West Virginia: Following the Footsteps of George Washington—in an Aston Martin


Recently, on another forum, I was asked what is my favorite State for touring. After reflecting a bit, I responded, “It’s tough to pick a favorite state, but it would have to be West Virginia. Awesome scenery (in several ways), tons of history, and terrific roads.” And the question prompted me to take my next Aston Martin tour there. I followed the Washington Heritage Trail, which is one of West Virginia’s Scenic Byways.

Service with a Smile (and a Missing Mill)

Having recently performed the 11-year service on my 2007 V8 Vantage coupe, it was all set to go. Getting through the 3 pages of fine-print service items in the workshop manual took me 2 days, but everything was in order, and the Vantage seemed pleased to have new Castrol 10w-60 in its circulatory system. I covered the 72 miles from my home in Catonsville, Maryland to the small college city of Shepherdstown, West Virginia in no time. (Hey, we don’t drive Aston Martins to enjoy leisurely acceleration!)

I’d motorcycled and driven through Shepherdstown on a number of previous occasions but never managed to locate the elusive Shepherd’s Mill. This time, I was finally successful. Both the town and the mill are named for Thomas Shepherd, who began milling grain here sometime prior to 1739. His mill continued in operation until 1939, and the building is still standing. It is believed to be the first gristmill in what is now West Virginia.

Most early American mills were powered by wooden water wheels, with diameters of around 16 feet, and Shepherd’s Mill was originally typical in this regard. Sometime in the late 1800s, a new, 40-foot-diameter metal water wheel replaced the original, increasing the efficiency of the water power to 90 percent and enabling the use of “gradual reduction” milling, which produced much sought-after “patent flour.” The new water wheel was first located 150 feet downstream of the mill, with its power transferred by a cable. It was relocated next to the mill in 1905 and is still present—although getting a look at it was a challenge. This water wheel weighs 10 tons and is one of the largest in the United States. (Early photo courtesy of the SIP School article Green Before Its Time. Throughout this article, non-cited historical photos are courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Register of Historic Places, or Wikipedia.)

After hiking around, looking for elusive gristmills, it’s always welcome to see that your car is right where you left it. Especially when you left the car unlocked, as a result of recalcitrant door lock modules! (Later in the trip, I figured out that the doors would actually lock about 1 minute after I pushed the remote button. Another quaint Aston Martin foible!)

Town Run wends its way directly through Shepherdstown, continues on to power Shepherds Mill, and soon thereafter empties into the Potomac River. With all the rain in the Mid-Atlantic area, there was no shortage of water everywhere I went.

Shepherdstown is very scenic (even without an Aston Martin). I parked here, thinking that this was the Sheetz House, but it wasn’t…

This is the red brick Sheetz House, where 3 generations of the Sheetz family manufactured high-quality American long rifles—lock, stock, and barrel, as the saying goes. Their guns were widely used in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In the distance is Murrin Hall, which previously served as the Jefferson County Courthouse. When the county seat moved to Charles Town in 1871, the vacant courthouse became the first building for the new Shepherd College (later Shepherd State Teachers College and now Shepherd University).

The Power of Water

Thomas Shepherd had purchased the land for his new town from Richard Morgan (ca. 1700-1763). Morgan, in turn, had received a large land grant from King George I via Lord Fairfax. He built an “old stone house” outside of Shepherdstown in an area that was literally bubbling with springs. One of them, “Morgan’s Spring,” is covered by a limestone building constructed in 1734. From here, in 1775, Daniel Morgan led a Virginia militia unit to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the famous “Bee Line March,” covering 600 miles in 24 days. They were the first southern militia to respond to George Washington’s call for riflemen to support the nascent American Revolution.

