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Jefferson Co. seeks to buy 19th century mill in fight to preserve battlefield

July 21, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The battle over the Battle of Shepherdstown continues nearly 149 years after the last shot was fired.

The latest volley: Martin Burke of the Jefferson County Landmarks Commission and the Civil War Trust's Tom Gilmore will soon be negotiating with New Hampshire businessman Harry Blunt to buy a 19th century cement mill near Shepherdstown.

If the parties agree on price, Jefferson County will own the 17-acre property. Although a separate project, the old mill site is part of the property known as The Battle of Shepherdstown, which includes a 122-acre adjoining tract known as Far Away Farm.

The farm is the subject of a seven-year fight by neighbors, preservation and Civil War groups to stop a Maryland developer from turning it into a 152-unit, single-family housing development.

The issue surfaced in 2004 when the developers, Maryland brothers Bruce and Michael Boltz, applied for a conditional-use permit to begin their project.

Since then, their plans have moved beyond to the Jefferson County Planning Commission, to the Circuit Court on appeal and finally to an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The latter overruled the local court and ordered the planning commission to issue the developers their permit.

The Boltz brothers found themselves before the planning commission again, this time for an extension of their community impact statement, which expired in December. The planning commission denied the extension request and the brothers, in March, again appealed to Circuit Court.

During that process, two $100,000 federal grants, administered through the West Virginia Division of Highways, were allocated for the Far Away Farms preservation effort. The grants have since been re-allocated toward buying the old mill property, said Burke.

Harry Blunt of New London, N.H., wants $400,000 for the 17 acres. It has been appraised at $339,000, an amount the locals have cobbled together through the federal grants, a $100,000 grant from the Civil War Trust, another $34,000 from the Save Historic Antietam Foundation and $5,000 from the Battle of Shepherdstown Preservation Association, officials said.

In June, the Jefferson County Commission reneged on a $100,000 pledge that they had first allocated for the Far Away Farm fight and later switched for the buying of the cement mill site. At one time, the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Commission considered taking over the mill property, but members changed their mind because of concerns over how to maintain it.

The preservation groups hope to save the mill property with an eye on turning it over to the National Park Service for eventual acceptance by Antietam National Battlefield or perhaps Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Burke said.

The old mill also could have a connection to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park since the cement it made was shipped up and down river on canal boats, according to the preservationists.

Burke said the mill opened in the early 1800s and was still operating around the end of that century. It made a special kind of hydraulic cement that was used to build the canal and many of the buildings in Washington, D.C., he said.

Remnants of the mill remain today, including some of the kilns, a dam and most visibly, a crumbling, two-story brick building that served as the company office.

The Battle of Shepherdstown was fought on Sept. 19-20, 1862. It followed the one-day Battle of Antietam fought across the Potomac River in Sharpsburg on Sept. 17. It involved Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army's retreat across the Potomac River at Boteler's (now Packhorse) Ford from pursuing Union forces hoping to trap the Rebels against the river.

The battle is considered to be a Confederate victory by the National Park Service.

More than 600 soldiers from both sides were killed.

The park service launched an 18-month study this summer to decide if it wants to add the battlefield and related sites, including the mill property, to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park or Antietam National Battlefield, according to a news release.

The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association, still active today, is a group of area property owners organized in 2004 by Ed Dunleavy to fight the Far Away Farm development.

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