Peace Reigns In Town Next To Battlefield

January 03, 1993|By GREG TASKER

SHARPSBURG — Believing the ninth day of the month to be the most astrologically fortunate, Sharpsburg's founding fathers dedicated the town on July 9, 1763.

But was it the most fortuitous of days? Consider:

The town vied to be the site of the nation's capital (even laying out streets in gridlike fashion) but lost.

Decades later, Sharpsburg lobbied to be the Washington County seat but lost by one vote to Hagerstown.

And Yankees and Rebels clashed in the cornfields surrounding the town on what became the single bloodiest day of the Civil War.

"The battle left an indelible impression," says Kevin Rawlings, a Civil War enthusiast and a relative newcomer to Sharpsburg. "It was the single bloodiest day in the town's history. And the town has never recovered."

Indeed. The town's population -- 1,300 at the time of the Sept. 17, 1862, battle -- is half that today.

Main Street, once home to nearly two dozen shops, now `D contains few.

Hotels and boardinghouses that once catered to the C&O canal trade have been replaced by bed-and-breakfast inns that attract tourists visiting the surrounding Antietam National Battlefield.

Despite its proximity to the site of a major Civil War battle, the town has remained in relative obscurity since the war.

It possesses none of the tourist trappings of say, Gettysburg, Pa.

Visitors will find no souvenir or T-shirt shops. No wax museums. No motels. No tour buses. The town's amenities include one gas station; two mom-and-pop grocery stores; three bed-and-breakfast inns; two taverns; a bank, and a couple of craft and antique stores.

"Tourists don't come here to spend money," says John Smith, a retired naval officer who owns the Amoco station on Main Street. "Most don't even come through town. There are no attractions here."

Mr. Rawlings credits the rural atmosphere of Washington County and the surrounding battlefield with keeping the town intact.

"Sharpsburg is the land that time forgot," says Mayor-elect Chris Yeager. "It hasn't changed in 150 years. Seventy percent of the ** homes here date from the Civil War. A lot of the family names are the same as they were then."

Some like Mr. Yeager, who moved his family to the town from New Jersey six years ago, consider it a misfortune that Sharpsburg has stymied some growth.

"We have no doctor's office. No bakery. No restaurant," says Mr. Yeager, whose efforts to open a restaurant a few years ago were thwarted by town officials. "We have no conveniences."

Mr. Yeager, who runs the Jacob Rohrbach Inn on Main Street, finds himself at the center of a new battle being waged in the historic town.

Campaigning on promises of change, he narrowly defeated long-term mayor Gerard Quinn in the recent general election. About 70 percent of the town's registered voters cast ballots -- the highest turnout in years.

"Half the town's people want change. Half of them don't," the mayor-elect says. "But the town has to change -- modify itself a little bit to keep the town vibrant. Nobody wants another Gettysburg but we need some small businesses. We don't want to lose what we have here."

From the corner of Main and Mechanic streets, Sharpsburg native Ann "Missy" Kretzer runs Kretzer's Market. She also sees a need for change.

"We need a restaurant," Mrs. Kretzer says. "We don't want commercialism here but a restaurant might go over well. Town's people have nowhere to eat."

Neither do tourists. Mr. Smith's Amoco sells homemade sandwiches and offers customers a single table for dining. Pete's Tavern offers some food, as well.

Otherwise, hungry tourists -- not to mention townsfolk -- must drive a few miles up Route 34 toward Boonsboro to the Red Byrd Restaurant or four miles south across the Potomac River to Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Though the town hasn't changed much, its people have, says Mrs. Kretzer, who along with her husband, Donald, has run the market for 41 years.

"I used to know people by name," she says. "Now I know as many by face as by name. There's been a lot of development around the town."

Mr. Rawlings believes Sharpsburg is at a crossroads.

"The town has really become a bedroom community and is trying to hold onto its historic character," he says. "I hope we'll be able to maintain the way the past was and maintain a sense of continuity in the future."

Says Mr. Yeager: "It's pretty quiet here outside of the traffic on Main Street. It's a great place to raise kids. It's a great place to come and visit, too, but not if you're hungry."

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