It’s a 63-mile loop.
From Martinsburg in Berkeley County to Charles Town to Harpers Ferry to Shepherdstown in Jefferson County, and then back to Martinsburg.
From mad development to the casino/racetrack to history to a homecoming, and back to mad development. It was an easy trek thanks to the highways and country roads that are all lined with new housing developments, corn fields, local produce stands, churches, building construction and repurposed structures.
It is an area of the Mountain State that is actually growing, and Berkeley County and Jefferson County are two of only a few of the state’s 55 counties adding population instead of waving goodbye to young folks who depart beyond the borders to find a chance for prosperity. Martinsburg, Charles Town, and Shepherdstown are three cities that I, a Wheeling resident, hear much about in the Northern Panhandle because of people moving in as opposed to moving out. Adding population, you see, is an eagerly sought vision in our Rust Belt region, but the reality is the entire Northern Panhandle has lost nearly half the citizens that lived between Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
So as a journalist who will be contributing to MiBurg occasionally, I was searching for answers. The proximity to the Washington, D.C., area is an obvious reason why this county was counting up instead of down, and so are the property taxes assessed in West Virginia as compared to those in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. But these two facts have been in place for a very long time, so why now?
I’ve also been told there is an apparent disconnect among the members of these four communities and that folks fail to intersect with each other. “Everyone just stays to themselves,” I’ve been told. “People don’t talk.”
I stayed at the Hampton Inn close to Exit 12 along Interstate 81, and the room’s window offered an elevated glance of the length of development that’s taking place in Martinsburg. Also very visible was something that resembled an oversized “Demon Drop” amusement ride, but the tower, in fact, is the gigantic dryer for the Essroc cement plant.
What proved interesting was when I spoke with people in each locale about how cool it must be to have so much so close together, I found out that there’s not much intermixing among these four communities. They say they stay home instead of venturing to the nearby areas, and when I asked why that was the case, they were more than willing to tell me. However, when I requested on-the-record quotes for this story, each and every person replied, “You can use my first name but not my last.”
Charles Town is the home of one of four racetracks operating in the Mountain State, but it is also the county seat in Jefferson County. The municipality possessed fewer than 3,500 residents for more than a century, but between 1990 and 2000 Charles Town experienced an 81 percent growth rate, and the influx continues today.
“I go to Martinsburg when I need to shop for electronics and stuff like that,” said Steve, an attendant at the casino and a Charles Town resident. “My and wife and I go there to eat at the Logan’s up there, and we go to the mall sometimes, but that’s pretty much it.
“The only time I’m near Shepherdstown is when I go fishing near there, but that’s pretty much it. I root for the football team, but I can’t remember the last time I went to a game there,” he continued. “And Harpers Ferry? I’ve heard about it. I heard that it’s a pretty cool place, but I’ve never been there except to drive through when we go see our friends in Lovettsville.”
The population in Harpers Ferry, though, has been relatively consistent at around 300 citizens since the 1980s, but this final corner is just as historic a piece of ground as the land that holds the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. This tiny town is a confluence of states, let alone rivers, and I overheard at least four different spoken languages from the mouths of camera-toting sightseers. Parking was nightmarish, and so were the ashes from the fire damage incurred by five different businesses in July. Two of the structures dated back to before the Civil War.
“I go to Martinsburg all of the time,” said Dana, one of the town’s many Civil War re-enactors. “I think Martinsburg has the best Walmart in this area, and there are a lot of great restaurants there, too.
“There are all of the chain restaurants in Martinsburg, but we go to the local places. My husband and I go to the Chesapeake probably the most. It’s a small place, and it’s usually crowded when we go, but the crab soup and the grouper sandwich are always worth the trip.”
It was Homecoming Weekend for Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, so some of the town’s streets were closed. In the oldest settlement in the state, though, it’s easy to see the history. What I found a bit ironic was that Chinese and Mexican restaurants were operating out of buildings that are more aged than the state itself, but there was also this re-purposed, rail-side warehouse that served up West Virginia craft brews and featured old-school pinball machines.
“I’ve always had the impression the people in Martinsburg think we’re pretentious here in Shepherdstown, but I’ve never really understood that,” explained Bonnie, a bartender at the Town Run Brewing Company. “I just think the difference between here and Martinsburg is in our attitudes. We’re not as rushed around here. We’re pretty laid back, but I think they are there because of the work atmosphere.
“And we also get called a college town, and that’s partly true, but there’s a lot more than just the college,” she added. “Personally, I don’t gamble, so I never have a reason to go to Charles Town, but I love Harpers Ferry because I love the history of this area.”
And then I visited downtown Martinsburg, a district with many stores and mysterious vacant storefronts. I refer to it that way because of the number of people trekking the streets and the number of automobiles parked along Martins and Queen streets.
