McMurran by F Johnson IMG1935001.tif

McMurran Hall by Fran Johnson. From the 1979 Charles Town Kiwanis calendar in the Jefferson County Museum archive.

Rezin Davis Shepherd was born in 1784, eight years after the death of his grandfather, Thomas Shepherd, the founder of Mecklenburg. According to Dean A. D. Kenamond, Rezin’s father, Captain Abraham Shepherd, named his second son in honor of his friend Captain Rezin Davis who commanded the Hagerstown Horse Artillery. Following the death of Abraham Shepherd, Lot 36, on the northeast corner of German and King Streets, passed to sons James and Rezin.

According to Dean Kenamond, the Shepherds constructed a “stone house or ‘fort’” on the lot and that is where Abraham Shepherd was born and was where he and his wife, Eleanor Strode Shepherd, raised their family of two daughters and six sons. The stone residence was torn down in 1812, but Kenamond indicated that a grist mill on the lot continued to grind grain until it too was razed in 1856. At some point, Rezin Davis Shepherd became the sole proprietor of Lot 36 when he traded his interest in other land to brother James for James’ share of what was called “Abraham Shepherd’s mill lot.”

Unlike his father and grandfather, Rezin Davis Shepherd sought his fortune elsewhere and at age 16, found his way to Baltimore.

For two years he clerked for William Taylor who sent him to New Orleans in 1802.

With a good head for the trading business, Shepherd started his own import enterprise, and eventually became a very wealthy man.

In the 1840s Shepherd began making frequent visits to his birthplace, now called Shepherds Town, and in 1849 moved permanently to Wild Goose on the Shepherd Grade. Shepherd was very generous with his wealth, “estimated from two to three million,” and “he would advance money to the Town Council for special needs.”

Shepherd was particularly generous to his church, the English Church on Lot 40 which lent its name to Church Street.

On Tuesday, June 9, 1857 “a heavy rain, accompanied with hail, let loose upon us, with the admonition that ‘Heaven’s Artillery’ was pouring a ‘broadside’ into our camp.”

The deluge caused Town Run “to swell to overflowing submerging our streets” with resultant serious damage to both Princess and Mill Streets.

Soon after the flood, The Shepherdstown Register’s Editor, John H. Zittle, properly credited Mayor Joseph Welshans with having the dirt streets “paved in a substantial manner,” adding that “this improvement is much needed and meets the approval of everyone.”

What Zittle did not mention was that Rezin Davis Shepherd had “lent” the town $600 to make the street repairs. He could not know what future effect this act of philanthropy would have on Shepherdstown.

Since the summer of 1800, the Shepherdstown Town Council presumably held its meetings in the newly constructed one-story market house “in King Street where it intersects with German Street.”

It is unknown what Rezin Davis thought about the market house as a meeting house, but it is known that at the Town Council meeting held on Monday, March 1, 1858 it was “Ordered that the Mayor [Joseph Welshans], Jonathan Nixon and George Byers be a committee to confer with Mr. R. D. Shepherd in relation to building a town hall.” Three weeks later, on March 22, the three men related that “The committee appointed to confer with R. D. Shepherd report that a letter received by them from Mr. Shepherd is favorable, he’s donating for the purpose of building a hall the amount due him by the Corporation.”

Instead of collecting the $600 lent to the town to fix the streets, Rezin Shepherd converted the debt into a donation to build a town hall. Inspired by Shepherd’s generosity “the mayor appointed Jonathan Nixon, Resin Shugart, and George Byers a committee to confer with the committee of the Masons and Sons of Temperance in reference to building a hall and report to the Council.”

Rezin Shepherd would end up giving much more than $600. He offered Lot 36 as the location for Town Hall, and the June 11, 1859 issue of The Shepherdstown Register reported that “we noticed on Tuesday [June 7th] that the workmen were engaged in digging out the foundation for Mr. R. D. Shepherd’s Town Hall, to be erected upon the elevated square opposite the Market House in the centre of our town.”

According to Zittle, the lot and the building were “a donation to this town, for the use and benefit of the Public,” and due to Shepherd’s “many pleasant associations of his childhood.”

Joseph Randall was responsible for the foundation work mentioned in The Shepherdstown Register. When Randall’s work was done, John W. Grant would take over and begin the brickwork. The interior carpentry work was the responsibility of the team of Jacob Swagler Sheetz and George William Humrickhouse.

Once again, the work was contracted to local men who during their careers were responsible for numerous Shepherdstown building projects.

Shepherd’s plan called for a two large rooms, one on top of the other. Measuring thirty feet wide facing German Street and 62 feet deep along King Street, the first floor was intended for use by the Town Council and for public meetings.