In 1831, Dr. Henry Boteler built a brick home here, calling it Fountain Rock. His song Alexander became a colonel in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. In 1864, Union General David Hunter ordered Boteler’s home and two others to be burned, in retaliation for the Confederates having burned the home of Maryland’s governor. The moving story of Fountain Rock’s destruction is shown in a video by Jim Surkamp. (In an all-too-common example of vengeance begetting more vengeance, this act contributed to Confederate troops’ decision to burn Chambersburg, Pennsylvania 3 weeks later.) Today, a picnic pavilion stands on the foundations of Fountain Rock. (Photo of Fountain Rock ruins courtesy of Civil War Scholars.)

The grounds at Morgan’s Spring had been inundated with rain during the prior week and were too wet to walk on without sinking in several inches. But I didn’t know the half of it. Nearby, here’s the faithful Vantage V8 parked at the end of the Van Metre Stone Bridge, which was built in 1832 across Opequon Creek. Travellers from Alexandria, Virginia crossed this bridge on the way to the warm springs in Bath, Virginia (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia).

This is the view from downstream of the bridge, with the muddy Opequon easily running 4 to 5 feet above its normal level.

And this is the view from the upstream side of the bridge. A local road engineer told me that the massive pile of debris had all washed against the bridge in just the prior week of flooding.

Continuing on, I stopped briefly at the Green Hill Cemetery, where numerous Van Metres and others are buried. It was designed (laid out?) in 1854 by artist and journalist David Hunter Strother (a cousin of Gen. David Hunter), who wrote under the pen name “Porte Crayon.”

Driving around the central mausoleum, looking at the names on the graves, I discovered that the road was (i) a tight fit for the Aston and (ii) became very uneven and muddy on the far side. I finished the circumnavigation without incident, fortunately, since clobbering a gravestone would have been impolite in the extreme.

In Search of Belle Boyd

In Martinsburg, I stopped by for a look at Boydville Manor, built in 1812 by General Elisha Boyd. This manor was also on Gen. Hunter’s list to burn, but Elisha’s daughter, Mary Boyd Faulkner, managed to get a message to President Abraham Lincoln. The President responded, “The property of Charles James Faulkner is exempt from the order of General David Hunter for the burning of residences of three prominent citizens of the Shenandoah Valley in retaliation for the burning of Governor Bradford’s house in Maryland by the Confederate forces.” The response arrived in time, and the mansion was spared. I have it on good authority that the manor is well and truly haunted, by no fewer than four different ghosts. Some of these apparitions are seen as frequently as once a month! For brides and grooms free of phasmophobia, Boydville Manor is a very popular wedding venue.

Boydville Manor is only one of quite a few beautiful mansions along Queen Street. It would be easy to spend an hour or two here admiring them all.

I’d visited the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad shops in Martinsburg on a previous occasion (see West Virginia and the Legend of Wizard Clip, but I stopped by again for a quick look. The B&O was the first railroad in the United States, and the first shops here were built in the late 1840s. This view shows the machine shop on the left, with the west roundhouse in the middle, and a portion of the “frog and switch shop” on the right. These buildings, along with the east roundhouse, were all destroyed by Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate forces in 1861. They were rebuilt in 1866-1872 and used until 1988.

Sadly, the rebuilt east roundhouse was burned by vandals in 1990. Each of the roundhouses could hold 16 locomotives, and they are the oldest enclosed roundhouses in the country.

On the theory that “third’s the charm,” I once again attempted to visit the Belle Boyd House and Museum. Twice before I had found it closed, but this time it was open.

A number of women served as Union or Confederate spies during the Civil War, with Maria Isabella Boyd being arguably the most flamboyant and notorious. As an 11-year-old in 1856, she was annoyed that her parents wouldn’t let her attend a dinner with distinguished guests because she was too young. In the middle of the dinner, she rode her 22-year-old horse into the dining room, proclaiming that he was old enough to be there. The guests thought it was hilarious, but her parents did not: Belle was promptly sent to a women’s college in Baltimore to learn proper deportment.

