, where all the vast world beyond your cramped little town came rushing in with a big: "Whoosh!" - the gust a bored, little fledgling escapes on.

Nothin' will ever quite equal Mrs. Needy's funeral back in '19. Comin' down from the Reformed Church, undertaker Hoffman's son was driving. The hearse's windows were up, the engine loud. The hearse got hit right there at the crossing. The engineer's cowcatcher carried Mrs. Needy's coffin over a hundred feet down the track. Then Mrs. Needy, God rest her soul, popped out of the box and lay nice and lady-like at track side, all pretty without a single mark, still holding a rose to her stone cold chest.


At Fair time, the train would bring itinerant musicians. The Italian men from Philadelphia played and sang with their accordian for tips on the wall. The oily man's bear danced on its hind legs in the middle of German Street in front of the Entler; greeting the "drummers" (salesmen-ED) getting out of Matt Tolliver's livery buggy. The blind man who lost his sight down at the Cement Mill sold peanuts in front of the old Hodges-Lemen Store (Jim Cooper's).

The "Independent" newspaper (Old Opera House) publisher, C. S. Musser, hoped for a better fair. No entertainment was in the last year's venue. He built new exhibit buildings, expanded the parking lot for all the Model T's, and booked acts.


The gypsies came through again selling horses out at Finger Board Woods (fork in the road on Shepherd Grade Road). This time they had cars!

The Scullys soon followed Mr. Van Meter, who was the first to buy a car in Shepherdstown. But now the town's more affluent families were seen driving jauntily about, kicking up spumes of dry dust, upsetting the Entler spinster ladies who liked to sit on the curb. Prices were coming down fast, and the third such cut that year meant you could get a Model T from the National Highway Garage (Sechrist's shopping center) for just $504. (The values of homes, cars, and medical prices were roughly one-thirtieth today's prices).


People and things were hit, roads left unexpectedly. Instead of drivers' exam, folks used their wits. Seventy-three-year-old E. H. Reinhart drove his car and his horrified passengers off a hill road in Hancock, turning his Model T over and over, stopping it finally in a gully upright with alarmed cargo. Once they got the car up on the road again, they just drove home.


Relax behind Mr. C. S. "First Gear" Wysong, who went to his home, "Sudley," on the Kearneysville Road.

Farmers made fun of the car-drivers, while they bought the trucks. Old Paint still did beat out the steel-rimmed tractors. Horses only needed feed, a feed bag, and a twenty-five cent horseshoe job by one of the Spohn brothers at their blacksmith shop on the southeast corner of German Street/Shoe Alley. (Another blacksmith shop was behind the Entler Hotel).


All were talking at the Fair and on Saturday nights in town about the sharp dip in the price of corn - only 45 cents a bushel, compared to $1.50 only two years before. Some took a beatin' for thinking the wartime boom-time would stay on.


Seemed your life wasn't quite so much just yours anymore.


Unseen forces were what they talked about in the train station:


"Consolidation was what ya get when the government's ICC made the N&W overcharge. Feds said the N&W had to keep a bottom line of 6.5%. So the N&W had to cut jobs an' raise rates to get up to that. So ya jack up rates by half in seven years and what d'ya get? People drivin' instead and the train waiting room keeps gettin' emptier. I mean, even the gypsies have cars! Let's just say consolidation's best be called cuttin' your own railroadin' throat!"


The steep rise in freight rates turned junk dealer Luria, into a roomin' house man. The produce out West shipped for less to big eastern cities. It wasn't fair, but what could you do?


Widespread irrigation in the Red Delicious apple orchards in the Yakima Valley in Washington State was made possible by, of all people, a Jefferson County native


Nat Willis Washington - who moved out there and made that dam happen.


The crop was light this year because of a spring frost.

Lee Goldsborough and Sam Skinner ran the Rumsey Apple Packing House (south of Southern States on the hill) and several orchards hereabouts. So did George McKee and the Scullys.





Orchards covered the west of town where today there is a bank, Sheetz's and Domino's Pizza. When school let out in the fall, kids joined just about everyone in picking and packing the crop; called being "in the apples." The orchardists issued wicker baskets for hand-carried buckets to replace the barrels that had encouraged too much apple-bruising.


Goldens and Staymen Winesap are favorite eating apples; then it was the Yellow Imperial and Romes; the Grimes Golden was a good baking apple.


Apples became big business thirty years before when Doc Borders planted Yellow Imperials in and around Kearneysville, with an eye to easy shipping to the cities on the B&O track there. In no time his profits made him the most imitated man. Americans were becoming health-conscious and wanted fresh fruits at the dinner table. Kids begged for a big Florida orange for Christmas!