The second floor was set aside for use by “orders and societies of this town to hold their meetings.” When finished, Zittle opined that the Town Hall “will be quite an ornament to our town.” By late September, the foundation work was complete, and John Grant had started raising the brick walls. Plans were under way to lay the Town Hall’s cornerstone on Saturday, October 6, 1859. On the day the cornerstone was laid, five miles south of Sharpsburg at Dr. Kennedy’s farm house, a man named Brown was also making plans.

On the festivity scale, the cornerstone laying was a perfect 10. At 11 a.m. sharp, Marshall Albert Humrickhouse called the fete to order, and the procession of hundreds which formed on Public Square set off to march “through our principal streets.” If the list of participants was accurate, most villages within a 20-mile radius must have been ghost towns. Every cornet band, fraternal organization, and church was represented, and each had a memorial object to deposit in the cornerstone.

 When the procession returned to Public Square, Landon Carter Heskitt, Secretary of Mt. Nebo Lodge, presided over arranging the memorials into a box which was then carefully fitted into the cornerstone. Among the memorials in the Town Hall cornerstone were a daguerreotype of Rezin Davis Shepherd; a list of the names of the men who labored to build Town Hall; the Town Council roster: Mayor Joseph Welshans, Recorder George Byers, Treasurer William M. Sheetz, and Councilmen David Billmyer, John Boroff, Joseph Fleming, Jonathan Nixon, Dr. John Reynolds, John L. Rickard, and John Smurr; copies of the four county weekly newspapers; a variety of coins; rosters of each of the fraternal organizations; and even a piece of blood-stained flooring from the Birmingham Friends Meeting House which was appropriated by General Washington for use as a field hospital following the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777.

In the Saturday, October 15, 1859 issue of The Shepherdstown Register, Editor Zittle include this tease:

“We are compelled to omit, from unavoidable circumstances, some interesting facts relative to the site upon which the Town Hall, of this place, is being erected. They will appear next week.”

Understandably, for the next several weeks Zittle’s weekly was dominated by the news of John Brown’s Raid and Zittle’s “interesting facts” gave way to matters of greater import.

R. D. Shepherd’s Town Hall was ready for occupancy in 1860 and in the midst of the aftermath of the trials and execution of John Brown and six of his men, the Town Council led by recently elected Mayor Dr. John Reynolds took occupancy of the new building. Reynolds was re-elected mayor in April 1861, two weeks before the Virginia Secession Convention would vote to hold a state-wide referendum to decide Virginia’s fate in the Union. While awaiting the secession referendum, the town council’s agenda was dominated by discussion with the Vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church regarding the removal of the town clock from the steeple of their church on the corner of Church and High Streets to the Town Hall. To seal the deal, the Town Council agreed to pay the Vestry $120 to cover the cost of new faces for the clock, and on November 5 the Council ordered that the town’s treasurer pay William Miller Sheetz and his brother Jacob Swagler Sheetz each “$1.25 for one day’s work in removing town clock.” By the end of the year the mayor and council would have to deal with a matter far more serious than the town clock.

Virginia voted to secede, and the Potomac River became the natural boundary between the Union and the Confederacy. Seated along the prominent cliffs overlooking the Potomac, Shepherdstown was the guardian of two well-known strategic passages into Virginia: a wooden covered bridge at the foot of Princess Street and the ancient foot path known as Pack Horse Ford just downstream. In June 1861 the Confederate Army took one piece off the board—they burned the bridge and it remained out of service until after the war. That made Pack Horse Ford the only north-south access from Harper’s Ferry to Williamsport. By October 1861, several companies of the 12th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers were picketed along the Maryland shore opposite Shepherdstown. They were there to keep an eye on both Pack Horse Ford and the C & O Canal. The right wing of the regiment was bivouacked on Douglas’ Hill across the Potomac from Shepherdstown along the rolling hillside above Bridgeport. Apparently, Union pickets posted along the Potomac became a favorite target of unknown assailants who took refuge in Shepherdstown. After several weeks of near misses, the 12th’s Colonel had had enough. On December 30th Colonel William H. Link dictated the following dispatch and had it sent by courier to Mayor John Reynolds. The message said in part:

Headquarter’s 12th Regiment Indiana Volunteers

December 29, 1861

“Sir:

This is to notify you that if the firing upon the pickets from Shepherdstown is not desisted in I shall be under the necessity of shelling your town. I shall deplore resorting to so severe a measure on account of the women and children that may be injured or driven out, but I am satisfied that yourself and the citizens can prevent it if you wish. Be assured that I will do just what I say and if any of my men are killed or injured by those skulkers firing upon them I shall take ample vengeance.