It’s possible that the lessons did not “stick.” When drunken Union soldiers entered the Boyds’ house in 1861 and verbally abused Mrs. Boyd, 17-year-old Belle grabbed her Colt pistol and shot one of them dead. A court judged her actions justifiable, but she remained under house arrest for the next year. Belle used the time to flirt with the guards and wangle valuable information out of them. She would escape at night and ride to deliver her intelligence to Confederate Generals Jackson, Stuart, or Beauregard.

My favorite Belle Boyd story involves the time she ran on foot across enemy lines—in the middle of a firefight—to deliver information to Stonewall Jackson’s aide Henry Kyd Douglas. That adventure is recounted in Virginia’s Fort Valley and Fortified Houses, by BMW (Part I), but I was delighted to discover this original John Paul Strain painting of the episode, titled “La Belle Rebelle,” hanging in Belle’s room at the museum. In practice, Belle probably looked a bit disheveled after running 200 yards with bullets kicking up dirt all around her and several of them passing through her dress! (Belle photo courtesy of The True Story of Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy. Henry photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Belle was known to be a Confederate spy, and she was imprisoned at least twice, exiled, deported, and captured upon reentering the U.S.—but she always managed to return home before long. All of the female spies’ stories are fascinating, none more so than Belle’s.

A House Reborn (but Still Haunted)

While I was in Martinsburg, I went looking for one more historic property (on Boyd Avenue, as it happens). Aspen Hall was not visible from the street, unfortunately, but its original 20 by 20-foot stone section was built in 1745 as a fortified house, designed to ward off Indian attacks. A separate stone blockhouse was added in about 1755, with the two buildings enclosed within a wooden stockade. The property was called Mendenhall’s Fort and was visited several times by George Washington, who had the fort garrisoned during the French and Indian War. The original section of Aspen Hall and the blockhouse are the two oldest buildings in Martinsburg. The blockhouse is partially visible on the left in this photo.

Leaving town, I was reminded of the Aston Martin’s versatility. Although designed as a high-performance, exotic, and luxurious sports automobile, it was also content to toddle about town while I searched out places to visit. It fired up immediately after each stop—even though it still has its original, 11-year-old battery!—and it seemed equally happy at 2000 or 7000 rpm. No, it didn’t much care for the bumps on the neglected West Virginia roads, but it absorbed them gracefully and never bottomed out or scraped anything on uneven sections. And its beautiful lines prompted compliment after compliment throughout the trip. Overall, a “practical delight.”

No sooner were we on the way to Berkeley Springs than I noticed Patterson’s Mill and remembered passing by some years back. It was built in 1765 and produced flour at least into the early 1900s. Power was provided by Tuscarora Creek, which, in fact, provided all the power for the Martinsburg area until electricity was installed in 1890.

Under all the foliage is the miller’s house, “Elm Dale.” Underneath its frame siding, it’s made of logs. It appears that the house has been vacant for a number of years. As shown in the historical photo, there’s a one-story section on the left that is wider than the two-story portion, but both are now practically invisible.

The Harlan Spring area is about as tranquil as any place gets, with rolling hills, ponds, trees, stone spring houses, and several farm mansions. George Harlan was a Quaker who settled here in the 1740s. His home, Spring Hill, has remained in the Harlan family ever since.

In the distance is The Willows, home to the John Sybert (or Seibert) family. The eastern side (on the right) was built of stone in 1812, while the other, brick side was added in about 1850. It, too, has remained in the Sybert family. Compared to the historical photo, note that the porches on the brick side have been enclosed somewhere along the way.

I finally escaped the gravitational pull of Martinsburg and drove to the outskirts of Hedgesville. Here, in 1838, Dr. Allen Hammond built this 22-room mansion. During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate Armies repeatedly used Dr. Hammond’s house as a headquarters and/or hospital. The list of commanders who stopped here reads like a Who’s Who of the war: Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart (twice), Andrew McReynolds, R.G. Prendergast, Jubal Early (twice), and, most notoriously, CSA Gen. John McCausland (whose forces camped here en route to Pennsylvania, where they burned Chambersburg).