“Oh, I haven’t been downtown Harpers Ferry in probably 15 years,” said Beth, a young lady working as a room attendant at my Martinsburg hotel. “I think the last time I was there was when I went on a field trip when I was in the eighth grade.
“We all go to the casino in Charles Town sometimes, but Shepherdstown is a college town, and that was a lot of years ago for me,” she said. “I didn’t grow up around here, so maybe I’m missing something, but I really don’t have a reason to go outside of Martinsburg unless we’re traveling to see family.
“When we moved to Martinsburg 23 years ago, there was nothing here except for a Walmart, but now there’s one or two of everything you can think of,” Beth continued. “And there are a lot different mindsets. There are the people who live here just because they have jobs in the D.C. or Baltimore areas, and then there are the people who have lived here their whole lives.
Now, before navigating the Martinsburg-Charles Town-Harpers Ferry loop, I began my day at a country kitchen in Hedgesville. Bobbi was my server, and she wasn’t in very good mood. She told me her 22-year-old niece was in the ICU because she had overdosed the night before.
Bobbi didn’t know if her niece would survive.
“I think she fried her brain; I really do,” she said. “It’s been happening to a lot of people in this area. Not just here in Hedgesville, but all over Jefferson County and all over the country from what I hear.
“I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t know why people use it,” Bobbi continued. “All I know is that it grabbed my niece, and now she might die because of it.”
The state of West Virginia ranked at the top of the list in the country when it comes to counting overdose deaths, according reports released in July by non-profits Trust of America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Jefferson County area has been no exception.
But Gena Long, one of the founders of MiBurg, insisted that the issue does not define Martinsburg.
“Heroin! Drug rehab facilities! Overdoses! Every single day these are the words I see and hear associated with Martinsburg, and they are used as excuses for not shopping downtown,” she said. “Martinsburg does have drug users, but Martinsburg is not drug users. Martinsburg is a beautiful town with great bones, great shops, great restaurants, and great people. Martinsburg is a collection of characters with a vast array of knowledge and skills to offer.
“Our city has a perception problem which is far worse than its drug problem. I am downtown every single day, and I am not approached by anyone with nefarious intent on a regular basis,” Long continued. “On occasion I have been asked for a couple dollars, but far more often I am offered a smile and a ‘hello.’ Did you know Martinsburg houses DeFluri’s, a chocolatier, making chocolate right onsite? Did you know that Habanero offers food far superior to a certain burrito-making chain restaurant? Did you know that at Mel’s place, Yes M.A.M, you can get a pedicure, browse handcrafted jewelry, and purchase handmade candles in the same shop? How about Everything Cheesecake, a bakery unmatched in quality and flavor, as far as I can tell?”
And Long hopes MiBurg will be popular not only in Martinsburg but to the entire area.
“There are a lot of great experiences just waiting for people in downtown Martinsburg. We have it all; we just need for people to stop believing the perception and experience the reality,” she said. “I am hoping MiBurg is that missing element to bring it all together. MiBurg is a place to share positive experiences about Martinsburg and Berkeley County or even challenges if solutions are offered. MiBurg is a platform where a community can be lovingly cultivated by those who really know the county intimately and want to share the area’s secrets with the world.”
That’s one of MiBurg’s primary goals.
“Community members are quick to point out the negative about Martinsburg and the surrounding areas. There is no focus on the progress that is occurring. I want to see people happy and proud to stay in Martinsburg; to identify the positive and share the happiness of the work they do in this town,” said MiBurg organizer Nicholas Trietsch. “I would like to see more people participate in the local activities so we can all see that Martinsburg is not a rundown commuter town.
“I experience people in town say, ‘There is nothing to do in Martinsburg,’ and I want to prove them wrong,” he continued. “Martinsburg has a lot to offer in history, creativity, and heart. I think we can change how people interact with the town and each other.”
And that is why strengthening the Berkeley-and-Jefferson county community is the main mission.
“When you hear Martinsburg referred to as the, ‘Dirty Burg,’ it’s clear that the town has a terrible reputation. We tend focus on the problems that plague us, but we rarely offer suggestions for positive growth or change,” said MiBurg publisher Apryl King. “I hope that the website inspires people to feel responsible for and take part in their community. In spite of its poor reputation, our town does have much to offer its citizens and visitors.
“I want the website to be a place for people to discover all of the hidden treasures within Martinsburg and the Eastern Panhandle. At the same time, the community does need to work towards repairing the broken pieces. I hope that the website will be a positive platform for new ideas for community development and improvement,” King said. “It’s easy to complain, so I have challenged myself to find solutions instead, and this is why I’m passionate about the website. Its very existence is a call to action to the community. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I suggest that Martinsburg try something different.
“We selected Cultivate Community as our tagline because we believe that change cannot take place without strong community involvement,” she added. “Every town has its own challenges, and Martinsburg is no different. I consider the website to be the foundation that will connect people and ideas, hopefully building a stronger community over time.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)