By Boat to Shepherdstown on the Canal

In 1915, John Pryor Cowan, a journalist with the Pittsburgh Gazette, decided to take a trip to Washington.  He would go, not by car or train, but by canal. He and his wife built their own boat from a kit.  The boat was not very elegant looking, and friends who saw it remarked “That’s some tub.” The name stuck.

The Cowans shipped the Sometub from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, and on July 15, 1915, they set off on their 184-mile journey.

Cowan said that the Sometub had the distinction of being the first boat with an outboard gasoline engine — even if it only had a top speed of 5 miles per hour — on the canal.  While the boat could go faster than a mule-drawn canal barge, the early outboard motors were not reliable, and the Cowans’ would fail them often.

It took about a week to reach C&O Lock No. 30, the Shepherdstown lock, where the Cowans had planned to visit the Antietam Battlefield.  But their motor died and with night falling and thunder in the distance, they decided to leave their boat with the lock-keeper and instead to seek shelter across the river in Shepherdstown.

In his book, Sometub’s Cruise on the C. & O. Canal, written the following year, Cowan tells of his visit to Shepherdstown:

Fleeing across the bridge over the Potomac we breathlessly climbed the hill and along a dark street [Princess St.] to the center of the town whither we had been directed to the hotel. Suddenly we rounded a corner into an electric-lighted thoroughfare and stood before the entrance of the Rumsey House [Today’s Entler Hotel and Historic Shepherdstown Museum]. Our clothes were wrinkled and we were splashed with mud from head to foot. We still carried our lighted lantern and the crowd at the hotel gazed at us with expressions twixt curiosity and amazement. The proprietor was moved to commiseration.

“Come in here, you-all, right away,” he said.

The next morning, a Sunday, the Cowans woke to the sound of church bells.

It was a restful place to spend Sunday and in the evening we joined the villagers in a stroll through the shady streets and out on the bluff overlooking the Potomac. Here on the edge of the cliffs on a natural base of limestone rock is an imposing shaft lately erected to the memory of James Rumsey, Shepherdstown pioneer and inventor of the steamboat.

Cowan was charmed by Shepherdstown:

Geographically Shepherdstown is in West Virginia, but politically, socially and traditionally it leans toward the Old Dominion. It lies in Jefferson county at the foot of the beautiful Shenandoah valley and is essentially southern. Its whole atmosphere and the sympathy of its people belong distinctly to Piedmont Virginia. It is the Alsace-Lorraine of America.

Next to Alexandria, Shepherdstown is perhaps the oldest important settlement in the Potomac valley. It is one of the few old towns in the country that has not been defaced by too much present day progress. Shepherdstown has always been a substantial prosperous place and does not affect the gewgaws of the new rich municipality. In some respects it resembles Concord, Massachusetts. Its streets have many features in common with the thoroughfares of the old-time New England towns. In many of the residences are preserved some of the most striking characteristics of chaste colonial architecture.

Two days later the Sometub’s motor was fixed and the Cowans, after bidding farewell to their “hospitable friends” in Shepherdstown, resumed their journey on the canal to Washington.

Nine years later, in 1924, the canal would close for business.


The Changing Face of Shepherdstown

Doug Perks’ excellent presentation, The Changing Face of Shepherdstown, has been made into a new exhibit at the Museum. You can also view the digital version here. We’d like to thank Doug Perks for allowing us to post it on the website. Photographs in the exhibit are from the author’s collection and the archives of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission and the Jefferson County Museum.


Coins, Clocks, and…Cavities?

The Historic Shepherdstown Museum recently acquired some silver spoons that were made by a Shepherdstown artisan some 200 years ago.

Raw metals in the early 1800s were difficult to come by and any silver that was used most likely came from silver coins, which were melted down and molded into the desired shape –spoon, fork or even a diner plate or charger. The term “coin silver” refers to silver that’s been mixed with about 10 percent copper to give it extra strength.

The museum’s new acquisitions were made by John Bernard Woltz. If you’ve visited the museum, this name may perhaps sound familiar.  The tall-case clock in the front parlor was made by the same John Bernard Woltz. Huh?  Clocks and cutlery?

According to Eric Jenkins, a docent at the museum and an expert on early Jefferson and Berkeley County silver, “Clocks had a very limited market because they were made primarily for the wealthy.  The maker therefore had to diversify to make ends meet.  Things like silver spoons, though still a high priced item, were given as wedding gifts or for other special occasions and had a slightly larger market.”