After serving as a surgeon in the Confederate Army (and losing his son Kirk at the Battle of Yellow Tavern), Dr. Hammond was financially ruined, and he sold his home and mill in 1866. The house suffered a disastrous fire in 1978, which left only the brick walls standing. The property sat vacant and overgrown for many years. Although it was considered unsalvageable, the Hammond House was successfully rebuilt in recent years.

Naturally the house is said to be haunted, although accounts vary as to whether it’s Dr. Hammond’s wife and daughters, a Confederate soldier, or a homeless man who died in the ruins during winter. Unlike the experience of a number of others, I did not find bloody handprints of the Confederate ghost on my car. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have been noticeable on a Toro Red Aston Martin?

So Who Did Invent the Steamboat, Anyway?

Hedgesville was another popular overnight stop as George Washington and many others journeyed to the warm springs in Bath. Almost all of the houses here are made of logs, including these two. And almost all of the log homes subsequently gained wood siding over the logs.

This is the Hedgesville Presbyterian Church, built in 1893 with a plain exterior and an interior described as “a Carpenter Gothic delight.”

The Presbyterians were latecomers in Hedgesville, considering that the Episcopal congregation had been meeting as early as 1745. George Washington worshipped with them whenever he passed through. The current Mount Zion Episcopal Church was built in 1818.

The Summit House is another example of log construction with wood siding. It was last renovated in 1870.

Many of the front porches featured knick-knack collections. But the day was drawing on, and it was time to delve deeper into West Virginia.

The Snodgrass Tavern is one of the oldest buildings still standing in the State. It’s privately owned and surrounded by tall trees, so it’s not easy to get a look at it—this is the best I could do. The first section was built in 1742, with several additions over the years. George Washington stayed here on a number of occasions, when surveying as a young man, when traveling to the warm springs in Bath, and as late as 1784, after the American Revolution had been won and before he was elected President.

Did I mention that the tavern’s business began to decline when James Snodgrass decided not to serve alcohol anymore? That apparently wasn’t enough for the local Presbyterians: they criticized him for allowing dancing on the premises. For whatever reasons, the tavern closed in 1847 and became a private residence, remaining as such to the present day.

As I continued to follow the old Warm Springs Road to Bath, I stopped by little Spruce Pine Hollow Park. I was expecting it to be empty, but there were actually about 15 families there, enjoying picnics, hiking, swimming in the Meadow Branch of Sleepy Creek, and so forth. I had to drive the long-suffering Aston Martin well into the park until I could find a place to stop. And yes, I got the attention of every little boy and girl in the whole place as I maneuvered by the minivans and SUVs.

I went for a short hike in the park, looking for the remains of an old millrace, but I didn’t find them. I did find the Meadow Branch, which had a torrent of water from all the rain.

The old millrace is believed to have powered Edward Rumsey’s sawmill back in the mid-1700s. In 1784, Rumsey received a large order for lumber and a contract to build a house in Bath. Partway into sawing the wood, however, catastrophe struck the mill. Rumsey wrote his client, as follows:

The sawmill took fire in the night and was not discovered until the next day by which time the mill was entirely consumed with a great part of the plank and this stroke put it entirely out of my power to proceed with your large house and notwithstanding utmost exertions at other mills to get the stuff necessary.

Rumsey’s client was George Washington, who had to look elsewhere to get his house built. While we’re on the subject of Edward Ramsey, his brother, James Ramsey, lived in Shepherdstown and is often credited with having invented the steamboat. Many others say the true inventor was Robert Fulton. But my money—and that of most historians—is on John Fitch, who had a working steamboat by 1788 that could carry 30 passengers at a time. As it happens, I’m biased: John Fitch was the great-great-…-great grandfather of my late friend John Cooper Fitch, who was one of America’s greatest racing drivers in the 1950s—and the direct cause of my own interest in sports cars and racing. (John C. Fitch was also an inventor, with his most successful result being the ubiquitous yellow, sand-filled drums that protect drivers from roadside dangers. Pictures are of George Washington, James Rumsey, John Fitch, and John C. Fitch.)

