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Spence Perry: Hagerstown needs more than 30-year-old ideas

August 21, 2013|By SPENCE PERRY

One ridge to the west of us, where U.S. 30 and Pa. 655 intersect, is the village of Harrisonville, Pa.

Once it was a busy place. Stores bought local produce and sold the necessities. There were small sawmills. There was a school and there were several churches. The local post office moved the mail. 

Licking Creek runs through the village on its way to the Potomac River. It powered the mills and offered fishing and swimming.

Harrisonville came into being in the early 19th century. It was not without history even then. Route 655 was originally an Indian trail, “The Warriors Path,” that ran from the Potomac River near Hancock into northern Pennsylvania. Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, was an early trail west for people moving on in search of their fortune.

The village was close to great moments in American history. It was part of the Whiskey Rebellion (which George Washington and Alexander Hamilton put down from their headquarters in Bedford, 15 miles to the west). 

During the Civil War, the Western Pennsylvania backcountry was alive with Confederate irregulars. They operated in the area as late as the spring of 1864.

Today, Harrisonville is a quiet wide place in the road. The mills are gone, the one store is open a few hours a day, and Miss Thelma, the postmistress, attends the customers window at the post office.

Harrisonville’s latest loss was the mid-19th century Odd Fellows lodge, which was flattened to make way for a new bridge and highway realignment for U.S. 30 over Licking Creek.

Why did Harrisonville die?

The obvious reason is that it became economically irrelevant. Small farms and small sawmills no longer paid. The small stores could not compete — even with stores in McConnellsburg, much less big city big-boxes. 

The schools were consolidated to better educate. Folks moved away, and the kids went to college for better, bigger lives as the old people moved into assisted living awaiting the end.

But long before all this happened, one suspects something else happened. Harrisonville was not able to reimagine and reinvent itself. Towns and cities — and even villages — can outlive the economic basis for their founding. When this happens, they must come up with a new reason for living or wither and die.

This process is going on all over the country, and in 10 or 15 years, we will see where community imagination triumphed and where it failed or did not exist.

Hagerstown has good imagination machinery. The Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Economic Development Commission, CHIEF, the Community Foundation, the United Way and others have people with the skills and experience to devise a way up and out of the community’s present slough of despond.

Certainly, there is evidence that the people would support a vision that made sense to them. But the biggest single idea the imagination factory has come up with so far is a new baseball stadium — an idea that is 30 years old.

Hagerstown is in need of a bigger idea. The latest big-box distribution center went to Shippensburg. The most recent rail project went to Greencastle. The bank headquarters are largely one, manufacturing is a shadow of its former self. 

The things we used to do are not there for us. We must find new things, done in a new way, and we must offer an environment where this is possible.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs. 

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