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Berkeley County

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Berkeley County, formed in 1772 from Frederick County, Virginia, once encompassed the entire Eastern Panhandle. Named for Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, colonial governor from 1768 to 1770, it was the second county formed in what is now West Virginia. In 1792 John Pope sang its praises in A Tour through the Southern and Western Territories. Waiting for the Monongahela and Ohio rivers to be navigable, he “resolved to spend my time until they should rise among my friends in Berkeley County, which for its Temperature of Air, Salubrity of Baths and Fertility of Soil, justly claims the Preference of every other County in Virginia.” Population soon increased so rapidly that two counties were formed wholly or partly from Berkeley: Jefferson in 1801 and Morgan in 1820. After those partitions, Berkeley County's population grew steadily, if unspectacularly, for the rest of the century, from 10,528 in 1830 to 19,469 in 1900.

The central and eastern two-thirds of the county, southeast of Back Creek, have more fertile soil than the hillier, less populous northwestern third. The easily observed differences made a vivid impression on a Union soldier in 1862:

As we marched through, the face of the country entirely changes here—large farms, hundreds of acres of cleared land, resembling a vast prairie—stone fences for miles and miles—splendid country residences—hills taking the place of the huge mountains we have never been out of sight of for seven months—heavy oak timber instead of the everlasting pine and cedar—and everything in fact presents an appearance of a fertile, rich, and populous country, instead of the barren wastes, with here and there a cabin, that have heretofore met our eyes.

Berkeley County, and especially Martinsburg, the county seat, suffered during the Civil War as Confederates sought to capture the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Union forces sought to protect it. Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops destroyed the railroad and its shops in June 1861, but Philip Sheridan and his soldiers secured the county for the Union in the summer of 1864.

Development after the Civil War was slow until the end of the century when Martinsburg began to grow as a major textile center. Even so, agriculture continued to dominate the county's economy. Apple and peach cultivation, important since the eighteenth century, now became an even larger piece of the economic pie. Fruits from orchards planted on Berkeley's limestone hillsides were taken to Martinsburg, where they were processed, packed, and shipped to nationwide markets.

In recent decades, expanding suburbanization around Washington, D.C., has caused the population to burgeon. The 2000 census count of 75,905 is the largest ever recorded. Counterbalancing this recent growth, with its attendant pressures on historic resources, has come a heightened awareness of the past. In fact, more than any county in West Virginia in recent years, Berkeley has led the way in recording and trying to preserve its phenomenally rich historical and architectural patrimony. In 1973 the Berkeley County Historical Society sponsored the first county survey, and a Landmarks Commission was appointed in 1975. In 1977, with financial assistance from the National Register program, the county launched one of the nation's first and most comprehensive multiple resource surveys. In December 1980, the Berkeley County Multiple Resources nomination, which includes thematic groups, historic districts, and individual properties, was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places. The historical society has since published the surveys, along with a walking tour of historic sites in Martinsburg and a driving tour of the county.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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