Visitors to Shepherdstown on Saturday during the annual Back Alley Garden Tour were able to take advantage of a rare opportunity to tour the former Mecklenburg tobacco warehouse at the end of Princess Street near the Potomac River.
Once part of a thriving Princess Street rivefront complex, the warehouse is the only surviving commercial structure and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure in the Shepherdstown Historic District.
Abraham Shepherd, son of town founder Thomas Shepherd, was granted the right to open a tobacco
warehouse in November 1788 by the Virginia Assembly. The warehouse structure built circa 1797. According to Tyra Guyton, who served as tour guide on Saturday, tobacco was a huge cash crop and thus highly regulated by the Virginia government.
The official action read: "Whereasthe establishment of inspection of tobacco on the lands of Abraham Shepherd, near the town of Mecklenburg, on Potowmack river in the county of Berkeley, would be of public utility and the proprietor of said land is willing to erect the houses necessary for that purpose at his expense: Be it enactedto be called and known by the name of Mecklenburg Warehouse." This action was passed on Nov. 29, 1788.
After Abraham Shepherd's death in 1822, the warehouse was inherited by his son Rezin. It was sold In 1870 to Ashton Whelan & Company, paper manufacturers who constructed a new brick addition connected to the south wall of the warehouse. That addition is no longer standing.
Reportedly the facility was a factory used to make boxes made of strawboard, a common material before the invention of corrugated cardboard.
The mill, over time, changed hands several times, continuing to serve as a strawboard factory.
In the 1920s, the town of Shepherdstown acquired the property and housed the town's waterworks there. Significant renovations were done at the time to allow the facility to serve in the waterworks capacity.
According to information an Historic Structures Report for the Mecklenburg Tobacco Warehouse completed by Charles Belfoure for the Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront, "The entire original first floor, second floor and loft wereremoved and replaced with a new partial first floor that took uphalf the original first floor area. This space was accessible from an entry on Princess St. A door in the south wall of this space led to balcony that overlooked the original basement level whose foundation wall was lined with concrete to create a settling basin. Above the first floor space is a loft that was used for storage of treatment chemicals and for water meter repair."
The facility remained in use by the town until 1972 when the new plant water treatment plant was built. Since that time, the structure has remained vacant.
The Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront t support revitalizing the warehouse and the surrounding area as a vibrant place in the life of the community. The vision of the group includes the possibility of the warehouse becoming a cultural center housing a museum, offices and public meeting rooms.
According to the group's materials, three partners including the Corporation of Shepherdstown who owns the building, Historic Shepherdstown, a nonprofit group dedicating to preserving Shepherdstown's heritage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park are working secure the integrity of the building and the riverfront area.
Those who are interested in the preservation process may become a member of the Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront by visiting www.shepherdstownriverfront.org.