Local artist and Bolivar resident, Lisa Phillips, has interviewed many long-time Bolivar citizens and has done much research on the history of Bolivar, WV. She has compiled the results of her research into the following:
WHO LIVED HERE FIRST?
Our history begins over 1000 years ago. In Bolivar, Native American artifacts have been found from the 12th Century—300 years before Columbus arrived in the New World. The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was the home of tribes of the Iroquois Nation when European settlers first arrived. The Delaware and Shawnee tribes hunted in the area during spring and summer seasons. Explorer Louis Michel, looking for land for a Swiss settlement, reported Indians in the area during his 1706 travels along the west bank of the Potomac River.
HOW WAS THE AREA GOVERNED?
Soon after the 1607 establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, English settlers moved inland and grew in numbers to establish the Colony of Virginia for the Royal Crown. The Colony was divided into eight counties in 1634, and the land, which is now Bolivar, was part of the Indian District of Cickacoan. The Eastern Panhandle was part of Virginia until 1863 when the State of West Virginia was admitted to the Union during the Civil War. At varying times in history, we were part of Essex County (1691-1720), Spotsylvania (1720-34), Orange (1734-38), Frederick (1738-72) and Berkeley County. In 1800, residents of southern Berkeley circulated a petition to become a separate county to be called Richland. One hundred eighty seven white property owners signed the petition set to the Virginia General Assembly. The Virginia Assembly responded in January of 1801 by declaring a new county to be cut from Southern Berkeley County, and naming it in honor of the sitting President, Thomas Jefferson. During the Civil War (1863) that state of West Virginia, cut from the larger state of Virginia, was admitted to the Union.
WHO LIVED HERE AND HOW DID THEY GET THE LAND?
King Charles II of England granted the land that became Jefferson County to Thomas, Lord Fairfax. An Iroquois Treaty opened the Blue Ridge to English settlement. Fairfax sold some of his five million acres to speculators, farmers and businessmen including Robert Harper and Gersham Keyes who bought in this area. Harper was a Philadelphia architect who settled in "The Hole" at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. He ran a ferry service across the Potomac from what was then called Shenandoah Falls. In time, the town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers became Harpers Ferry. Keyes settled on land, which is now within the township of Bolivar and built his home and tavern on Washington Street. According to tax records for 1790, Keyes owned a grist mill, saw mill, smithy (blacksmith shop), and two distilleries. He grew wheat and corn, and owned 10 horses, 16 each cows and pigs, 32 sheep and seven pet deer. Keyes owned eight books, an indication of wealth and education. Keyes also owned two slaves, likely a house servant and skilled worker rather than agricultural slaves.Smaller divisions of land were sold from the three major land grants. These were farms, homes and a small town named Mudfort. In 1810, Charles Varle surveyed the area and noted Mudfort had "A good tavern, several large stores for goods, a library, a physician and a Professor of English…." By 1825, the town population was 270.The county set rates for various commercial enterprises, including tavern and boarding house costs. If you were to stay at Mr. Keyes "ordinary" or tavern, your costs would be:
Overnight - 7 cents Breakfast - 10 cents Supper - 28 cents Board for your horse - 10 cents Quart of whiskey - $1.25
Heirs of Robert Harper sold much of their land during the period before 1830, including lands upon which the US built an armory in 1796. Harper's heir, his nephew John Wager, never saw his land, but his son, also named John, settled in Mudfort on tracts north and east of Washington Street. He owned land and public accommodations in Harpers Ferry and bought land in Charles Town.According to oral history, Mudfort got its name because of boys with good throwing arms. Children from Harpers Ferry would come up the hill on what is now Washington Street, and be repelled by the boys of Mudfort who literally used mud balls to send the approaching children back.In 1825, citizens of Mudfort and surrounding lands petitioned the Virginia Assembly to become a town, named after South American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar. Approval from the Assembly was granted in December of 1825 and the town of Bolivar came into existence 16 years before Harpers Ferry was granted a charter.The armory in Harpers Ferry was a large part of the economic engine that drove development in the Eastern Panhandle. But most of the land was agricultural, with wheat and corn as primary crops. Plantation style agriculture was concentrated in the Southwest portion of the county. Farmers in and near Bolivar had less land to work. They owned and operated gristmills, distilleries and smelting facilities. While one third of the county was African American, mostly slave laborers, Bolivar's African American population was 10 percent of the town, and a number of freedmen settled here before the Civil War.Harpers Ferry employed large numbers of workers, but Bolivar was home to farmers, merchants and skilled armorers. The numbers of transient workers in Harpers Ferry was high; the number of long-term residents in Bolivar was high. Prior to the Civil War, armory workers who put down roots often selected Bolivar. In the 1820 census, for example, William Smallwood is listed as a skilled rifle borer at the armory, renting a small house in Mudfort. By the mid 1830s, Smallwood had purchased a home from the Wager estate, and had begun farming. By the late 1840s, Smallwood had a family, a store and a farm, which reached as far as Bolivar Heights.