September meant back to school.




African-Americans have always relied on the strength of their institutions - their church and, once-upon-a-time, their schools - for the deepest support. The preacher and the teacher always had a big loving grip on their charges and kept pointing them the way out of Egypt.


School Board head Dr. George Banks would hire Mr. John Wesley Harris out of Storer College. Under his guiding hand, the number of black children passing the rigorous three-day exam for a diploma jumped. The black schools' exceptional teachers traditionally toughened their pupils to accept the prejudice and work twice as hard to achieve, using those hand-me down textbooks from the other schools.

Lawyer George Beltzhoozer ran a building and loan association that guaranteed home loans to the Harris family and others. An indication of how mortgage-dependant we have become is the fact that the John Wesley Harris' parents, a day laborer and washer woman with children, were able to purchase their home on the southeast corner of Mill and High Streets for a mere $1,000, no money down and had it paid off in full in five years time in the early 1920s.


Dr. Banks hired young George Knode to be the Graded School's principal (northwest corner of High and King Streets) at a hefty $85 a month. He wore an anti-smoking pin in his lapel and demanded the best Spencerian handwriting. Dr. Banks managed to absorb the new cost by hiring a bus driver to bring kids in from the Shepherd Grade School and closing that outlying school (Mr. Fraley's home and land).

Dr. Banks would also hire "Dr. Harris" who graduated from Storer College. Under his guiding hand, the number of black children who would successfully pass the rigorous three-day-exam for a diploma would increase sharply. (Black community leaders recently told the editor that titles such as "Doctor," "Professor," "Aunt," and "Uncle" were generally not well regarded. "The white man would call us anything to keep from calling us 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.' like them, because it would put us too much on an equal footing with them," they explained. -ED).


Saturday night!





Farmers and families filled German Street on Saturday night, as they hitched their wagons at the top of the Street and walked down into town to buy dry goods, or some fresh beef for Sunday dinner. Anything but pork. They'd have their grains ground too at the Thompson-Carter mill (corner Mill and High Streets).


Kids, on Saturday night, had to mind adults or get "paddled twice." But the urge to swim in troubled waters was strong enough to make some kids smoke corn-silk cigarettes, instead of being good and sell corncobs for kindling.





The worst ones would jump off a rock below the Carter Mill, leap off into space to grip a passing conveyor belt to the mill wheel, set in two piers in the run. They'd ride that belt, adanglin' and ascreamin' and take the long drop into the Town Run gully, just before being ground to bits on the wheel. Men had to shoulder to it and roll the massive forty-foot wheel gingerly up the gully to a new position next to the millhouse, safe and snug.

Kids bought homemade potato chips from Mr. Carter's small shop on Princess Street, or a nickel vanilla ice cream at Hattie and Matt Tolliver's ice cream parlor and restaurant (southeast corner German and Princess Streets).

The Tollivers were a prominent black couple who sold meals and ice cream from their large, Second Empire structure on German Street and ran a livery business in the stable immediately south on Princess Street.


The Old Opera House would have a silent film with Mr. Shipley playing the organ of many moods. Ebbie Malister once aimed from an open back window of his house, which was next to the Opera House. A movie was running; an opened door allowed him to take aim at the movie screen with a pistol loaded with a nail - and BAM!


Black kids who were older would party hard and sometimes rough in the "Red Shed," still standing small and south of Southern States.


Dr. Harris said there was very little overt racial violence in Shepherdstown. Several local white and black families historically ran the same farm together: the Washingtons and the Johnson families; the Dandridges of the Bower and the Fox family; and in Shepherdstown, three generations of the Bedinger-Mitchell family were helped at Rosebrake by three generations of the Washingtons. One family would lend the other money or a car in the event of a funeral, buy musical instruments or even pay for college tuition.

Racial discrimination manifested when a person of color stepped off a curb for an approaching white person. Blacks patronizing restaurants were expected to wait outside a rear-door to accept food only as take-out. Even rules of separation held at the Tollivers' restaurant. The "Shepherdstown Register" wrote approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan and an organizational meeting was held. Once in the 1920s, the Klan gathered in front of what is today's O'Hurley's General Store, marched up a lane with torches. The young, white ex-convict who was beating his parents there got what-for.

Danske Dandridge wrote in 1900 that Shepherdstown's eternal habit of saying hello to all strangers began when white folks picked up the black folks' habit of making the gracious hello along a country road. Still doin' it.