John Bernard Woltz no doubt learned his trade from his father, George Woltz, a silversmith and clock maker in Hagerstown, Maryland.  John worked in Shepherdstown between 1811 and 1820.  An advertisement in the Charles Town Farmer’s Repository newspaper in June of 1811 informs the public that he has begun his clock and watch-maker business in Shepherdstown, “where all kinds of watches committed to his care, will be faithfully and punctually repaired.”  Moreover, “He intends keeping a general assortment of GOLD and SILVER WORK, and a handsome assortment of JEWELRY of every description, which will be disposed of on very low terms.”

The museum also has on display several silver spoons made by Frederick Posey, likewise a silversmith, watch and clockmaker, who lived at the Entler Hotel for a time.

Oh, and what about the cavities?  Eric Jenkins says that there were several clock makers in Martinsburg who not only made clocks and silver but, because they worked with gold, also made gold crowns and fillings.

Stop by the museum and see the Woltz and Craft clocks, as well as the museum’s collection of silverware made by early Jefferson County craftsmen.

Shepherdstown Museum Offers New Displays at April 7 Opening

The Historic Shepherdstown Museum opens for the season on April 7 with a new temporary display of past and recent photos of Shepherdstown. In addition, visitors will be able to see a “new” Jacob Craft clock donated last fall by former Jefferson County resident Curt Mason.

Beginning on April 7, the Museum will be open on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. It is located at 129 E. German Street in Shepherdstown.

Last fall, local historian Doug Perks compiled past and current photos of Shepherdstown into a presentation called “The Changing Face of Shepherdstown.” He has now organized the photos into a display for the Museum. The display features images from as far back as the 1860’s and as recently as 2015.

As Perks notes “Streetscapes and viewscapes changed through time. Roads were moved and improved. One building replaced another. But many remain unchanged. The exhibit gives Shepherdstown residents and visitors a tantalizing glimpse of past and present.”

The Museum is also pleased to display its third early 19th century grandfather clock made by Shepherdstown resident Jacob Craft. Curt Mason donated the clock to the Museum so that it could “come home.” The clock once belonged to Rezin Davis (R.D.) Shepherd, a Shakespearean actor in the first half of the 20th century. A great-grandson of the founder of Shepherdstown, R.D grew up at Wild Goose Farm, just outside of town. He eventually moved to California where he died in 1946. Having no close relatives, he left his Craft clock to his long-time housekeeper. The housekeeper’s daughter, Elizabeth Shepherd Saxe, was Curt Mason’s mother’s close friend and left the clock to her.

According to Curt, “Elizabeth apparently had valued Mom’s appreciation of the clock and felt that it would be in good hands if it were passed on to her.” After Curt moved to Virginia, his mother passed the clock on to him so that it would be closer to home. Then Curt and his wife Suzette Kimball moved to WV and eventually learned that the clock had been made in Shepherdstown.  So when they moved away last fall, they gave it to the Museum in memory of Curt’s mother, Berthe Courtois Mason. Curt says she “would have been happy to know it came home to within a block of where Jacob Craft brought it to life.”

Public Meeting: March 27, 6:30 p.m., Shepherdstown Town Hall

Historic Shepherdstown is partnering with the the Historic Landmarks Commission to host a public event celebrating the historic places in Shepherdstown. The public is invited to lend their input to the new Shepherdstown Historic District Guidelines, recently revised by the Mills Group ( a firm specializing in planning historic preservation for communities.

Experts will be on hand to answer questions about renovating historic properties and identifying your house style, and we’ll be happy to offer advice on how to research your home’s history. Join us on Tuesday, March 27 between 6:30 – 8:00 pm at Shepherdstown Town Hall. Join the community as we celebrate what makes Shepherdstown unique!

View the Historic Landmarks Commission flyer here.

November 8 Talk Will Feature Past and Present Jefferson County Photos

On November 8 at 7 p.m., Doug Perks, Jefferson County Museum Historian and WV History Hero, will present “Changing Faces—Mr. Jefferson’s County” as the finale of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission’s 2017 Speakers Series. The talk will take place in the auditorium of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education on the Shepherd University campus. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will follow the talk.

Perks will feature historic and recent photos from his collection and the archives of both the Historic Shepherdstown Commission and the Jefferson County Museum. The focus will be on on Shepherdstown and the surrounding area. The purpose of the presentation is to illustrate how the viewscapes in and around Jefferson County have changed over time.

For relative newcomers, this talk will provide a chance to see into the past of their historic adopted county. For long-time residents, it may spark some memories or recall some storied events.

Historic Shepherdstown’s 2018 Speakers Series schedule will be announced early next year.

Historic Shepherdstown’s 2017 holiday ornaments featuring the James Rumsey Monument will be on sale at the event, as will Entler Hotel magnets. For further information, contact Historic Shepherdstown at or 304-876-0910.