WHAT DID EARLY SETTLERS LEAVE BEHIND FOR US?
Construction in Bolivar began with log structures. Easily kilned clay in the area made building with brick affordable to many middle class residents. Stone construction was popular in the late 18th Century, and all of these types of materials can be seen in homes today. The unique Armorers House style is brick, and often a duplex. These homes date to the early 1800s.Smokehouses and well houses of brick still sit in backyards, and a public well house is in the middle of Bolivar Children's Park.
HOW WERE CHILDREN EDUCATED?
The population of Bolivar continued to grow until the Civil War, with stores, farms, taverns and schools serving the community. Many early schoolhouses were on Gilbert Street. Public academies for boys existed in Jefferson County as early as 1762 with a curriculum including reading, writing, arithmetic and surveying. In 1795 Charles Town Academy was founded to teach basics as well as Latin and Greek, with expansion to include French, English, geography, astronomy and philosophy as enrollment grew. While educational institutions often included the word public in their titles, schools were maintained by subscription—what each family paid--and donations.A similar academy in Charles Town was later established to teach girls and included many of the same subjects as boys were taught.Some families employed tutors or sent their children to "Professors" who were free lance educators teaching from their lodgings or church facilities.In 1846 the Virginia General Assembly authorized free schools in several counties including Jefferson. A local election followed approving free schools by a 7 to l majority. Restricted to the 3 R's and when possible English, geography, history and philosophy, children in the County could go to school regardless of the ability of their parents to pay. Free and public education did not mean the same thing in the 19th Century that it does today. While indigent children between the ages of 5 and 21 could attend free, other children paid 50 cents per quarter year. The first year of operation of the Jefferson County School System cost $10,000 to fund 23 schools serving 1100 students. Teacher's pay in the 1840s was between $275 and $300 a year.By 1856, public schools were firmly established in Bolivar and Jefferson County.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BOLIVAR DURING THE CIVIL WAR?
Part of Virginia, the Eastern Panhandle supplied soldiers to both the Confederacy and Union. In the spring of 1861, Bolivar Heights was the scene of recruitment into the Virginia infantry and Calvary. Known as Camp Jackson after General Stonewall Jackson, more recruits came to volunteer to march with Virginia than with Union troops. The first AWOL soldier from these Virginia Regiments was named Buzzard. He was from Bolivar and his family lived in a house, which can still be seen today on Union Street. The question of allegiance in this far flung Virginia county fractured along regional lines with industrialized Wheeling the center of Union support and Shenandoah counties loyal to the State of Virginia, and hence the Confederacy. In 1863, West Virginia was formed as a new state and admitted to the Union. Because the Civil War still waged, the new state was far from a unanimously happy new member of the Union. The benefits of becoming independent of Virginia however, were attractive to those counties whose wealth was based on industry, small farming, mining and transportation. Splitting a large Virginia served Union purposes as the war went on, adding to the number of Union states by cutting a new state from lands in the Confederacy. Jefferson County's inclusion into West Virginia was not settled until 1871. The US Supreme Court ruled that a small poll taken May 28, 1863 in the eastern panhandle was valid and that Jefferson and Berkeley Counties were part of West Virginia, not Virginia.The Eastern Panhandle was the site or staging area for many Civil War battles, and the confluence of the two rivers mirrored the confluence of spying from each side, and scavenging from local farms and families. As a battle site, Bolivar is best known for an engagement which resulted in the largest Union surrender in the history of the war. Twelve thousand Union troops were captured in the Battle of Bolivar Heights. Advances and retreats by Union and Confederate troops laid waste to much of the area through battle damage and fire. Property values were cut in half, and many residents left the area. And a few Union soldiers came back to settle. According to local newspapers, theregion was left "destitute" by the war. The Spirit of Jefferson and the Shepherdstown newspapers reported that returning soldiers did not see the prosperous farming and merchant community of Bolivar. The town was a weed overgrown track of land with some homes in burned ruins. Trees had been felled or their branches shot away.