Blacks, upon leaving Shepherdstown to find work in Baltimore or Washington would find their home sold out from under them on the sometimes false pretext of unpaid taxes. Blacks used Sunday to master forgiveness.

But then there's that train whistle, a long mournful sound carried on a northbound wind.



Not a child, white or black, could sit still when they heard the distant whistle of a steam locomotive, loaded with Pocahontas County coal, pulling up the grade. You just ran to the station, picking up lumps of coal you'd see along the traveled track.



Eight-year-old Gordie Clark and his grandmother Ellen Robinson would be watching in the station for the local to Hagerstown. On those hot days cinders were sure to get in your eyes through the open train windows. Mrs. Robinson carried tiny flax seeds. Put one under your lower eyelid, go to sleep. The seed would gyrate around the eyeball and you'd find the cinder and seed in the corner of your eye by morning.


Folks were dressed up, waiting to meet the female students, who would board with them that fall session at Shepherd College.

The station agent took out his gold Waltham watch as the engine neared. "She's right on time," he said, closing it with his thumb and finger.


Squealing mobs of kids waved to the grinning engineer in his royal perch.

The station master stood where the baggage car should stop, pulling one of the three large hand-pulled carts forward.


Faces at all the open windows looked, searched, then smiled and waved at a found face.

The Great Horse ground still with an air blast.


His Majesty, the conductor, would step from the train, placing his footstool on the ground. The neatly-dressed engineer came down with a long-necked oil can and began squirting oil on the wheel bearings.


Another remembered: "The conductor, brakeman, knew strange wonderful tales about magic lands. I watched with an interest that brought dreams of a swifter action - Somewhere." AMS Morgan remembered how another man went along the train checking each set of wheels for "hot boxes" that needed oil.


The station master would join Rollie Show, Jim, and Ben in pulling the three station wagons up to the open baggage car, full of geese, tires, coffins, furniture, and sometimes a special bag of money for Jefferson Security Bank. Rollie let his young relative, Jim Miller, carry one with $10,000 in it up German Street.


Passengers stepped down, met, hugged, drove or walked off.

Passengers alighted, stepped on board with tickets, as their bags were tossed in the emptied baggage car.


The conductor waved to the engineer to go.


A toot of the whistle, the bell started clanging loudly, steam flew out the sides, clouds of smoke shot up into the air, the drive wheels spun, but the wheels, as would happen sometimes, wouldn't move. The engineer shook his head, and pulled a lever that shot sand on the tracks. He tried again and this time the wheels grabbed very slowly. The train started to pick up speed across the bridge to the Antietam Station.


Each night hereabouts you'd hear it. The train whistle, floating by the moon.


The Myers girl at the 'Junk remembered lying in bed and listening to the friendly

whistles blowing through the night, snuggling under her covers, feeling all was

well with the friendly trains going by.


In Sharpsburg, Wilmer Mumma felt his bed tremble on ice-bathed, very cold

winter nights with the frozen ground. At his window, he watched the 2 AM Roanoke to Harrisburg run, a single headlight beam piercing the darkness, the rows of lighted passenger coaches flying by and then a glimpse of the red tail lights on the last car.


Thoughts do drift while waiting for a train.


Many years later in the 1950s, Mr. W. W. Waddy, the station agent for some 25 years, retired.


His and Julia's happy children - Polly, Cootsie, William, LaRue, and ___

All grew up and were taken away to other worlds and lives - by the train. The big house on New Street fell endlessly quiet.




Just months after he retired, the Norfolk-Western announced the end of their age of steam. The mournful whistle and long belching black smoke plumes echoed only in memory. Just months later, they announced the end of passenger service at the Shepherdstown station. Just months again, the great light, Julia, slowly flickered out and died altogether. Cootise said: "My father put his hand on my mother and said: 'Do not be afraid Julia, for I shall be along shortly.'"


Six weeks later, the heart that kept time for the Angels - stopped. He knew those times were Over.



(From "The Big Rock Candy Mountain")


One evening as the sun went down

And the jungle fire was burning

Down the track came a hobo hiking

And he said

Boys I'm not turning,


I'm headed for a land that's far away

Beside the crystal fountains,

So come with me, we'll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountain.


In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

There's a land that's fair and bright

Where the handouts grow on bushes

And you sleep out every night

Where the boxcars are all empty

And the sun shines everyday

And the birds and the bees

And the cigarette trees

And the lemonade springs

Where the bluebird sings

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain