By Rick Hemphill
The town run in Shepherdstown meanders and winds through yards, under streets, and eventually into the majestic river dividing two proud states. Although it once provided the power for the grist and saw mills, as well as other businesses in the early years for the oldest town in West Virginia, it now quietly maintains a simple course-providing background continuity that ties each generation's past to the future.
"I was born upstairs here," says Jay Hurley, owner and operator of O'Hurley's General Store, situated within a carefully crafted wooden structure on that sharp bend on route 230, just at the edge of Shepherdstown. Hurley sits comfortably in a wooden rocker, surveying his "Great Hall" and showroom. "My dad and mother ran a business here, and I grew up surrounded by the business."
Hurley's calm manner complements a steady voice capable of reciting a litany of O'Hurley family history- loosely based upon the portrait of a man in an 18th century hat staring down from the Great Room wall.
He regularly relates such anecdotes to those patrons interested in a wonderfully entertaining, yet entirely fictional, O'Hurley family tree. The real Jay Hurley, and his general store, are genuinely intertwined with Shepherdstown and its history, and in time, both have done better together than apart. "Shepherdstown was not kind to me growing up," he continues, with a matter-of-fact countenance. "I was labeled not just an underachiever, but a total loss."
So much in fact, that fifty years ago, he left-in search of something that would eventually take him full circle, to where he began. "For the next eighteen years, there was an opportunity somewhere else that took me somewhere else. I eventually went to work for General Electric and worked remote radar stations in the Aleutians, and Turkey, and this old country boy got a view of more than Shepherdstown.
"The older I get, the more I realize there was a guiding hand in all of this. When I came back, the old desire to be a merchant began to materialize. I knew I wanted a type of general store that sold things particular to the early 1900s, and I attribute that to reincarnation. So I started collecting sources for things that I would like to have in my store. I was visualizing what my store would look like for eight years prior to opening the doors."
From 1976-1977, Hurley's father took ill, and he returned, eventually taking over the store in January 1979. He remembers, "The general store idea kept festering in my head. I wanted to make the store look the way I wanted it to look, so I rescued some siding from some old buildings in Martinsburg. In fact, some of the siding is over a hundred years old. The floors are out of a building on Burke Street in Martinsburg."
There is no store, of course, without the customer enticements of useful products. "The biggest thing was spending ten thousand dollars on stocking the store," Hurley recalls. "Being so frugal and never having stocked a store before, it was difficult to find just the right items, and it drove the inventory salesmen crazy. One day, a very frustrated salesman finally pushed the catalog at me and said, ‘Pick out what you want, I'm going to finish watching the ball game.'"
Hurley stuck with at least one rule for his general store, "If it's in the 1902 Sears Catalog, I want to stock it in my store."
The business was up and running in November of 1979. Two years after he opened, that same salesman stopped by and gave him a look. Hurley muses, "I knew immediately what he was thinking, so I called out, ‘You didn't expect to see me still here did you?'" And the response? "Absolutely not!"
Hurley remembers a rocky start to the business, but the store would grow and mature, weaving itself into the town's history and progress. "Shepherdstown was not what it is today," he points out. "At the business meetings, we would discuss how to bring people to town, and you can't bring people to town without businesses, so it was a chicken or the egg process."
These days, O'Hurley's has a steady community base, a relaxed atmosphere, and a little bit of everything. "We play music here every Thursday night-thirty-one years now," Hurley boasts. "In fact, this past Thursday, there were thirty-two musicians here, and the place was packed with people.
In the early days, it was just me playing my hammer dulcimer on the front counter up there. Eventually, a guitar player joined, and then a fiddle player, and more over the years. Now we have ten to fifteen [musicians] every Thursday."
He also knew what he wanted his store to be, and what he wanted to give back to his community. "I knew from the beginning that I wanted everything in the store to be practical and useful-something that someone could purchase and take home and use. People always know they can come here and purchase something for a gift that a person can use. That has always meant a great deal to me. Making money has never been my top priority. It makes me feel good to know that people can find things they can use and appreciate."
Hurley's endeavors certainly haven't been limited to the general store. "I wanted to build a replica of James Rumsey's steamboat," he explains, with an easy confidence. "I got a group of interested individuals together and we called ourselves the GREAT JAMES RUMSEY STEAMBOAT RACE SOCIETY. I think the organization failed because I couldn't get the title on the letterhead. So when the bicentennial of the invention of the boat came up in 1987, I would raise my hand in discussions and say, ‘We should build a replica of James Rumsey's steamboat.' After six or seven weeks of this, and I don't know how it happened, I became the chairman of the steamboat committee."
The steamboat undertaking certainly didn't sink. "I had a few blacksmith friends through that whole project, and the chief naval architect of the U.S. Navy, who had relatives in town. He had just retired, and designed the hull for us," Hurley smiles, bragging on the level of assistance and knowledge provided by the volunteers who showed up when they were needed. "Over a two-year period, myself and over sixty volunteers built the replica. Granted, I was the one who thought of it, but it was a huge community effort."
To finance the project, the group sold commissions. Hurley elaborates with a smirk, "You could be a crewman for ten dollars, a boson for twenty, a pilot for fifty, a captain for one hundred, or an Admiral of the Fleet for five hundred dollars. We had quite a few captains and two Admirals.
"People think we spent $150,000, or up to $400,000, when the fact is, we built the steamboat replica for $12,000. We had a lot of volunteer labor and volunteer material."
They launched the boat in 1987 and got it running the next year. "Since the steamboat, I've done things that I'm particularly interested in," Hurley reveals. "I like aviation. I'm a pilot, and way too many years ago, I started building a home-built aircraft that is nearly finished. I want to get it done while I'm still young enough to fly it."
Whatever the task, Shepherdstown is typically the focus of Hurley's efforts, either directly or indirectly. "I'm on the historic landmark commission, so I have an appreciation for the historic aspects of the town, and I've spent the last eight months shooting photographs and putting them together into the town poster. It's my hometown, and my people.
"The history of Shepherdstown is really interesting. The original history centered around the run and the mills, where one family could get into manufacturing and make a decent living. The Reichart family made locks, and the Weiss family made pottery, while the Sheetz family made rifles, for generations.
It was these small cottage industries that really made the country work, and when the railroad came in the 1870s, the focal point changed from the town run, and small business, to the power of the railroad. When I was a kid, there were three grist mills still standing along the railroad. The new phase of Shepherdstown is Georgetown on the Potomac."
Hurley has had a front row seat for Shepherdstown's evolution, and realizes that any progression requires a unique appreciation for both past and present. "We are a bedroom community for Washington, and a destination for people trying to get out of the city. I find it so interesting that people come up and say, ‘Oh, the country is so wonderful.' We haven't been country for a long time."
"I can remember when we were country-when Charlie Conners lived down the road on the curve. He owned a field down the road, but he didn't own the land in between that field and his barn, so he had to take his milk cows out of the barnyard, down the road to this field every day. He opened the gate to the field so everyone who lived on the road knew that if the gate was open, Charlie was going to be driving his cattle down the road. Except for President Carter and his entourage.
So here is this string of presidential automobiles, held up on Route 230, between here and Halltown, while Charlie Conners moves his cows to his field." Hurley's laughter whispers of an appreciation for progress, but also a yearning for different times.
"The people that come through these doors are the stories," he continues. "We will engage people in casual conversations and things will surface. We find out really wonderful things about people-who they are, where they've been, and things they've done. It's just people-it's all about people."