HOW DID BOLIVAR FARE AFTER THE CIVIL WAR?
The armory closed after the Civil War and the industrial prosperity of the area came to a halt. The Federal government tried selling the property and buildings and believed it was successful in 1869. But the purchasing group had wanted ownership in order to file a lawsuit against a railroad. No payments were made on the property. No improvements were made either. A final sale was completed only in 1884 when the armory land was sold to a pulp mill operator. In the meantime, floods in 1870 severely damaged the buildings that were left along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. For almost 20 years after the Civil War, industry in the eastern panhandle languished.There were also labor shortages for building and farming. A number of African American freedmen lived in the area but a combination of prejudice and lack of training kept unemployment numbers high. Local leaders sought both labor and capital investment from the North. It came slowly.Today, there are 26 fewer people living in Harpers Ferry-Bolivar than in the years just before the Civil War. The area changed hands from Confederate to Union at least seven times and as many as 11 times. And still the Civil War reached into the 20th Century.In the 1900s, church members of the Methodist Church in Bolivar found the remains of a Union soldier who had crawled, wounded, near the foundation. His remains were found 40 years later and identified by his buttons.A Union officer of Scottish background came back to the area shortly after the Civil War to build a castle on Bolivar Heights which existed for 100 years on the site of what is now National Park Service land and the scene of today's annual 4th of July fireworks.Until the 1920s, a Civil War cannon was moved from Camp Hill to the Point at Harpers Ferry each year and a round of ordinance fired across the Potomac to Maryland.A more positive outgrowth of the Civil War was the establishment of Storer College on Camp Hill. For 90 years Storer College educated African Americans, at first to be teachers through a two year college program, and later in a four year program in all academic areas. The Storer campus houses the Park Service today.The county and the town of Bolivar remained split between Unionists and Southern sympathizers after the Civil War was over. Only 300 of the voters registered before the war in Jefferson County could vote. Another 1500 could not because of prohibitions against confederate soldiers and sympathizers from participation in government.The first years after the war saw government by Unionists who became the Republican Party. Secessionists became the Democratic Party. By the 1870s voting prohibitions were gone and political parties were no longer identified with Civil War ideas. A local Democrat elected from Bolivar to the state legislature, E. Willis Wilson, went on to become Governor in 1885-90 and then to serve several terms in the US Congress. The Governor E. Willis Wilson home is on Washington Street in Bolivar.
TWENTIETH CENTURY BOLIVAR
A variety of textile and paper mills powered by water sustained much of the local economy as those in Bolivar continued farming and merchant activities. The population was much lower than it had been before the Civil War and the economy fluctuated almost as much as the high water marks of the Potomac. Floods were often named after the time of year. For example the Pumpkin Flood in the fall of 1870 damaged much of the water powered industries. A major flood occurred in 1889 and the most devastating flood of all washed over Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry as well as other Potomac towns in 1936. But it was the floods in the late 19th Century that effectively ended industrial production in the area.In the 1890s a series of rumors led residents to believe Bolivar would enjoy a much needed economic boom. From a lime quarry in Kearneysville, to an alleged find of oil near Moler's Cross Road, citizens felt that development would soon follow discoveries of natural resources. In Bolivar, rumors of iron ore and high quality marble were encouraged by a rich investment group from the North. Most of these hoped for economic booms did not mature due to misrepresentations, lack of capital, and outright lies by those pushing investment. The possibilities, however, were real enough for investors in the county to build office space. This optimism trickled down to a small building boom in the county and in Bolivar. But the reality was that offices were not inhabited for many years.The late 19th Century saw school improvements that had the strong support of local taxpayers. A nine month school year was instituted and in 1887 a new idea was adopted for Jefferson County's rural schools. The idea is a school as we know it today. Students were assigned grades by age and ability with specific goals for learning each year and progression to graduation. Before this time, some students were taught the same things year after year until they left. Our innovative school superintendent was William Wilson who went on to serve the Nation as