W. H. Link, Col.

12th Regiment Indiana Volunteers

Mayor Reynolds took the Colonel’s warning seriously and convened an emergency meeting of the Town Council. Once made aware of the Colonel’s threat to shell the town, the council must have realized that the new Town Hall with its clock spire pointed to the heavens would be a perfect target for Union guns. They acted quickly and adopted a number of resolutions. First, the Council agreed to “arrest and punish” anyone who fired a weapon within town limits. A Committee of Vigilance was appointed to assist Town Sergeant George M. Bast and together they would patrol the town’s assuring that no one violated the resolution. In the Council’s opinion, the perpetrators may have been spurred on by “Dutch courage,” and they consequently moved to “arrest the sale or distribution of intoxicating liquors in this town and vicinity.”

The resolutions were drawn up and Reynolds’ final words, written after just eight months of war, served as a dramatic summary of the state of affairs in Shepherdstown:

“Our town is filled with widows and children, most of them poor, and the entire population are non-combatants.

If under these circumstances and in spite of our pledges and utmost vigilance some reckless or malignant person shall elude our vigilance and select this place from which to fire across the river, and from my knowledge of the people, civil and military, I can give assurance in advance that no other will.  We solemnly protest in the name of humanity and before the world against vengeance being wreaked upon the innocent, the unprotected, and the unoffending.”

Town Sergeant Bast and the Committee of Vigilance maintained law and order until September 1862, but that is another matter. Whether or not the colonel’s threat influenced Reynolds’ decision, he did not stand for election in 1862 and was replaced by Jonathan Nixon. The next year James Hervey Shepherd, grandson of town founder Thomas Shepherd, was elected mayor and he remained the town’s leader until war’s end. In April 1866, the town government was re-organized under the dominion of the state of West Virginia, and George Byers was elected mayor of Shepherdstown. He and the town council would soon have new roommates in Town Hall.

Civil War damage to the Court House in Charlestown caused the removal of the County Court and Shepherdstown became the County Seat. Initially, “the old English Church” on the corner of Church and High Streets was appropriated by the board of supervisors as the location for the circuit court. The supervisors temporarily met “at their office over W. A. Chapline’s store” on German Street. R. D. Shepherd died in November 1865, and in his obituary Editor Zittle mentioned that Shepherd’s only heir, daughter Ellen Shepherd Brooks, was “requested to give the use of Town Hall” to the citizens of Shepherdstown. Brooks’ sons, Peter Jr. and Shepherd, were named executors of their grandfather’s estate and hired Attorney William A. Chapline to handle their affairs.

Following in the footsteps of their grandfather, the Brooks brothers indicated their willingness to allow Town Hall to be used as the Court House and they also donated a lot “upon which a jail should be erected.” Both were given conditionally “so long as the lot and buildings erected thereon were used for county purposes.” They also donated $2,000 toward the erection of the new jail. With that settled, the supervisors hired local contractor Samuel Barnhart to add two wings, one on the east and one on the west, to provide office space necessary for court officials. Joseph Ferrells & Co. was contracted to paint the exterior walls of the new Court House, and when complete Editor Zittle noted “the contrast between brown and white, displays taste and adds to its pleasing appearance.”

The County Seat and the Court House remained in Shepherdstown until 1872. According to the agreement, when not used by Jefferson County, the old Court House reverted to the Brooks family. Prior to the change of location of the County Seat, there was an effort to establish a college in Shepherdstown. When that effort reached fruition, the Brooks family was contacted, and “Mr. Shepherd Brooks of Boston, in the same spirit of benevolence that characterized his grand sire, has recently leased at a nominal sum, these buildings and their appurtenances for school purposes.” In recognition of Brooks’ generosity, the school’s trustees named the institution Shepherd College.

Shepherd College opened its doors for the first time on Monday, September 2, 1872 “under competent instructors,” namely Joseph McMurran, Rev. Joel T. Rossiter, and Dr. Alexander Tinsley. McMurran taught English, Latin, and Mathematics; Rossiter German and Greek; and Tinsley offered instruction in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. In addition to his teaching duties, McMurran served as the school’s principal. In May 1891, Shepherd Brooks gave the “Shepherd College property” to three Trustees--George M. Beltzhoover, Henry Shepherd, and John Zittle—to manage the property as they saw fit. The trio could rent but not sell the property, and any income derived from rental was required to be applied to the property’s maintenance.

Whether the homeplace of Abraham Shepherd and his family, or first the Town Hall and then the county’s Court House, Lot 36 has always held a place of prominence on Public Square in Shepherdstown. In recognition of its status as the birthplace of Shepherd College and in honor of the school’s first principal, in 1927 the faculty of Shepherd College named the “Old College Building” McMurran Hall. A fitting tribute to Joseph McMurran, his name attached to “one of the most imposing architectural designed buildings in West Virginia.”

Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson.

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