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Activities celebrate founding

May 12, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Over the railroad tracks, across loose rocks and along a beaten grassy path, a group followed J.C Fisher into the bowels of 310 E. King St.

At street level, the house is lived in and ordinary, but its basement contains clues to Martinsburg's past.

The city's legendary tunnel system has never been proven, but it was fodder for speculation Saturday during the annual Founder's Day celebration.

Martinsburg formed 225 years ago, not long after founder Gen. Adam Stephen bought land there in 1770 and 1773.

Saturday's scheduled commemoration at the Adam Stephen House on East John Street included demonstrations of flintlock rifles, dulcimer music and quilting.

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An earlier rain forced the Loudoun Border Guards Fife & Drum Corps from Leesburg, Va., to give up a lawn stage and play music on the covered porch of the brick house.

Wearing a military uniform from the French and Indian War era, Martinsburg High School math teacher Terry Heck sat under a white tent on the grass. He is one of five adults and six or so young men in Boy Scout Venture Crew 29 in Berkeley County, W.Va.

Venture crews are for Boy Scouts ages 14 to 20 with particular interests.

Heck said Venture Crew 29 re-enactors portray Rutherford's Rangers, a militia commissioned by George Washington.

Heck said the Venture Crew gives him a chance to sit and talk history with many different people, which he likes.

Across the railroad tracks, Fisher, a Berkeley Springs, W.Va., resident and member of a cave exploration group called Tri-State Grotto, served as a tour guide.

Visitors entered a side door near the corner of East King and Swartz streets and stepped down, down, down into history.

Fisher said that according to local lore there are tunnels connecting downtown buildings and children popping up unexpectedly in other people's basements - even a tunnel that terminates inside a local bank vault. So far, no one knows.

About five years ago, Tri-State Grotto investigated the story by examining the basement at 310 E. King St. The cave explorers were lured by an offer to meet regularly, rent-free, at the Adam Stephen House as part of the deal.

Tri-State Grotto picked up an excavation project that was abandoned around 50 years ago, Fisher said.

Tri-State Grotto has worked through three basement rooms at the Adam Stephen House, but found no connecting tunnels. The group is working on the fourth and last room, which is under the kitchen.

At 310 E. King St., a set of wide, bumpy stone steps curves around and down to a lower level with an arched ceiling. The temperature drops noticeably. Fisher said it might have been an early version of a grocery store, or maybe a brewery.

"For 200 years ago, this was pretty high-tech refrigeration," he said.

A craggy set of stones descends to another level, which Fisher kept off-limits Saturday because of slippery mud.

However, he pointed to his group's ongoing project on that lowest level: a jagged hole that now dips down 19 feet. Fisher said the hole is so narrow that to excavate further, one person must stand in it, use a post-hole digger between his feet and slowly lift dirt to a shoulder-level bucket. Every so often, the bucket is emptied.

One theory is that the hole leads to a spring. An inside source of water would have been valuable - and safe - while the French and Indian War was being fought outside, he said.

Tri-State Grotto, which has about 90 members, is affiliated with the National Speleological Society, said member Bob Bennett of Gerrardstown, W.Va.

Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts have helped with the tunnel-digging project.

"We've been doing this four or five years," Fisher said. "People come every year to see how we're doing."

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