Postmaster General where he initiated rural postal delivery.The early part of the 20th Century posed social questions for Bolivar and Jefferson County. Prohibition passed in 1912, and women's suffrage was defeated by a 75 to 25 percent margin. At the same time, modern conveniences were being introduced to Bolivar. A water generated electric plant was constructed in 1901 across the Potomac, telephones were connected to homes and businesses ($18 per year), and all roads but one became freeways by 1903. In 1909, Jefferson County won second prize in a national contest to select the best country roads anywhere between New York and the Roanoke. The prize was $500. In 1912, Bolivar was awarded the contract for construction of a high school but it was not until 1929 that a bond issue was approved for construction.In World War I, Bolivar and Jefferson County did more than their share to support US soldiers in Europe. The county exceeded its quotas on war bonds, Red Cross contributions, and sale of Victory Loans. Five hundred and forty eight men were registered for service in the war and 30 lost their lives.The war helped the local economy, especially production of leather and harnesses for the cavalry. A $25 million investment in war materials was a much needed boon to this struggling rural area.State or national issues did not consume life in Bolivar. Farmers farmed, merchants bought and sold, and our town council and mayor attended to streets, lighting, snow removal, maintenance and other day to day responsibilities to keep the town running.Some special circumstances make this period of time interesting. In 1899, the mayor received a number of complaints about cows wandering the streets of Bolivar unattended. He asked the town council to enforce an existing law about loose cows. Months later, there was still a problem and the mayor ordered a fence to be built around the town jail (the white building next to the community center). All unattended cows were hauled to jail. Owners had to post bail to retrieve the cows, but the problem seemed to have been solved.The independence of Bolivar was shown in an incident in 1920. The German Ambassador to the US was caught speeding in town. He was given a ticket but refused to pay. The town insisted on payment of the $5.60 ticket but the Ambassador claimed diplomatic immunity. The US State Department tried to intervene and Bolivar finally backed down on payment of the ticket. Bolivar did not send an apology, however, and the Governor of West Virginia stepped in to write one to the Ambassador. The speed limit had just been raised from 8 miles per hour for horses and automobiles to 10 miles per hour.Bolivar endured the Depression-era difficulties of the entire Nation. As an agricultural community, however, farmers, churches and neighbors met immediate family needs for food. Bolivar and Jefferson County strongly supported the New Deal of President Roosevelt and the work programs it brought to West Virginia including a fishery located at Leetown.World War II found Bolivar again a strong supporter of the national government and the military. Hundred of soldiers served from Jefferson County: dozens from Bolivar. World War II marked a major change in Bolivar with the establishment of the National Park at Harpers Ferry. The Park both preserved and reconstructed our neighboring town. New bridges and highways opened our area to day tourists from the Baltimore-Washington area. The CharlesTown racetrack was another attraction, which began just before World War II. Still a rural economy, Bolivar became more interwoven with the regional economy and has shown itself resilient in moving from an agricultural and self-contained merchant community into an economic development area ranging from Frederick, Maryland to Winchester, Virginia.In 1999, a survey was conducted in Bolivar to assess what residents wanted to preserve or change about the town. As a result of this survey, and ordinances which grew from it, Bolivar will retain its small town character with increasing new initiatives such as the farm market held in summers, the Childrens Park, and appropriate new businesses.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
- Bushong, Millard K. A History of Jefferson County West Virginia (CharlesTown, WV, Jefferson Publishing Company, 1941)
- Norris, J.E., ed. History of the Lower Shenandoah Valley (Berryville, VA:Virginia Book Company, 1890)
- Williams, John A. West Virginia (NY, Norton and Co., 1984)
- Uncollected papers of the Town of Bolivar (Bolivar Community Center), courtesy of Elizabeth Blake, Esq.
- And special thanks to William Theriault, author of numerous publications and articles and the CD-ROM Explorer: The West Virginia History Database Jefferson County Module (West Virginia Division of Culture and History, 1996)
Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, commonly known as Simon Bolivar (July 24, 1783 - December 17, 1830) was a Venezuelan military and political leader. Together with Jose de San Martin, he played a key role in Hispanic America's successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire.
