Creating statue of Martinsburg founder proves to be a challenge

July 23, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • General Adam Stephen house in Martinsburg, W.Va.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Adam Stephen's chest span was 36 inches, but little else is known about the likeness of the Revolutionary War major general who founded Martinsburg in 1778.

With no known portrait of the Scottish-born physician, those working to erect a statue of Stephen in the town square plan to develop a composite based on paintings of the first Berkeley County sheriff's grandchildren.

"It's possible a portrait of Stephen wasn't painted due to his dismissal from the Army," said Keith Hammersla, curator for the General Adam Stephen Memorial Association Inc. in Martinsburg.

The Martinsburg City Council is expected to review the design and wording of the plaque for the Stephen statue Thursday and hear plans about the effort to procure a sculptor for the work.

The statue is not expected to be completed by the time the new, pedestrian-oriented design of town square is constructed this fall, City Manager Mark Baldwin told council members earlier this month.

Exactly how the statue will be funded also remains to be decided. The statue could not be added to the $1.3 million redesign of the square because the project's financing included grant funding that cannot be spent on what is considered art, Baldwin said.

To develop a composite, Hammersla said the portraits of four of Stephen's grandchildren could be studied for common facial characteristics. Three of his grandchildren were boys.

"You have to dig for whatever clues you can find," said Hammersla, who was asked by architect Matthew Grove to assist with the statue project.

There are written accounts that provide descriptions of Stephen, but they appear somewhat contradictory, possibly because they were written at different times in his life, Hammersla said.

In his book about Stephen, University of Richmond history professor Harry M. Ward said Martinsburg's founder "undoubtedly cut a good physical appearance, although all that is known is that he was of medium stature and had a 36-inch chest span."

Ward went onto describe Stephen as "splendidly educated, debonair, a natural leader, shrewd in business and ambitions."

"Perhaps though he was too much of a hell raiser and too fond of strong drink," Ward wrote in "Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty."

Accused of intoxication after the Continental Army lost the Battle of Germantown (Pa.) in 1777, Stephen was relieved of his command by George Washington for "unofficer-like behavior." Stephen, who maintained his sobriety, was replaced by Marquis de LaFayette, a move that ultimately led to more French aid, which historians say was critical to eventually winning the Revolutionary War.

Upon returning home to Virginia, Stephen laid out 169 lots on 133 platted acres along Tuscarora Creek to establish Martinsburg, which was incorporated in October 1778. Stephen went on to serve in the Virginia Assembly, where he gave speeches in support of the Virginia colony's ratification of the U.S. Constitution, according to accounts of his life. He died July 16, 1791.

Given the passage of time between Stephen's dismissal and the war's end in 1783, Hammersla said it is entirely possible a portrait wasn't painted.   

A national search for a painting of Stephen in the 1980s by the Adam Stephen Memorial Association, which included a letter sent to and published in the Dear Abby advice column, proved fruitless, Hammersla said.

Chartered in 1959, the association was formed to restore Stephen's limestone home, which overlooks Tuscarora Creek. The nonprofit organization now acts as the caretaker and administrator for the historic property at 309 E. John St., which was deeded to the City of Martinsburg after being donated by William Evers.

After years of searching, Hammersla still holds out hope that a painting of Stephen will surface. But since descendants managed to preserve other notable items, including the uniform waistcoat that Stephen wore while fighting in the French and Indian War, Hammersla has his doubts.

Stephen's gold-lace, red-wool waistcoat with guilded civilian buttons has been on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for about three years, Hammersla said.

"It is one of the few textile items they have from the French and Indian War period," Hammersla said.

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