Honoring a man of mystery and mastery

May 08, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Keith Hammersla recalls the first time he toured the General Adam Stephen House in Martinsburg.

He was about 7 years old, and he visited the stone colonial house on the Tuscarora Creek as part of a children's program at the public library.

Since then, Hammersla has learned a lot about the home of Martinsburg's founder and the history of the town.

Curator of the General Adam Stephen House since 1993, Hammersla, 39, has written articles, given tours of the house - even did some housecleaning last week in preparation for this weekend's celebration.

The annual event Saturday, May 10, will mark the 225th anniversary of Martinsburg's founding, the town laid out on Stephen's lands and chartered by the Virginia Assembly in 1778.


From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Stephen house grounds and the Triple Brick museum next door will be the center of the anniversary celebration.

There will be music, crafts, food, souvenir T-shirts. Harold "Gene" Butts will provide a flintlock rifle demonstration, giving meaning to phrases such as "keep your powder dry" and "lock, stock and barrel," showing just how involved it was to fire a weapon in the 1750s.

The solid stone house, believed to have been completed in 1789, will be open for tours Saturday. It also is open from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, May 1 through Oct. 31. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

The house was a shambles when it was donated to the city in 1959, Hammersla says. Its restoration by The General Adam Stephen Memorial Association took 10 years. None of the house's antique furnishings belonged to Stephen or are original to the house. They have been collected through gifts or purchased by the Memorial Association.

There are portraits of Stephen's grandchildren. There's a portrait of Gen. Otho Williams, for whom Williamsport, the little town across the river, was named.

There also is a portrait of Mary Vernon Mish, a founding member of the organization and its first president. Mish, who wrote a history of Martinsburg's founding father, also was instrumental in the restoration of Hager's Fancy, the home of Jonathan Hager, who founded Hagers-town.

Mish wrote of the Stephen, a young Scottish physician who was born in 1718 and emigrated to the Colony of Virginia in 1748. He practiced medicine in Fredericksburg, Va., for five years.

In 1754, as the French and Indian War began, Stephen took a military commission to serve in the forces of Virginia. Capt. Stephen fought under the command of a young colonel named George Washington. By the end of the year, Stephen commanded all the Virginia forces on the frontier.

Stephen and Washington had other encounters. Mish reported that Stephen opposed Washington in his run for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 and campaigned unsuccessfully against him in 1761.

Later that year, the Virginia troops were disbanded, and Stephen resumed civilian life for a short time.

Ann, Stephen's only daughter, was born in 1761. One of several unsolved mysteries in the Stephen story is whether or not he was married to Ann's mother and if she died shortly after the child was born, or whether his housekeeper Phoebe, who raised Ann, was actually her mother, Hammersla says.

In 1762, Stephen commanded 500 Virginia militiamen and was commended for his bravery and success.

He retired as a brigadier general, returning from military duty in 1768. Stephen served as a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses and performed other civic and church-related duties.

He also set about acquiring land. In 1770 and 1773, Stephen purchased the land which would become the city of Martinsburg. It was well-placed near well-traveled roads - later to become U.S. 11 and W.Va. 9, according to Hammersla's 1997 articles in West Virginia Magazine. There was land for his plantations and water for his businesses, including two mills, an armory and a distillery.

He built his house over a cave opening that served as an entrance to tunnels - part natural, part man-made - which run under the city of Martinsburg, Hammersla says.

Stephen was a military man, Hammersla points out, and the tunnels would have provided escape from Indians or later the British. Older Martinsburg residents, who grew up in the town, have told Hammersla that they played in tunnels as children.

In the 1940s and '50s, property owners filled tunnel entrances with rocks and dirt to reduce liability, Hammersla says.

Members of Tri-State Grotto, a local chapter of the National Speleological Society, have been helping for 10 years to open the tunnel entrance at King Street. They have recently started to clear the entrance at the Stephen house, Hammersla says.

If it doesn't rain Saturday, Grotto members will be on hand to give tunnel tours.

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