Following the triumph over the Spanish Monarchy, Bolivar participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Latin America, which was named Gran Colombia, and of which he was president from 1819 to 1830.
Simon Bolivar is regarded in Hispanic America as a hero, visionary, revolutionary, and liberator. During his lifetime, he led Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela to independence, and helped lay the foundations for democratic ideology in much of Hispanic America. For this reason, he is often considered the "George Washington of South America".
If you would like to read more about Simon Bolivar, please click here.
This is the first in a series of stories about long-time Bolivar residents. We hope to profile someone new here every quarter. If you or someone you know would be interested in telling your story, please contact Deb Hale at (304) 535-1528 or [email protected].
Mr. Raymond Biller
I was born right across the street [in the log cabin at 1168 Washington St.], May 18, 1920. I lived there until 1943 when I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I served three years in the Marine Corps, came back here & got married, and lived in Brunswick for about a year and a half with my wife's people.
I met my wife through her uncle. He & I used to run around together. We'd go to a lot of dances, square dances mostly. One night he said, Let's go down to Lander, [MD], they have square dances there in a little one-room schoolhouse. So we went down. His sister was there, and his niece. And he introduced me to her.
That was in 1941. We went together – well, she was still in school yet, she graduated while I was in the service, and then she went to nurse's training. I think she had a year to go in nurse's training. We got married, and they wouldn't let her finish. We got married December 30, 1945, in Brunswick.
After a year and a half we moved back to Bolivar, lived up the road above the dentist's office. In two years the bigger apartment over the general store became vacant, and we moved into it because there was more room. We had one child by then, born December 12, 1946. We lived there 3 or 4 years until we bought that little house caddy-corner to where I live now, right across from Clay Street, that little house that sits in there by Helen Becker. I bought that house for $3,000 and the vacant lot beside it for $800. We put a bath and furnace in it that first winter (it didn't have either). The next spring we paneled the whole house with knotted pine and put hardwood floors in it. We lived there for 32, 33 years. Then we decided to sell and go south, but our boy was in school and he wanted to finish up at Jefferson High so we decided to hunt locally for another house. We hunted, hunted, hunted, but couldn't find anything we liked. Finally, Mr. Capriotta, the real estate man who was hooked up with Foremost industries, said, You got that lot across the street, why don't you put a house on it? So we went up to Foremost and looked at houses and bought one – it was pre-fab, they brought it in three pieces. I've been living there now for about 20 years.
I think the Billers originally came over from Germany – German Jews – and settled in the Shenandoah Valley. I had a great-uncle that lived in New Market. My father was born in Summit Point, WV, and my mother was born in Stubenville, Ohio. She was the only child of her father by his first marriage. Her mother died, and he remarried, and they moved to Charles Town. My people moved here from Summit Point by horse and wagon. They moved into the log cabin across the street, which they'd bought for $600. My father was killed when I was five years old. I turned six the day after he was buried. He worked for the B&O Railroad, and he was part of the carpenter gang, and he would pick his paycheck up at Harpers Ferry every payday. So he went down to pick his paycheck up that evening. The ticket agent there asked him if he had time to help him unload a corpse that had come in on a train heading west; he needed help unloading it from the train and bringing it across the tracks on one of those little baggage cars. Well, they hadn't gotten across that eastbound track when an oncoming train hit that car and my father was thrown completely over top the embankment where the old station used to be. He'd fractured his skull. I guess he lived maybe two or three hours. He died May 15, 1926, aged 47. There were five children left – three boys and two girls – and my mother took on all sorts of work to look after us. She worked for the WPA, and as a seamstress, and she helped as midwife to the local doctors, any job she knew she could pick up. She didn't get any money from the railroad, only a small lump sum. She raised us five kids and put us through school. She was about 78 when she died from a stroke. I know she worked hard to raise her family. People told her she should put us all in a home, but she wouldn't even think of doing that.
I went to school at the old high school in Harpers Ferry [now owned by the Park Service] through the sixth grade. I finished there in 1932. Then they had the new high school finished and I moved into that [now the Jr. High], and graduated from the old Harpers Ferry High School in 1938.
