In Romney, W.Va., the paradoxes of America on display

Oldest town works to preserve tradition

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ROMNEY, W.Va. -- Royce Saville is a lawyer, a man steeped in Confederate history who lives in a house that served as Stonewall Jackson's headquarters, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association -- and a Democrat.

Like so many in this eastern panhandle town -- the Pancakes, the Kuykendalls, the Stumps, the Millers -- he has ancestors in the Indian Mound Cemetery on the edge of town, comes from a farm background, treasures his town and knows its fault lines.

Romney, which shares the name of the Republican presidential candidate and likely will give Mitt Romney a majority of its votes, is a community of contradictions.

It's the oldest town in the state and county seat of Hampshire County, which voted against splitting from Virginia during the Civil War and remained Confederate after West Virginia became a Union state in 1863. Legend and one of many historical markers in town say Romney changed hands 56 times during the war after Union forces occupied the town in a harsh campaign.

Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson drove Union soldiers out early, but Confederate troops were pulled out and northern forces regained control, only to be hectored continually by informal Confederate-affiliated militias.

It's an isolated place where you'll see a clerk at the Sheetz along Main Street conducting a transaction in American Sign Language with students and graduates of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, founded in 1870 and sitting on 79 acres in the center of town.

Statistically, it's a poor town in a poor state, but Romney is a gem, full of well-kept homes at the edge of a narrow valley along the South Branch of the Potomac, dominated by the green spines of long ridges that run for miles.

Jobs have decreased over the years and many young people have left, but population has grown as others move in.

Hampshire County is majority Democratic registration, but has voted Republican in presidential elections since 1968, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Before that, though, it voted Democratic for president in every election since 1928 (except Eisenhower's second term in 1956).

The change in voting patterns comes both from new residents, many from the Washington, D.C., area, and shifts to split-ticket voting within the ranks of fiscally and socially conservative Southern Democrats.

"As the years went on, people became a lot more conservative," said Mr. Saville, 64, who says he is a moderate who goes issue by issue rather than following any party line. His wife, who is a real estate agent, is running for county commissioner. They share an office on Main Street, crammed with pictures, artifacts and firearms from the Civil War.

"With people from Washington and Baltimore moving in, it has gotten way more Republican and conservative than it was when I was a kid," said novelist Ann Pancake, 49. She is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and art teacher whom she described as progressive Democrats and said she has drawn on her West Virginia childhood in her writing. "Strange As This Weather Has Been" is a tale of a family caught in the ugly fallout of mountaintop mining. The setting is mining country in the southern part of the state, where she lived for part of her childhood. But her years in Romney from age 8 to 18 informed the characters as well, she said.

Politics in Romney

Mr. Saville said local Republicans have become more organized in recent years, and while there is no Obama campaign office there, a Romney headquarters opened earlier this month. (No one seems to have made much of the coincidence of town and candidate name. The town was named for an English port when it was chartered in 1762 by Lord Fairfax.)

The Romney office was empty but for volunteer Edith Shankle last Sunday, even with the foot traffic generated by the annual Hampshire Heritage Fest. Ms. Shankle, 78, moved to Romney in 2000; she and her husband had bought property outside of town 10 years before. She said the economy was good during the Bush years and believes the Republicans can bring back prosperity.

Some in the area are vocal about their politics. Garry Shanholtz, 70, who runs one of the few remaining orchards of the many that once covered the flanks of Jersey Mountain just outside Romney, has huge McCain-Palin and Bush-Cheney campaign signs on the walls of his barn, as well as Romney-Ryan signs in the yard.

He'll tell you that the thousands of acres of apple and peach orchards shrank to a few hundred because government handouts ruined the will to work -- among whites, then blacks and now Hispanics. He has been sued for labor practices and sees government interference as the cause of economic decline.

Many in Romney, however, are reticent about politics, not just with a reporter, but with one another. They don't want to strain the bonds of commonality -- 4-H, church, hard work, farming, family -- that they see as holding the community together.

Thomas Stump, 48, was repairing a gate that has a habit of falling down on a recent morning on his property on River Road. His family has raised beef cattle for generations and has more than 1,000 acres at two locations. He lives in a house built in 1921 by his grandfather, his cousin lives in "Stump's Battery," a red-brick home that once belonged to Capt. George W. Stump, a well-armed opponent of Union troops who died late in the war. The Stumps are part of a co-op of eight families who pool labor, machinery, marketing and other resources to raise and sell beef cattle.