George Washington’s Favorite View

When touring, I seldom seem able to go very far before spotting another must-have photo opportunity. I managed all of 3½ miles after the park before spotting this array of abandoned farm buildings, looking for all the world like something out of Wuthering Heights.

I sometimes wonder if the Aston Martin might be a little vain. It almost seems to know how good it will look in settings like this…

Only one of the buildings had Interesting Stuff inside, comprising a number of old books, mason jars, furniture, some stuffed animal toys, and a misshapen ball of twine.

Otherwise, the buildings were mostly empty. It’s tough to operate a small farm these days; nearly impossible, really, given competition from Midwest and Western mega-farms.

I finally reached Berkeley Springs (formerly the town of Bath) and motored on through, having visited here on a number of prior occasions. (If you choose to visit here, be sure to find George Washington’s outdoor stone bathtub, where he partook of the warm sulphur springs.) As I climbed the mountain west of town, I noticed two unusual things. First, you don’t often see the top of a castle’s guard tower while you’re motoring through West Virginia. And second, it’s really rare to see a guardrail in this State, no matter how steep the drop off!

I detoured slightly to see if I could find the long lost Coolfont mansion. I’d been there a really long time ago (with my parents) and merely a long time ago (with my wife, early in our marriage). Coolfont was built by noted American author John Herbert Quick in 1913, on property that had been regularly visited by George Washington. The future President was particularly fond of the view from the top of Great Cacapon Mountain. More recently, Al and Tipper Gore got lost in the woods while hiking here, 4 days after Mr. Gore was elected Vice President of the U.S. in 1992. (The Secret Service eventually found them.) And speaking of environmentalists, Mr. Quick was an early one, having written On Board the Good Ship Earth here at Coolfont in 1913.

Ultimately, I did manag to find Coolfont again. It has been vacant for some time and has been auctioned at least twice in recent years. Growth in the surrounding vegetation nearly obscures the house from any vantage point. I hope the new owners will be able to renovate the historic property.

As for the view that George Washington so admired, getting to the spot would require a serious 4×4 and as much as an hour climbing up steep forest roads. (George managed with just a horse. And he didn’t even need the Secret Service…) Fortunately, a slightly less spectacular version of the same view is available right on the main road from Berkeley Springs to Paw Paw. That’s the Potomac River and, in the distance, the town of Great Cacapon, where the Cacapon River empties into the Potomac.

A Hidden Bridge (and How Fast Can You Drive in Reverse?

Imagine now that you want to see what the rains have done to the Cacapon River, so you drive down to the low water bridge near an old hydroelectric generating plant—only to see the signs “Low Water Bridge” and “Do Not Cross When Flooded.”

Approaching carefully on foot, I saw that the Cacapon was well out of its banks, with only the slightest hint that there is a bridge underneath the torrential flow of water! (Note the skid marks in the foreground, where someone—not me—came perilously close to sliding into the flooded river.)

After viewing the river, I realized that the road was too narrow to turn around. Those of you with Vantage V8’s know that the car’s reverse gear ratio is almost as “tall” as its second-gear ratio, which makes backing up steep hills dicey. I needed to climb about a quarter mile back to the larger road, but as long as I kept going 10 to 15 mph, I could keep the clutch fully engaged and not have to slip it. Not that hard, as it turned out.