When we were kids growing up, we didn't have cars or television, so we'd all gather around the radio in the evening and listen to the programs. We'd visit each other's houses and play games and cards to pass the time. In the wintertime we'd ice-skate and sled ride. One winter we wandered back on Old Furnace Road where people lived on a lot stuck way back into the woods. We built a lean-to out of pine trees with a roof of pines over head until a big snow came and fell in on us. At Christmastime, the Halem's would have parties for us kids – they'd have a school bus haul us up to their "Scottish" castle up on Bolivar Heights.
In the summertime, we had a few different swimming holes. We'd swim up in the head gates past the power plant down in Harpers Ferry, and up by where the dam is just above that in the Potomac, we'd jump in off the embankments. There was a canal that ran up alongside the road that follows the river that ran the power plant. The plant furnished all the electric power for the whole town. Every time we had high water we wouldn't have electricity. I used to go down there [to the plant] because my neighbor worked there as an operator. I spent many a night there fishing out the back window in the flumes.
Then there were two quarry holes past where you go to the Job Corps, off Route 230, where we'd swim, called the Engle quarry. There was the Upper Quarry and the Lower Quarry. We had a great big raft out there in the center of them and we'd go out there and swim in that awful cold spring water. We went every day whenever the river was muddy; we'd hop a freight train to get there.
Back behind the little house I used to live in, there was a place to play baseball, an athletic field for the school and for Storer College (whose teams played football and baseball). But that was eventually sold off and developed. When we were kids, there was a baseball team in Harpers Ferry called the Monkey Wrenches. A fellow by the name of Buddy Stewart managed it. Two boys – twins – played on the team. One was the pitcher; the other was the catcher. They used to call them "Itch 'Em" and "Scratch 'Em." But they had a pretty good ball team at one time. After that the owner of that open field planted potatoes. He'd go along plowing up the potatoes and get us kids to pick them up in buckets and put them all in a tub.
A fellow who owned a lot of land out on Route 230, he took us out there had us picking beans for 5 cents a bushel. Back in those days, a nickel or a dime – that was big money – you thought you had something there. I started working for 50 cents a day and then when I got out of high school, things were really tight. I got out of school in May, and I worked odd jobs. They'd had a fire up at Storer College so I worked up there helping the man clean up the furniture and clean up after the fire. He paid maybe $3 or $4 a day. And then I went to work for Standard Lime Stone Quarry, I was on their construction gang, and I got 56 cents an hour, working an 8-hour shift. Then there was an opening at the US Steel Quarry for clerical work. I had to take a test and an interview. The man said I could start work tomorrow if I could get my birth certificate and a minor's release. I was lucky enough to get to the courthouse to get my birth certificate, and my mother signed a minor's release, and started working there the following day, July 1, 1940. I worked there until June 30, 1978. I joined the Marines in I943 and got early discharge in December 1945 in order to work at the Commandant's office in Washington in the discipline division. I worked there a couple months as a civilian before I came back to my old job.
Way before the Park came, there were tourists coming to town. Not like they come now, but they were here. They'd mostly come by car, but sometimes there were excursion trains. My brother lived in that Harpers Ferry cemetery house, and I would go down there on Saturdays and Sundays and offer a tour to the people who'd come to see Jefferson Rock and old John Brown's fort, which was on the Storer College grounds at that time. They'd tip me and sometimes I'd make five or six dollars a day, which was a whole lot of money back then.
Some local people were happy when the Park came to town, some people were not. There was a lot of opposition to the Park. There were a lot of meetings around here before the Park came. Jennings Randolph and Dr. Henry MacDonald, the President of Storer College, were very instrumental in getting that Park to come here. They'd hold meetings up at the Hilltop – I took a lot of minutes for them at those meetings. Harpers Ferry was a rat hole before the
Park took over – you'd literally see rats running across the road. The first superintendent of the Park hired a boy by the name of Floyd Wilt – they just buried Floyd the day before yesterday – as a helper. And the two of them started setting things up.