Time Traveler

Occupying a prominent place in the front parlor of the Historic Shepherdstown Museum is a new piece that has several connections to the town.  It’s a Jacob Craft tall clock, donated by Curt Mason, a former member of the Museum’s Board of Directors.  Not only was the clock made in Shepherdstown, but it belonged to a once famous member of the Shepherd Family.  And the tale of the clock’s travels across the country and how it came back home again is worth telling.

Jacob Craft was born in the Marburg region of Germany and died in Shepherdstown in 1825. He and his wife, Catherine, had three daughters and six sons, none of which took up their father’s trade. The Craft Family lived in a house on German Street, just below Princess Street. It’s been estimated that there are some 30 Craft clocks in existence.  The Museum now has three. More information on Craft clocks and Jacob Craft is available on the Museum’s website here and here.

The clock once belonged to Rezin Davis Shepherd, a Shakespearean actor in the first half of the 20th Century. A great-grandson of the founder of Shepherdstown, R.D., as he was known, was born in New Orleans in 1859 and grew up at Wild Goose Farm, just outside of Shepherdstown.

From an early age, R.D. was interested in the theater. Taking the stage name of R.D. McLean, he appeared on the stage in various Shakespearean roles and in several early movies.  R.D. and his wife, the actress Odette Tyler, lived for several years at the family farm in Shepherdstown, but sold the farm in 1911, to move to Washington, DC, and eventually to Los Angeles in 1919. A lengthier biography of R. D. Shepherd is in the Digital Exhibits section.

R.D. Shepherd died in Los Angeles in 1946 and left his home and all its furnishings to his housekeeper, Viola Kidwell, who had served the family since its Shepherdstown days.  Viola’s daughter, Elizabeth Shepherd Saxe was a close friend of Curt Mason’s mother.

According to Curt, “Elizabeth apparently had valued Mom’s appreciation of the clock and felt that it would be in good hands if it were passed on to her.” For many years the clock graced the entrance hall of the Mason home, the oldest house in Pasadena, CA.

In 1989, Mrs. Mason gave the clock to her son, who was living in Virginia at the time.  She knew he clock had been made somewhere in Virginia and thought it only appropriate for it to reside closer to where it was made.

Curt eventually moved to West Virginia where the clock once again graced the entrance hall of an old farmhouse. But it wasn’t until several years later that he realized that the clock was made by an important artisan in a town just a few miles away.

Curt and his wife Suzette Kimball, who are leaving the area, donated the Craft-Shepherd clock to the Museum in memory of Curt’s mother, Berthe Courtois Mason, who would have been happy to know it came home to within a block of where Jacob Craft brought it to life.



Jefferson County Museum Survey

As part of an outreach project, the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, WV is collecting feedback from current and potential visitors on how the museum could serve them better.
If you would like to participate in the survey, please visit:
Thank you for your participation!

The Civil War Comes to Shepherdstown — September 1862

We have a new exhibit in the Museum — it’s called The Civil War Comes to Shepherdstown, September 2017. If you attended Jim Broomall’s Speakers Series talk a week or so ago, you may have seen it displayed in the lobby of the Byrd Center. You can view the digitized version here or stop by the Museum and see it in real life!

Gun Fire Ushers in 4th of July in 1856, Citizens go to “Big Spring” for Celebration

The morning of the 4th was ushered in amid the loud report of several guns, evidently to admonish our citizens that another anniversary of American independence had arrived, and the lowering clouds were portentous of squally weather.  But the coming of the bright sun dissipated the black clouds, and the blue vault of heaven became unspotted. The hope of our citizens became brighter with the sky.

At 10 o’clock a goodly number of our citizens formed in Procession, commanded by Col. Charles Harper, headed by the Shepherdstown Brass Band, and proceeded to the “Big Spring;” upon their arrival there they were dismissed for a few moments for the purpose of “procuring something to take,” after which the crowd was called to order by appointing A. R. Boteler, Esq., President.

After music by the band Mr. J.S. Pierce proceeded to read the Declaration of Independence, after which Mr. E. G. Lee was introduced who delivered an eloquent, appropriate and patriotic Oration, which was listened to with marked attention, indeed the audience seemed to be chained with the out-pouring eloquence of our young friend.

The hour of dinner having arrived, the audience was invited to a table, which groaned under the ponderous weight of refreshments, prepared for the occasion, which were done up in good style—“unostentatious and wholesome”—every individual seeming to perform his duty admirably in relieving the wide-spread table of its burden.  After the “inner man” was refreshed, an hour or two passed off in recreation, after which the assemblage was again called to order when toasts were read by Mr. J. S. Pierce.

From the Shepherdstown Register, July 12, 1856.