ROMNEY, W.Va. -- We saw lots of Romney signs on the way to Romney, W.Va., but they were all in the Old Dominion. Once we crossed the line into the breakaway state to the west, poof. We drove for miles through woodsy, hilly Hampshire County, reading plugs for "Alkire for Sheriff" and "Rowan for Congress," but not a presidential placard in sight. Until Romney, when we spotted a sign on a lawn at the edge of town.
Now that’s irony for you. You’d think if there were one burg in the Mountain State that ought to be all-out for the Republican candidate, it would be the one that bears his very name.
That’s what I figured, anyway, which is why we set off on a pretty fall day’s drive into the West Virginia panhandle, scooting along winding roads lined with yellow buttercups and purple asters growing wild among the grasses. What a fun reason to go away for the weekend, visit the country, see what gives with this town with the nomenclative coincidence.
Well. Shortly after we walk into the Courthouse Corner Cafe on Main Street, it becomes clear that I’m not the only one who was hit with this bright idea. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington’s WUSA have been here days before, quizzing the folks about their politics.
"They were looking for controversy," says Chuck Johnson, who runs the cafe with his wife, Jeanne. (He serves, she does the cooking. And I can vouch highly for the BLT in a sourdough wrap. Also the welcoming funkiness of the storefront eatery, with its sprinkling of tables and the couch in the corner, where you can peruse the newspaper or tap into the free WiFi.) "But there’s no controversy here. We all get along, Republicans and Democrats."
Of course, I’m not looking for controversy. I’m looking for what makes Romney tick - the town, I mean, not the man.
This hamlet of about 2,000 in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia is the seat of Hampshire County and the oldest city (in the oldest county) in the state, chartered Dec. 23, 1762 - 250th birthday this year! Probably explains the fancy banners on the light poles all along Main Street. As for the name - well, naturally nothing to do with Mr. Mitt. The moniker is in honor of the town of New Romney, England, bestowed upon the new city by Lord Fairfax, the big kahuna landowner in these parts back in the 18th century.
Some of this info I’m picking up from a pair of historical markers outside the imposing Hampshire County Courthouse across the street from the cafe. The markers also inform me that Romney, sitting astride a "natural invasion route" between the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac, was "scourged by both armies" during the Civil War. Hmm, that’s a bit like Mitt, no? He’s been attacked from left and right, the Obama camp and nervous Nellies in his own party. Seems he and the town do have something in common.
But listen to this: The markers also say that during the war, the town changed hands between North and South 56 times! Wow, that’s amazing. (Later I read that it may only have been about 10 times, depending on what you consider an "occupation." Oh, well.) Up a ways, past the Democratic Party headquarters on the north side of Main Street and its GOP rival on the south (which some folks might find appropriate), is Boxwood, the house where all these changeovers supposedly took place. There’s no trace of the big elm in the front yard that shaded those truces, and the house itself stands empty, with a "For Sale" sign on the lawn. It’s a little sad.
But across the street, Liberty Hall, known to locals as Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters, is still a proud and stately brick home shaded by large trees. One of the finest houses in town, even today. No wonder old Stonewall took it over when he and his Confederates occupied Romney in January 1862.
We check out some of the remnants of that occupation (and the nine to 55 others) over at Taggart Hall, which, despite the grand-sounding name, is just an 18th-century clapboard half-house that’s now home to a (very) small Civil War museum. If you’re getting the idea that a lot of Romney is about the Civil War, you’re not wrong. And here’s where it stood: When West Virginia broke away from the Old Dominion over the war, Hampshire County had to go along, but it sort of went kicking and screaming. Most town residents stuck to their Southern-sympathizing guns. Like the Davises, who let the rebs use their home as a meeting place and whose three sons fought for the South. (Well, one later joined the North. They called him a turncoat, natch.)
We learn this at the Davis History House, a 1795 log house next door to the Hampshire County Public Library, which owns it. We have to go there to ask someone to let us in. Someone turns out to be Norma Bowyer, a town booster if ever there was one. She’s full of great info about Romney’s highlights and eager for us to see them all. So eager, in fact, that we’ve barely stepped inside the Davis house before she’s sending us off to see the stained-glass windows at the First United Methodist Church - even calling the pastor to let us in. (They do that kind of thing here in small-town Romney.)
The church, built in 1903, is graceful, with an intact tin ceiling, and the windows sure are pretty. But I’m most entertained by pastor Roy Knight’s account of his recent trip to San Francisco. Every time he’d pull out his green Bank of Romney credit card to pay for something, he’d get the same comment: "So that’s where he gets all his money." Ba-da-boom.
After a quick tour of the Davis house (the primitive upstairs bedrooms are my favorite part), we head down to Indian Mound Cemetery to see both the Indian mound, an ancient Native American burial site, and the Confederate memorial, the first in the nation to be erected after the war (in 1867). It’s fairly haunting, an obelisk topped by a shrouded urn. The whole place, of course, is pretty haunting, not least because it’s literally in the backyard of the Romney School. If I know kids, they love that.
The next day, we plan to head out to Fort Mill Ridge, a Civil War (of course) redoubt that boasts some of the best-preserved earthworks from the conflict. And we’ll want to drop in at Mountain Tyme Arts and Crafts, up near the Potomac Eagle station (for the sightseeing train that’s the main reason most folks come to - or through - Romney), to check out the work of local artists.
But first we take a walking tour of more of the town’s historic homes and buildings. We’re on Rosemary Lane, making for Romney Presbyterian Church (wait, isn’t he Mormon? ba-bing!), which was used as a, yes, Civil War hospital, when I spy it.
On a front lawn across the street. A presidential placard.
Details: Romney, W.Va.
Route 50 East
Retro 1950s motel on the edge of town. Clean, comfortable rooms. Singles $59, doubles $71. Each additional person $4.
Country Inn at High View
Route 259 South, High View
Sparkling new B&B with country decor and beautiful views. About 30 miles from Romney. Four rooms plus a granary guesthouse. Rates from $150.
Courthouse Corner Cafe
4 Main St.
Friendly, funky eatery on the main drag, serving cold and grilled sandwiches as well as soups and salads. Also serves breakfast. Cold sandwiches $1.50 to $4.95; grilled $3.25 to $6.75.
Lost River Brewing Co.
155 W. Main St., Wardensville
Fine dining in a casual storefront atmosphere. About 40 miles from Romney. Entrees from $12.99.
Civil War Museum and Visitor Center
91 S. High St.
Museum run by the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation. The building also houses the Romney Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a gift shop and an exhibit of Fenton glass. Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Free.
Davis History House
Hampshire County Public Library
153 W. Main St.
Historic log house occupied by the Davis family until 1984. Contains family furnishings as well as Civil War memorabilia. Donations welcome.
Indian Mound Cemetery
Route 50 and School Street
Includes a Native American burial mound from around A.D. 500 to 1000 as well as the first memorial to Confederate soldiers erected in the nation. Free.
Fort Mill Ridge
Two miles off Route 50 West
Civil War fort with well-preserved trenches and earthworks, surrounded by a 40-minute interpretive loop. Accessible sunrise to sunset.
Mountain Tyme Arts and Crafts
Route 28 North
Shop for art, pottery, textiles and jewelry handcrafted by local artists.