Back when I was a kid, Harpers Ferry had two or three grocery stores, Ellie Doran ran a department store, and Abe Kaplan had one, too; there was the bottling works, a creamery, a restaurant and two lunch rooms, Annie Higgins had a millinery shop – all in the lower town of Harpers Ferry. There was even a movie theater in Harpers Ferry at one time, directly across from where the Park buses stop now. You can still see the wall and the stone steps. There was a bakery set on back in there further on the right, and at one time the Interwoven Stocking Company had a knitting mill where they made socks. On the corner was the Bank of Harpers Ferry. On the next corner was Cassell's store – a grocery store & feed store; Will Walsh had a grocery store. I worked at the bottling works when I was a kid going to school. Fellows by the name of Jim Grimes and Frank Longbrake bought it from Charlie Smith. He had two trucks to deliver the pop – we had routes to Brunswick, Frederick, Sandy Hook on the Maryland side, and in the other direction we went as far as Berryville, and up over the mountain and down through Bluemont, Hillsboro, Purcelville. Have you ever seen the little Harpers Ferry bottles? They did not make the bottles here, they just bottled the pop here. They made all kinds of flavors: strawberry, orange, grape, ginger ale, root beer, sarsaparilla, cream soda, lemon, lime, most any type you could want. There were 24 bottles to a wooden case, and when I first started, a case cost $1.20: 60 cents for the soda pop and another 60 cents deposit on the case of bottles. So it would only cost you 60 cents the next time if you had an empty case of bottles to return. I worked there a couple summers. We drank a lot of soda. The '36 flood took out the bottling works and ruined most of Harpers Ferry. After the flood, there was one place at the bottom of the big stone steps, a man had a beer joint there for a long while, Charlie Demory had a tavern there.
The first gas station was on the corner of Shenandoah and High Streets. Later, another was opened halfway up the hill, where the gazebo is now – Eugene Brady ran it. Then at the top of the hill where the Appalachian Trail Center is now there was a car repair shop with a little store beneath it. They'd sell to the kids going to school: you could get three buns for a nickel, and a half pint of milk for lunch. Then where the Masonic Hall is, they had a grocery store and right above it was a confectionery shop that the Wentzell's ran. Where the Post Office is now used to be one big vacant lot. We'd play ball there. In 1928, I guess, that site was chosen for the first fire hall, a two-story one-base fire hall, and that's when they got their first fire truck. The Fire Company was incorporated in 1927. During the war, it just went to pot. They had an old 1927 Buick fire engine that someone had pulled in head-first into the fire hall and that's where it sat until we re-organized in 1947-48. We bought a new truck and put up an addition to the old building. In the late ‘50s, we tore that building down and built the one that's down there now, and purchased another truck. And it's just grown right along since then. I've belonged to the Fire Company now for 66 years.
Further up the street in Bolivar Bob Dunn used to have a grocery store (previously operated by Gomer Ott) then Ms. McCormick ran an antique shop – in the big yellow building with the front shop windows. The dentist office used to be the Bolivar Post Office (Mina J. Rau was Postmistress), and next to it was Rau's Grocery Store. Frank Schilling had a store in what's known as the Canal House, and then Minnie Bridner ran a general store there for years. She was an old maid. She lived in the brick house at the end of Clay Street, just across the street from where I later lived with my own family. As she was getting old, she approached my wife about fixing her a hot meal every day, whatever we were eating. She only came on holidays to eat with us. We took a hot dinner to her every evening. She lived to be almost 100 years old. She died in a nursing home. That's how I got hold of that house. She left it in her will for me to get that house at a certain price.
Bob Hardy's antique shop used to be Baden Brothers grocery store. You come on up to Polk Street and there used to be a little general store there, people by the name of Billmyer ran it (later it would be the Ryman's), and the pub across the street used to be a grocery store (run by Minnie Bridner) before it was turned into a lunchroom, which Isabelle Daws operated. Kids from the school would get lunch there; she'd have soup and sandwiches every day. Had a jukebox in there where we could dance at lunchtime and hang out after school. On the other side of Polk Street, there was a filling station called Tipton's. And where the 7-11 is now there were cabins for rent.