Back home, a quick calculation based on the Aston’s gear ratios suggests that one should be able to do about 62 mph in reverse, should the need arise! Keep in mind that the camber settings that allow the front tires to self-center when going forward have exactly the opposite effect when traveling in reverse…

In West Virginia, “Rural” Takes On a Whole New Meaning

There are at least several “Pack Horse Roads” in the Mid-Atlantic area of the U.S., and every one that I’ve run across is remarkably primitive. The one near Bloomery, WV is visible at the far left of this photo, but I was more interested in the beat-up old house. I’m pretty sure that it is still a current residence. West Virginia is one of the poorest States in the country, and rundown houses are depressingly common. This one was in relatively good shape compared to many others.

This old store or warehouse isn’t faring as well. When I got out of the car, I was careful to close the door gently, lest the whole structure fall right over. A little sign on the front of the store said it all.

Nearby, the 1825 Bloomery Presbyterian Church is nicely framed by its stone entrance arch. (A “bloomery,” incidentally, is a small furnace for smelting iron from its various oxides and other contaminants.) The view from the other side of the church is equally scenic.

Bloomeries were very inefficient and were quickly made obsolete by blast furnaces, including the Bloomery Iron Furnace. It operated from 1835 to 1875, and then again briefly in 1880 to 1881. Iron from the furnace was floated down the Cacapon River on rafts, and then via the Potomac.

Entire villages would build up around iron furnaces, with housing, stores, and schools generally provided by the owners of the furnace. This building was the company store for the Bloomery Iron Furnance operation. The associated school collapsed under the weight of a heavy snowfall a few years ago.

In pursuit of any other one-room schoolhouses in the area, I traveled through the near-ghost town of North River Mills. I’d been here once before several years ago, and I well remembered getting a tour of this beautiful old United Methodist Church from a local resident (see The Battle of Kabletown and Other Lurid West Virginia Stories).

The Hiett House is the oldest surviving building in North River Mills, having been built in 1770. The original section of the house, on the left in the photo, ended at the off-center interior chimney. The rest was added at a later date, and the “double house” is believed to have been a tavern. It’s constructed of logs, with hand-sawn, lapped siding.

I somehow went right by the North River Mills School, which closed in 1933, but I stopped further along Cold Stream Road at the Sandy Ridge Church, because I knew the Sandy Ridge School was nearby. Despite looking around carefully, however, I could find no sign of it. It was an odd sensation—sort of like the village of Spectre in the movie Big Fish, where everything is out of kilter. The road through North River Mills was narrow, only 15 feet or so, dilapidated buildings would heave into view, briefly, and others would be so covered with foliage that you had to strain to realize there was a mammoth barn right in front of you. Schools weren’t where they were supposed to be, there was no sign of any of the town’s three large mills, and all in all it was just sort of scenically creepy.

At least the Aston Martin was a reliable reminder of reality. The old buildings might come and go, hide in shadows, or otherwise act strangely, but the Vantage kept thundering along, cylinders pulsating with modern technological power and efficiency. Even the much-maligned navigation system recognized Cold Stream Road, Pack Horse Road, and all the other minor roads in rural West Virginia.

Double houses were a rarity in the 1700s, but I happened across another one—complete with an American flag with 13 stars for the original 13 States of the Union.

After failing to find any of the colonial schoolhouses, and running hopelessly late, I stopped in Capon Bridge only long enough to locate the old Capon Bridge Motor Company. It’s now largely surrounded by attached frame structures, but it’s the same place that used to keep the cars running in this part of West Virginia. Today, the building houses a small-engine repair business.

From Capon Bridge, I wound my way briefly into Virginia and then northward back into West Virginia, reconnecting with the Washington Heritage Trail. This part of the route was constantly twisting, turning, climbing, and diving, following roads with names like Fish Hatchery, Ungers Store, Winchester Grade, Shanghai, Hampshire Grade, Tuscarora Pike, and Buck Hill. The Aston happily leapt from corner to corner like an over-eager puppy dog (one with 385 horsepower, wide tires, and gigantic brakes).

“Honest—I Thought this House Was Abandoned!”

