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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Martinsburg: Biggest Little Town in the Panhandle

Written by  Marla Seymour

By now, you are well-acquainted with my overview of all of the little quirky towns of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Perhaps, I have even “put off” those of you more attuned to a middle-American interest in chain restaurants, large LGBTQ bars, malls, and “such” (as we say, hereabouts). Well, my friends, the Eastern Panhandle has an offering for you, too! Warning, though: it is well-seasoned with the regional penchant for oddness.

From Baltimore, head due west on I-70, south on I-81, and within 15 minutes of turning onto 81, you will reach the first exits for streets in Martinsburg, W.V.

Martinsburg is the governmental seat for Berkeley County. It was founded in 1778 by General Adam Stephen of the U.S. Continental Army, and many of the older homes in the area predate the Revolutionary War. The B&O Railroad reached the town in 1842. A rail “roundhouse” was built at the rail station, and serves as an historic landmark and museum today. (And, there is still rail service – although no longer from the roundhouse – to Washington, D.C.) Along with commerce came troubling times, however. Since the town rested upon the North/South divide, the national identity of this town changed no less than 50 times during the years of our Civil War. In some ways, the town’s commerce is still recovering from the havoc wreaked during those years.

The Berkeley County Historic Society is housed in the “Belle Boyd” house. The building was constructed as a family home in 1853 by Benjamin Reed Boyd, in the Greek Revivalist style. His daughter, Marie Isabelle (later, Belle) became a spy for the Confederacy, and was arrested, tried, and convicted (En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Boyd) by the Union. The home was saved from the wrecking ball in 1992 by this historical society.

But let’s talk of what gay fellows like, shall we? First, find Queen Street (not a typo!). Exit I-81 onto 15 East, or West King Street, heading east (one and the same). King Street eventually intersects Queen Street. Now. Your choice. Turn left onto Queen Street for some sweet little antique, arts and crafts and retail shop experiences or turn right for more of the same and, as Queen Street becomes residential, to see some of the most gorgeous Greek Revival and Victorian Grande Dame homes one has a chance to see, anywhere. And they, as those homes go, are not very expensive.

But, I digress… about Martinsburg. Martinsburg’s smallish downtown is packed with goodies. One of its best shops is a chocolatier! DeFluri’s Fine Chocolates has won first place in the Candy and Confections category of the America’s Food and Beverage Trade Show. Not that you would care, once you entered the “shop.” It is easily twice and maybe three times the size of most candy stores. It has a very large plate-glass window into the manufacturing area of the store, where, at certain hours, you can see the chocolates being made.

The restaurants of note, surrounding the small downtown, are “Good Natured” on Raleigh Street (vegetarian cafe and market), the Blue and White Grill (open only for lunch) on Queen Street, Casa Visone Italian Bistro (located on North Queen Street – the chef is from Florence, Italy), and the King Street Coffee and Tobacco Emporium – although I am not exactly certain that last is strictly “restaurant.”

There are other small shops of a “crafty” nature, including a place called Mel’s Smells, specializing in soy and scented candles and lye soaps. The Queen Street Gallery offers antique posters and maps and a framing service. The West Virginia Glass Outlet is a great shop for collectors of antique glassware.

And Martinsburg has a lively arts community. The Berkeley Arts Council (Berkeleyartswv.org) is housed at 116 North Queen Street and shares space with the for-profit Berkeley Art Works Gallery. Some of the displays in the gallery in the next few months include a quilt show and a juried exhibit entitled “Art and Earth.” In addition, every second Friday there are poetry readings on the premises.

Once you have spent a delightful day exploring Martinsburg’s downtown, be sure to head out on 81 N… and stop at the LGBT bar/cafe called simply “The Club,” located at 5268 Williamsport Pike, several miles north of the town of Martinsburg. Opened from 6 p.m. till 3 a.m., six days a week, this establishment is a real winner! In addition to a lovely bar, a seating area (complete with sofas), a disco-like dance floor and a billiards room, The Club has an outdoor area that is actually larger than the indoor one. Set up with its own bar, speakers, horseshoe area, and scads of picnic tables in nice weather, this is the place to be. There are often “theme” nights, so be sure to check (Theclubwv.com) before you attend. I have never seen a LGBT (mixed) bar with such a wide appeal. In addition to all of this, the bar has alcohol “specials” on the weekends. I have had a $3 Stella Artois at this establishment. And they serve pub food that is actually quite good – they make their own potato chips. And no one can accuse The Club of not caring! If you find yourself in no safe state to drive (or if the bartender finds you so), there is a friendly motel not two blocks from The Club. And the employees of the Club will see that you are safely “put up” for the night.

Visit Martinsburg and have some real, unhurried fun.

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