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Jefferson County

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West Virginia's easternmost county is closer to five other state capitals than to Charleston and closest of all to the nation's capital. Washington, D.C., is only fifty miles southeast, a distance that figuratively becomes ever shorter as more and more of Jefferson County's citizens relate in some way or another to the federal presence. In the half century from 1950 to 2000, which witnessed an overall decline of population in West Virginia, Jefferson's continually increased, from 17,184 to 42,190. Another statistic accompanies the growth: Jefferson is now West Virginia's wealthiest county on a per capita basis. Unfortunately, recent growth and wealth have come at a high price to historic resources and their settings, a particularly sad happening in a county that has some of the state's most important architectural assets.

Jefferson County, formed in 1801 from Berkeley County to its northwest, was named for Thomas Jefferson, then beginning his first term as the nation's third president. Shortly before the county was created, the duc de La Rochefoucauld, writing in his Voyage dans les Etats-Unis, praised that portion of Berkeley County that would soon be separated from it:

It is not until we enter the county of Berkeley, eleven miles from Winchester, that the plantations become more considerable, the fields more extensive, and better cultivated, and that the whole landscape assumes an appearance of wealth. The dwelling-houses are in general, better built, and some which belong to rich planters have a handsome appearance.…

La Rochefoucauld noted: “an acre produces from twenty to twenty-five bushels of wheat; oats are cultivated in abundance; numbers of cattle are kept in the meadows.” He also took the occasion to comment on the people, or at least on their origins: “The inhabitants of this place and its environs are mostly emigrants from the lower parts of Virginia. A few of them came from Pennsylvania and they are all Germans.”

As with its parent county, Jefferson County's early architecture reflects this dual settlement pattern. Formal brick or stone manors, virtually indistinguishable from eastern Virginia models, dominate a number of estates, whereas less formal stone or log houses, with the attendant bank barns so typical of the Pennsylvania German heritage, survey fields on adjoining farms. (Or, at least they did until recently. Now they more likely survey housing developments.)

Although named for the third president, the county is indelibly associated with the family of the first. George Washington made his first land purchase in 1750 when he was eighteen years old, and had he not inherited Mount Vernon from his half brother Lawrence, might well have lived here. Other Washingtons did, building some of the county's most important houses. Along with other Virginians formerly from the Tidewater, they were Anglican. Their St. George's Chapel ( JE8) was once considered the most elegant place of worship in the colony. Later generations prayed at Charles Town's Zion Episcopal Church ( JE6), which claims to have more Washingtons buried in its churchyard than any place in the country.

German settlers belonged to the Lutheran or German Reformed faiths. Both denominations still maintain churches at Shepherdstown, which began its corporate existence as Mecklenburg. Scots-Irish Presbyterians also came in large numbers, and several unadorned churches remain as reminders of their straightforward Calvinist faith.

According to most accounts, conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the nineteenth century still held sway on the eve of the Civil War. In his 1860 essay, My Ride to the Barbecue, Alexander Robinson Boteler virtually echoed La Rochefoucauld in extolling Jefferson County as “the garden of Virginia” and observing “here and there … a stately mansion crowning the crest of some wooded hill, and, on every hand, snug looking homesteads nestling among orchards, and surrounded by affluent fields.”

The war devastated the affluent fields of Jefferson and Berkeley counties more than any other part of West Virginia, and its aftereffects slowed growth for decades. When West Virginia was established, Jefferson, with a land area of only 209 square miles, was the sixth smallest of the state's fifty counties. But it stood third in population with an 1860 count of 14,535 inhabitants. It was not until 1940, eighty years later, that the figure rose another 2,000, to 16,762. As has been mentioned, recent population growth has been far more dramatic.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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