"My wife and I get sick of looking at politics," he said, because the rhetoric is so bitter. "It's driving a wedge between people.

"When we get together, we talk about farming, hunting. When we get off in politics, it doesn't seem to get anywhere."

Mr. Saville echoed the thought. "You talk to some people, and they're very nice people, but you start talking politics and you think, 'where did you get this?' "

Mr. Stump, who has a 6-year-old son, said he and families he works with regularly met recently for a retreat of sorts to discuss what binds them together and how they can preserve their way of life for the children.

"We wanted to ask, 'What are our shared values?' And basically, 'why do you still live here?' " said Mr. Stump, who left for college and a stint working in Shiprock, N.M., on the Navajo reservation there, before coming back in 1983 first to teach Latin and Spanish, then to return to farming. "It's the only thing men in our family have ever done."

Why does he still live here?

"It's the physical beauty, that's part of it. Our families go back, and we feel rooted and connected to the land. We believe in hard work, in doing things on our own. It's hard to determine what the role of government is. It's supposed to help us out. But most of our ancestors did with no government assistance.

"They were able to root out a living without help. Of course, there were sad stories, women dying in childbirth. It was not a blissful 'Little House on the Prairie' life," he said. "But we also understand the duty to help other people."

Romney economics

The unease with the divisive issues of politics is joined with concern over economic losses and what the community faces in the future.

The Koolwink Motel, established in the 1930s, is hanging on only because it's paid for, said Robert F. Lee ("Missed it by a line or a letter," he says of the similarity to Robert E. Lee).

Mr. Lee, 54, came back to town to help his in-laws run the place when they had health problems, and said the poor economy dampened the business from people who come for the nearby Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad or to spend time in the mountains.

The town of just under 2,000 has always been largely an agricultural economy, and has lost not only the orchards but many of the other job sources -- a shoe factory, the majority of the retail -- over the years. Many people now must commute to Winchester, Va., or Cumberland, Md., for jobs.

Amy Pancake works for Hampshire and Hardy County Community Foundation. She said the poverty level has been creeping up in the area and support services haven't kept up. According to 2010 census data, the average household income is $27,063.

The influx of newcomers over the last decades has driven up land prices and taxes. But the transplants also bring money and the potential to help the economy of the area.

David Pancake, Amy's husband and a cousin of Ann Pancake, the novelist, works for FNB Bank, specializing in small business development. He said more people and more development is inevitable -- "It's too pretty here, too close to populated areas," he said last week, sitting in the Courthouse Corner Cafe, a new business that opened in April after the former cafe closed.

The trick will be able to do it right: "There are a lot of examples of how not to do it."

He wants to avoid residential sprawl, "so we don't make agricultural land so expensive it forces agriculture out."

But there are the inevitable conflicts between farmers and transplants. "The feedlot that's been there for 40 years," said Mr. Pancake, offering an example, "and someone buys a lot next to it and now wants the farm to go away."

Michael Coleman, 48, is principal of the elementary school for the deaf. He grew up in romney in what he called an outdoor mecca, his family's farm among an unbroken string in the area. Now most have been sold and subdivided, with only two surviving. "When I walked out my door at night I saw only stars," he said. "Now I'm surrounded by spotlights" from new homes.

Like everyone interviewed for this article, Ann Pancake spoke of her love of the land and a childhood spent outside.

But "it was small town," she said. "As a kid I had a love-hate relationship with it. There was a lot of warmth and generosity there, but it was also pretty isolated. There was not a very high level of education." It wasn't where she wanted to live her life.

In Romney, the self-sufficiency credo runs into the reality of people who are struggling. The distrust of government is coupled with the unease with angry political rhetoric of all stripes. The people know that what they have and value is fragile.

They ask if what they are working to sustain will be enough to allow their children to stay, if they want to.

"I'm not sure," said Mr. Coleman, who still lives on the family farm. His musically talented daughter, a high school senior, wants to go to Broadway. But his 16-year-old son says, "I want to get a degree and come back and run the farm for pap-pap."

Many who have stayed say there will be a place for their children. "We still believe we can take care of ourselves," Mr. Pancake said.

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Lillian Thomas: or 412-263-3566.


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