Near Gerrardstown, I was looking for Prospect Hill, the 1792 home of William Wilson and his family. The house is noted for its outstanding Georgian architecture and a series of extraordinary murals in the entrance hall that climb from the first floor all the way to the third—a very unusual feature in American homes. I discovered that Prospect Hill could also be noted for its privacy; it is situated well back from the road and surrounded by tall trees. I did manage a distant look at its tall chimneys on the lower wing.

I also admired Prospect Hill’s rolling yard, which was a landscaper’s dream.

Gerrardstown itself is one of those quiet, unassuming places that could easily pass for a colonial village (absent the parked cars and paving). My staunch Baptist friends Cathy and Kim will be interested to learn that, sometime prior to 1743, a handful of pioneering families organized the Mill Creek Baptist Church here—making it the first Baptist Church west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The church no longer stands, but it was located somewhere in this clearing. (I believe the remaining graves from the church’s cemetery are within the small fenced-in area.)

One of the first ministers at the church was John Gerrard (ca. 1720-1787), for whom the town is named. He and his wife Mehitable owned this 1743 stone cottage for a time, although they lived elsewhere. Their son David lived here starting in 1779 and laid out the formal plan for what became Gerrardstown.

While searching for the Baptist church site on foot, I’d stashed the patient Vantage V8 beyond a tall, red brick building.

When I returned, and looked at the other side of the building, I discovered the former Southern Methodist Episcopal Church from 1883. There had been a perfectly good Northern Methodist Church in Gerrardstown, but the Southern one was built so that Confederate sympathizers could worship here in peace following the Civil War. (Such sympathizers were a distinct minority in West Virginia, which had seceded from Virginia early in the war.) The Southern Methodist church was abandoned in the 1940s and sat vacant for about 60 years before architect Kevin Sarring bought the building and renovated it to serve as an architect’s studio and community center. It is now called the Apple Chapel, in recognition of the many orchards in this area.

While retrieving the Aston, I noticed this unusual, crypt-like opening in the ground behind the old church. A very steep set of steps led down to the chamber, but there was no sign of graves inside. Back home, I learned that this was a gas-generation bunker from the 1890s, designed to produce carbide gas for lighting the church. I’d heard of carbide lights for early automobiles and for miners’ helmets, but I never knew the same process was used to light buildings.

The Gerrardstown Presbyterian Church was easy to find, and it is largely unchanged from its construction in 1893, when it replaced an earlier building from 1793.

Although I’d failed to find any one-room schoolhouses earlier in the day, I managed to spot the one-room Stonewall Academy on the church grounds. It originally served as a religious meetinghouse in about 1760 and was used as a school starting in 1793 when the first church was built.

The Samuel Ellis House in Gerrardstown has been vacant for many years and is gradually disintegrating—perhaps in part because there is an active spring in its basement. The house was built in the late 1700s with the unusual combination of a log main section (now covered with asphalt shingles) and a limestone “flounder” (shed-like) addition at the rear.

The 1876 George Daniels house was another I was looking for. I saw signs advertising it for sale and, thinking it was vacant and in a deteriorated condition, I happily drove along a dirt road looking for it. Well, the dirt road turned out to be the driveway to the house, the house itself was decidedly not in poor condition, there was no place to turn around until I reached the back of the house, and there was a sizable outdoor party going on in the backyard! (Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience…) The owners and guests all stared in amazement as an Aston Martin pulled in, awkwardly turned around in the narrow space, and discreetly departed with the driver giving a small wave and a sheepish smile. (Historical photo of Daniels House courtesy of the Berkeley County Historical Society.)

Having visited all the places in Gerrardstown I was looking for—and having crashed a party in the process—I decided it was a good time to leave Gerrardstown and finish the last of my Washington Heritage tour. Halfway to Charles Town, I passed by the Bunker Hill Gristmill—and recognized it from a previous trip some years ago. It is the last of the 13 mills that were powered by the aptly named Mill Creek and operated from 1735 to 1964. This mill is particularly notable for its use of tandem overshot water wheels—the only such mill in West Virginia. The Bunker Hill mill retains all of its original milling machinery.

