- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

During the Civil War, historians say, Martinsburg, W.Va., changed hands between Union and Confederate armies some 50 times or more, as both sides struggled to wrest control of the rail center.

To this day, Martinsburg is a desirable location, although one with fewer high-end restaurants and shops than its smaller neighbor to the east, Shepherdstown. Yet the proprietors in place there now are hopeful.

Most of Eric White’s customers relocated to Martinsburg — or more broadly, the Eastern Panhandle — from Washington and its immediate environs. They’re the people he and his wife and business partner, Laura Carter, had in mind in 2004 when they opened Blue River, an upscale clothing store at 205 N. Queen St. in Martinsburg.

After relocating to the area from Silver Spring in 2001, the couple decided to open a store that would carry high-end clothing, much of it made from natural fibers, as well as shoes, accessories and housewares.

Mr. White later left his job selling computers and software to the federal government and threw himself into learning about the world of fashion — all the while adjusting to a slower pace of life.

“In Silver Spring, we couldn’t afford a decent house,” he said on a recent afternoon in his store, leaning against a glass case filled with sterling silver earrings and necklaces. “Maybe we could have gotten a cracker box, or a fixer-upper.”

After getting lost one day on a drive along unincorporated Martinsburg’s meandering roads, they stumbled upon a house for sale by its owner. Mr. White and Ms. Carter ultimately purchased the home on 11/2 acres outside the town center for $148,000 in 2001; he says its value probably has doubled by now.

Queen Street’s other business establishments range from a VFW lodge to a diner called the Spring House restaurant. Some of the Victorian-era buildings are boarded up; others see a steady flow of foot traffic from residents and day-trippers.

Carol Crabtree is executive director of the Eastern Panhandle Regional Planning and Development Council. Based in Martinsburg, the council helps local governments apply for grants, engage in long-term planning and resolve problems common to all three counties.

Ms. Crabtree says she hopes that projects such as the Judicial Center, set to open next month, will help attract more businesses to the downtown, helping spur revitalization and attract more residents.

Moving attorneys, clerks and other personnel to the center “will centralize everything to one location,” she says. “Parking will not be as much of an issue.”

Martinsburg is making an effort to preserve many of its streets’ 19th-century facades, Ms. Crabtree says.

“We have several historical locations or buildings that are being preserved” and repurposed, she says, including the Judicial Center and the nearby building where the council’s offices are housed.

Many buyers are willing to make the commute from the Eastern Panhandle to Loudoun County or the District for a lifestyle they say is more peaceful and rural, says Jackie Lewis, the founder of Greentree Realty in nearby Shepherdstown.

Martinsburg’s train station provides an alternative.

In fact, train buffs will find much to engage them in Martinsburg, including the historic B&O; Roundhouse, among those structures rebuilt in 1866 after being destroyed during the Civil War. In 1843, the B&O; first linked Martinsburg with Baltimore. The Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 229 E. Martin St., adjacent to the platforms commuters use today.

The founder of Martinsburg, Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen, lived at 309 E. John St. Visitors may tour his restored home from January through November.

The Berkeley County Historical Society is housed in the Belle Boyd House, named for the Confederate spy who lived there. The structure was built in 1853 by her father, Ben Boyd. After Belle Boyd was arrested, she was briefly held at the Berkeley County Courthouse at 100 W. King St., which boasts some of its original vaults and fixtures.

On Nov. 2-3, the West Virginia Book Faire, featuring authors signing books about local history and a trolley shuttling browsers among different sites, will take place in downtown Martinsburg.

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