News & Politics

Mountain High Life

A small university makes West Virginia’s oldest town a hot spot for culture and fun.

When Debora and Thomas Harding were planning to move to the Mid-Atlantic area from England six years ago, they came across Shepherdstown on the Internet. A college town close to a train station, mountains, and a river, it met all their criteria. Founded in 1762, it also had Colonial architecture on quiet streets with interesting shops and restaurants.

What really impressed them was the cultural offerings: a theater festival, poetry readings, live music, art exhibitions, and screenings of independent films. “Then I looked at the population,” says Debora, a writer. She was shocked that a town with about 1,100 residents could support such an arts scene.

“People here are hungry for art,” says Kitty Clark, a modern dancer who arrived from New York City in 1999. Neither she nor her husband, a musician and composer, had lined up a job before moving. Now Clark runs an annual dance festival and an arts nonprofit, and she and her husband teach at Shepherd University. “People from all over are sending me proposals to come here and dance,” she says.

Perched above the Potomac near Harpers Ferry and about 80 miles from Washington, Shepherdstown has long been a magnet for arts lovers, thanks in part to Shepherd University, which brings in speakers and performers, hosts student concerts and art events, and provides space to outside groups.

“There’s a vibrancy and an intellectual feel that Shepherdstown has because of the college,” says John Christman, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker and a longtime resident. When his daughters, now grown, were preschoolers, they took Spanish, sign-language, and art classes at the university. Christman uses the school’s library and cheers for its football and basketball teams.

The university also hosts the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepherdstown’s foremost cultural event. The festival brings visitors from across the country each summer for new plays, including many world premieres. “We’re the oldest town in West Virginia producing the newest plays in America,” says Ed Herendeen, the festival’s founder and producing director. “This is a place where we can take big risks.”

Herendeen, who raised three children in Shepherstown, adds that it’s an all-around good place to live—a close-knit community of well-educated people, a place where kids can safely walk to school, and a paradise for outdoors enthusiasts. “You’re ten minutes away from being in some of the most beautiful wilderness in this country,” he says. Yet he can get on the train in the morning and make it to New York City in time for a 1 pm meeting.

And Shepherdstown recently went high-tech: The whole town has free wireless Internet access.

Gregory Didden, a local real-estate agent, says nearly all his clients are from the DC area. Many are retired or work in Shepherdstown, but some commute by car or ride the MARC train the 75 minutes to DC.

In town, prices start around $400,000 for houses that need renovation; a large historic home in good condition can go for as much as $800,000. Country properties sell for up to $4 million—the asking price for a historic estate, on 37 acres, that once belonged to relatives of George Washington.

Lisa Welch, a consultant to drug companies, and her husband bought a weekend home in Shepherdstown in 2002 and moved full-time from Silver Spring two years later. To her, the interesting people are the best thing about Shepherdstown. “Almost everyone speaks a foreign language,” she says, “and everybody’s always reading a good book.”

Welch has jumped into the town’s cultural swirl, cofounding the Shepherdstown Film Society, which hosts free screenings of independent and foreign films.

“I thought life was fun before I moved here, but now I realize I didn’t know what fun was,” she says. These days she visits Washington less often, instead inviting friends to stay with her. Says Welch: “I don’t want to leave town because I’m afraid I’ll miss something.”

More Good College Towns

History buffs and outdoors enthusiasts are drawn to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where intellectual life is enriched by its college, which ranks among the nation’s best liberal-arts schools.

In rural Westminster—35 miles northwest of Baltimore—McDaniel College offers a lecture series for retired residents and hosts concerts and other performances open to the public.

In St. Mary’s City, Maryland, near where the Potomac enters the Chesapeake, St. Mary’s College hosts public lectures and allows adults to enroll in courses (discounts are available for retirees). An arts alliance sponsors waterfront concerts.

West Virginia University is the cultural anchor for Morgantown, a small mountain city full of historic buildings and independent businesses. Big-time football and major symphony concerts are just some of the college-provided diversions enjoyed by the 29,000 residents.


This article is part of Washingtonian's Great Small Towns package. Click here to read about more great small towns.