SCRABBLE — The land next to the Potomac River here always has made for difficult farming. Thin soil over limestone offers little nourishment for crops.
After two brothers, John W. Hollida and George Washington Hollida, moved from Frederick County, Md., to begin farming here with their families, the town of Hard Scrabble was formed in 1803.
“Hard scrabble means hard farming,’’ explains Jim Staley, the last remaining Scrabble resident descended from the town’s original founders. “My grandfather always said there was only one rock in Scrabble – it’s all connected.”
By 1900 or so, maps and other references no longer labeled the town “Hard Scrabble,” Staley said. “I don’t remember my grandparents ever using the name Hard Scrabble. At some point, we became just Scrabble.”
Staley, the great-great-grandson of John W. Hollida, these days lives on the family farm, in a brick home built in 1811 and added onto over the years. Like his ancestors, he is a farmer, raising cattle and growing hay.
The 65-year-old grew up here and returned after serving in Vietnam to spend decades as a Jefferson County 4-H extension agent before retiring 10 years ago.
At one time, the town of Hard Scrabble – located between Shepherdstown in Jefferson County and Bedington in Berkeley County – boasted a one-room school, a country store and a post office attached to Snyder’s Mill and run by Elisha Snyder.
“The heyday for Scrabble was the turn of the century, the 1890s to the 1910s,” said Staley, whose home is for sale. As he ages, the property is a lot to maintain and neither of his two daughters is interested in living in Scrabble.
Today, the town is “just a little dot on the road,” he said, and his children both work outside the area as English instructors, one at Marshall University in Huntington and the other in the Loudoun County school system in Virginia.
There are two ways to get to Scrabble, either via Shepherd Grade Road from Shepherdstown or, from Berkeley County, by traveling on Greensburg Road.
Scrabble straddles the Berkeley-Jefferson county line. Staley remembers how his childhood friend who lived on the far side of the run attended school in Jefferson County, but his home’s location meant he attended classes in Berkeley.
A dam across the Potomac, constructed in the early 1830s, helped control water in the adjacent C&O Canal.
In 1906, work began on a tall, one-story limestone building at the site that became a powerhouse for the Martinsburg Power Co. when it was completed three years later.
The power plant is “probably the last commercially operated rope-driven hydroelectric plant in the United States,” according to the Library of Congress’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Until the 1960s, a full-time caretaker lived in a house nearby. The site has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
Also historic is the Mount Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, which began in the early 1830s and remains vibrant, with worship services at 11 a.m. every Sunday, Tuesday evening choir practice twice a month and, later in September, will host the start of the Rev. Dr. G. Edward Grove’s fall Bible study on the will of God.
A deed for the church was recorded in 1831 and three years later, it’s believed locals started to hold services in a frame structure on the current site. In 1839, church members put up a state-of-the-art brick church, but building too were divisions over slavery.
With the Civil War’s start, the Scrabble church affiliated with Northern-leaning Methodists, Staley said.
His great-grandfather served with the First Virginia Cavalry for the Confederacy. “He joined what was called ‘The Shepherdstown Boys,’” Staley said. “He never went back to that little church, which his father gave the land for. He went to Shepherdstown to go to church.”
When the violence of the Civil War hit close to home, each side began using the new brick church for a field hospital, according to the church’s history. “Our cemetery contains many Civil War dead in unmarked graves,” it notes. “The land and its people were to be scarred for many years to come.”
After the war, life settled down again in Scrabble, but that changed on Aug. 26, 1918, when a tornado touched down around 7 p.m. It destroyed the structure – with only the pews and piano left standing among the rubble. The congregation rebuilt, debuting the current brick church on April 25, 1920.
The entire 62-acre town – made up of 55 acres in Berkeley and the rest in Jefferson – has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006.
Included in the district are several two-story brick residences in a style popularized in the mid-19th century, known as I-houses, that feature exterior gabling and are generally at least two rooms wide and one room deep.
Other structures of note in the town’s history: Snyder’s Mill, which produced cornmeal and wheat flour; handyman Alex Kinsell’s small broom factory; a 1882 schoolhouse that’s now a residence; the post office building; and the old country store, now demolished.
The historic town isn’t the only Scrabble around, however.
Other parts of the country where life meant tough going also adopted the name. In the dictionary, “scrabble” is defined as “to struggle, as if by scraping or groping.”
Scrabble is an unincorporated community in Rappahannock County in Virginia. Sussex County in Delaware is home to the unincorporated town of Hardscrabble. There’s also a Hardscrabble, Tenn.
One of the more notorious towns with the name was Hard Scrabble, the Providence, R.I., neighborhood that was home mostly to working-class black citizens in the early 19th century.
On Oct. 18, 1824, a white mob attacked black homes in Hard Scrabble, after an incident in which a black man declined to step off a sidewalk as some whites passed him. A riot broke out and the homes of nearly two dozen black residents were destroyed.
On a happier note, there is Scrabble, the popular word game that dates to the late 1930s. The Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club in Charleston considers the West Virginia village of Scrabble something of a mecca, and features three photos of Scrabble road signs on the home page of its blog.
The game’s name also harkens to the idea of scrambling to make the best of what little is before you. American architect Alfred Mosher Butts created the game in 1938, originally calling it “Criss-Crosswords.” He found the going tough.
A decade later, a Newtown, Conn., man who’d become a Criss-Crosswords fan bought the rights to manufacture the game. He introduced some changes and gave the game its new name.
Legend has it that Scrabble became a hit in 1952 when the president of Macy’s played the game on vacation, came home to New York to find his store didn’t care it and then placed a massive order. By the following year, “Scrabble” had become a household word.
— Staff writer Robert Snyder contributed to this story.