As luck would have it, a one-room schoolhouse, built for the mill workers’ children, was standing right across the road.

After a final picture of the mighty Aston Martin, it was time to motor on back to Maryland. It was a terrific day of following in the footsteps of George Washington and learning more about the early years of United States History.

My total roundtrip distance was about 335 miles. The Aston performed superbly, and it was a joy to drive on these twisting West Virginia roads. But I did notice that it’s time to replace the hydraulic door stays. A small price to pay for such grand touring!

Rick F.



Written by Rick


  1. David Lynch

    Incredible tale! Fascinating! The Aston served you well. Your photos are incredible. I love your local and historical knowledge.

    I’m glad you have a new site. I’m happy that you’ve organized it so well. It’s time for me to check and see if I’ve missed any of your travel tales.

  2. Ann Michaels

    Another fascinating adventure . I’m always amazed, as the history major, at the amount of historical research that you do to make these trips so interesting!

    To say that I am slightly envious of the Aston would be a profound understatement!!!

    Hi to Nancy. I sure look forward to the next trip.


  3. Rick Foster


    Thanks much, I always appreciate your kind comments! Some day we’re going to have to get together and actually meet each other in person!


  4. Rick Foster

    Hi Ann,

    In college, you were the history major and I was the mathematics major. Now, I’m fascinated by history.

    That begs the question: Are you now fascinated by mathematics??

    Thanks for your comments. Anytime you’re in the vicinity of Maryland, you’re welcome to take the Aston for a drive!


  5. David Lynch

    Thanks Rick. I’m spoiled. I feel I know you some already! All I’ve done is talk a little and share my Father’s book.

    It will be an honour to meet you sometime.

    (I wandered through the farm at work twice this week I’ve shown you the old one room school. There’s an old empty barn. I got inside with my iPhone. It was exciting! I have several pictures.)

    Ann the depth of Rick’s research and knowledge amazes me! I read a lot when I was a young lad living in the US (Maryland, Virginia–almost 4 years) I left wishing I knew more, so it’s a delight reading Rick’s travel tails.

  6. Rebecca French Day

    Rick your photos were beautiful! I felt like I was standing there with you…I am West Virginia, born and bred, and feel our state is the most lovely…”Country roads, take me home to the place I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Mama , take me home…..” And your Aston Martin was not shabby, either……

    1. Rick

      Hi Rebecca, and thanks much–I’m glad you enjoyed the report. West Virginia is such a beautiful and interesting state. I lived in Morgantown for 4 years (from ages 1 1/2 to 5 1/2) while my father was an instructor at WVU.

  7. Mike

    I’ve lived in Buffalo for 30 years, but grew up in Martinsburg in the neighborhood across from Patterson’s Mill. Some friends and I were able to gain access to both the mill and the small house next to it – I remember the house having very low ceilings.

    1. Rick


      It’s a beautiful old mill, and I’d love to see it inside someday. The house is so overgrown with vines and bushes that it practically disappears from sight for much of the year. If I remember correctly, the house was used by the mill operator, while the much grander house nearby was for the mill owner and his family.


  8. David Lynch

    Wow! Many highlights for me in this travelling tale.

    Bloomery….I’d never heard that before. I’m thinking of Limestone on one of the drives we take. There’s a path, with old ovens….perhaps bloomeries.

    Knicknacks outside someone’s door. Beautiful. Reminded me of colourful row houses in Newfoundland; one of which had a mailbox painted exactly as the houses were.

    Your car…travelling along two tracker roads. You and our car are brave!

    Skid marks at the flood. Glad the driver was watching ahead and not looking at his gps screen!

    Church lighting. Led me to think of family talk. My grandfather’s place at the Delta Marshes. He had a generator and batteries…

    What’s important to me is that I’ve learned more about West Virginia; your times and travels there.

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