Floods & Transportation
I remember the '36 flood when both bridges went out. I remember the Maryland bridge – I was going down the curve at the steep part of the hill when the bridge went out, sparks were flying, there was metal hitting together, it was late in the evening. On the Virginia bridge, there was a little toll house – I think it was 25 cents a car and then 5 or 10 cents for each additional person in the car – to cross the bridge. So in 1936 after that flood, they converted the old railroad bridge into a passenger bridge. They'd have a watchman on each end so when the train was coming, no cars could travel on it because the train ran on it, too. I guess it was sometime in the 1950s when they rerouted Route 340 and replaced both bridges. We had a flood in 1942 in the fall of the year. I worked for US Steel at the Millville quarry for 32 years as a storekeeper. We were right down on the river and moved everything from the lower floor to the second floor of the building and the Potomac backed the Shenandoah River up – it got higher than the Shenandoah – and the water got up on that floor, over 12 inches on the second story. Several times we had to shut the quarry down because of the high waters. We put all the dikes along the Shenandoah River there with dirt from the quarry. I worked for US Steel for 32 years. They shut the plant down in 1958. In 1978 I retired early at 58 years old with full pension. Since then I've knocked around with my tax business, DMV license in transfers, just keeping busy.
This used to be the main road through this area, up to the 50s. We took all the traffic through this town. Truck traffic was terrible. Come holidays, I'd see traffic backed all the way up from the bridge past the end of Bolivar waiting to get across the bridge. When we were young, cars were scarce. We used to sled ride on this main road in the wintertime. Very few people had cars. Some people had horses. When I was a boy there were school buses – in 1926 when I started school, they had school buses. Mr. Rockenbaugh had the buses and the school board hired him to haul the kids into school from Millville, Bakerton, Halltown, and other places. A couple winters school would close down a month at a time because of the bad roads.
We used to go to Washington on the train, and we had family living in Herndon, VA – they'd run trolley cars from the city out to the country and suburbs. In the other direction, we'd go as far as Winchester to the Apple Blossom Festival or to Martinsburg, but that was a big trip for us in those days. My mother used to take us to our grandfather's house in Summit Point. We'd ride the train from Harpers Ferry on a Friday evening and stay over until Sunday. We would hitch a ride into Charles Town to go to the movies. You could go to the movies for 5 cents. You could take a quarter, go to the movies, get a box of popcorn and have enough left over for a hotdog after the show at Arch Bower's hotdog shop.
They used to have a train that ran right up this valley, it ran every day, stopped at Millville, Halltown, stopped at all the little towns along the way to Strasburg, Virginia, and then it came back in the evening. There were about three cars. The Main Line had passenger trains at all hours of the day, going east and west about every hour. There used to be bus service through here, too, from Winchester and Frederick. They'd come through in the morning and then again in the evening.
Other Local History
At one time we tried to consolidate the two towns of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry. We ran on a ticket one election year – five councilmen and the mayor – what we called a "consolidation ticket." Of course, the older people didn't want that, and we got beat. We got 15 votes – that's all we got in the whole town! They beat us so bad it was pitiful. We used to have a Post Office here in Bolivar, you know. They shut it down about 35 years ago. I applied for the Postmaster job but at that time they said they were going to convert everything to Harpers Ferry, which they did.
I always had good sense to stay off of the Town Council. In the old days, they had a big time about the elections. But they didn't have any money, and the streets were all dirt. If there was a pothole, someone would go to the quarry, get a load of stone, patch it up. When Courtney became mayor, that's when things started turning around. He was mayor for 24 years. I think there was just a couple hundred dollars in the treasury when he took over. Now I understand they have more money than what they know what to do with!
I was at the Charles Town Racetrack the day it opened. What used to be the Grandstand was an open grandstand – bleachers – and underneath was a dirt floor where you placed your bets. My uncle was the superintendent there and I worked one summer while I was in school. Used to pick up paper on the ground using a broomstick with a nail in the end and a big cardboard box: $2 a day wages in '36-'37. They used to run excursions there every day in the early days. Of course they had a horse show there every year before A.J. Boyle from over in Maryland bought it and put the new racetrack in.
Jimmy Carter came to Harpers Ferry one evening. I shook hands with him. When John Kennedy was running for President, he was down in Charles Town a couple of times. And of course, Gore and Clinton were here together a couple years ago for Earth Day. When Harry Truman was running for President, he made a whistle stop at Harpers Ferry, spoke from the back of a train. I saw him. A fellow I worked with who was half-drunk shouted out to him, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" I remember that well.