A village has to be pro-active to stay in place

I have the privilege of living in one of Jefferson County’s rural villages, Middleway. Diversity of employment, opinion, and economic status enhance village life and culture. Neighbors stroll and back-fence conversations are the coin of information. Garden patches are admired and compared, kids and grandkids bragged about, while differences of church and politics are put to one side.

My village has a historic district with some 60 structures dating back to the early 1800s. It has families who first moved here in 1734 and more families who have been here since before the Civil War. This is a rich fabric of farming, commerce and life stories.

There is a worm in this apple nevermind its name is change. The village was laid out (platted) in 1795 and the 1/3 acre lots, ample for a family, its animals and garden in those days, provide little space for the wells and septic systems of modern times.

The village was incorporated in 1798 and sidewalks and French-tile storm drains were installed soon after. The town government ceased to exist after the Civil War and the sidewalks and drains shown in sketches in 1864 are now buried below the accumulation of eroded dirt from a modern subdivision’s failed storm water system and the passage of time. A village of 19th century grist- and saw-mills, a tannery, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and wagon-builders could support a variety of shops, several inns and a distillery, at least three churches and a school, three doctors and a Masonic Lodge and a population four times greater than it is now. Now, the Historic District has four churches, the Masonic Lodge, two small construction companies, one auto-repair shop and a telephone company.

Change is inevitable. The transport system of roads and horse-drawn wagons of 1800 had given way to railroads by 1850. Middleway was bypassed by the “new” W.Va. 51 in 1931 but buses served the community into the 1960s and residents quickly adopted the automobile and the pickup truck. The woolen mill built in the 1930s at the junction of Brucetown Road and Bunker Hill Road morphed into a 3-M plant, then into a plant owned in turn by Spectratech and Kodak. Local employment enabled local businesses to remain open until the plant finally closed some eight years ago. As employment moved elsewhere, the village population aged in place and resources to maintain Historic District buildings dwindled further. The economic decline has led to abandoned and blighted properties as older residents moved to retirement homes, properties have been foreclosed and absentee landlords ceased to maintain rental homes.

Change has also occurred in the number of health, planning and zoning and other state and county regulations that now apply to the village; a village which was built for 1800s life and not for the modern standards now being applied to its buildings and potential uses of them.

I believe that change is inevitable but stagnation is not. The Middleway Conservancy Association, founded in 1982, has tried over the years to conserve the Historic District and the adjacent areas that contribute to it. The Conservancy is not a homeowners association; it is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit community organization to which anyone interested in Middleway’s Historic District can belong. Through education, signage, annual festival, workshops and the like the Conservancy has provided village residents with information, better facilities and fun.

In 2002, for example, the Conservancy worked with the West Virginia Division of Highways to restore stormwater ditches and culverts to Turkey Run to abate flooding problems in the lower part of the village. In 2011, Wells Fargo Bank was considering demolition of a key village property, but was persuaded to give it to the Conservancy, which in 2012 found someone willing to restore the building.

The Conservancy in the last 12 months has sponsored four “Conversations on the Future of Middleway’s Historic District.” The first with the County’s Public Service District on a possible (and free) study of water and sewer issues; the second with the Jefferson County Development Authority on the possibility of developing small businesses and other economic drivers; while the third was with PanTran on the feasibility of public bus services so that an aging population could stay in place. The fourth meeting, with staff from the American Battlefields Protection Program, dealt with the Battle of Smithfield Crossing and community economic and cultural benefits of commemorating and/or conserving the battlefield and Historic District. This meeting was co-sponsored with the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Stagnation is the way of naysayers. These meetings were well attended and somewhat controversial. Most of the residents of the Middleway area outside the Historic District, for example, live on lots greater than two acres and saw no reason for a study of water and sewer issues even if it was free; they have plenty of land to install a new well or septic system if the current one fails. Similarly, a proposal to restore sidewalks in the Historic District to make the streets safer for pedestrians and help attract small businesses was disliked by nonresidents who were concerned about traffic restrictions (e.g. speed limits) and cost. And finally there were concerns that the Conservancy either was a “front” for “Big Government” or that the members of the Conservancy were “newcomers” who did not understand the way things should be done.

All the rural villages of Jefferson County have similar stories, although only a couple have national historic districts and only Middleway has an organization like the Middleway Conservancy. Yet these are crossroads communities, literally, with an existing core population. As our county grows, it is common sense to use our rural villages as the foci for county services, economic development and population growth. The municipalities of Charles Town, Ranson, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, and Bolivar are the logical places for high-density growth, large-scale economic development and regional services. Rural villages provide the county government with hubs for sensible growth and development of efficient and economic services to serve local population. Scattered subdivisions and willy-nilly commercial development along major roads do not provide a coordinated approach to the needs of the county’s residents and wastes the taxpayers money and county resources in the long-term.

So, as a retiree who has lived in Middleway’s Historic District for 23 years, what course of action do I favor? I am for being proactive in community matters. The things that brought me here – attractive village, nearby farmland and a friendly community – remain. But I would like to again walk safely along village streets to a local store or restaurant. Public water and sewer services are important issues to new business as well as to me. Proactive to me means striving for an economically sustainable community that retains all those village characteristics (and characters) that make Middleway unique and a historic district where business can flourish with history cherished and historic buildings conserved as they find new uses. A rural village is a place where people of all ages can live comfortably with the past and create new and interesting futures. In other words, a rural village that is not treated as a museum but as part of a thriving culture of history and life in Jefferson County.

— Peter Fricke writes from Middleway

 

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