Tuesday night Town Council was packed for a celebration of sorts due to closure of three-year old mystery, 230 years in the making.
On March 14, 2014, a large tree fell in the cemetery of the Thomas Shepherd family located on New Street. Some of the tree landed into the alley making clean up problematic due to the cost of removal. Since no one could determine who the rightful property owners were, the Corporation of Sheperdstown ended up assuming responsibility for the tree, vowing to get to the bottom of the issue.
“Everybody thought the property belonged to the Episcopal church because G.T.’s (Schramm) house is right beside it (as the parsonage of the Episcopal church),” said Mayor Jim Auxer.
However, Schramm, pastor, did not believe the property was owned by the Episcopal church.
Auxer contacted Shepherdstown attorney, Frank Hill to look into the matter from a research perspective.
“The records were sparse-to the point of non-existence in Charles Town,” said Hill. “By process of elimination, my preliminary opinion was that the Shepherd family never conveyed their property to anybody. As a result of which meant that the property was still owned by the multiple descendants of Shepherd.”
However, the Shepherd family denied ownership of the cemetery land.
Before knowing who owned the property, Auxer contacted Eleanor Finn, President of Historic Shepherdstown, in July of 2014 to discuss how that organization might play a role in maintaining the cemetery.
“We’ve helped to get community people, as well as our members to come and help do a clean up in the cemetery and try to get some of the vegetation off the walls and see what else was necessary to do,” said Finn. “It was clear that the walls were falling down. We went ahead and pursued getting grants from the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation, as well as Two Rivers, and the Shepherd Family Foundation. We have, over the last couple of years, repaired all of the walls. Our next project is to deal with the wrought-iron fence that goes around the major Shepherd graves on the southwest corner, so we have to pursue some more grants.”
Finn went on to say that the gate to the cemetery, as well as the pillars that hold it will also need repairs. More and different sources of grant founding would be needed as some of the previous sources are not applicable for certain types of repairs and restoration.
Hill presented an overview of the three year probe to discover cemetery ownership.
“We were extremely fortunate that Eleanor Finn, enlisted the services of Cheryl Brown,” said Hill. [Brown is on the Board of Historic Sheperdstown]
“Cheryl went to several courthouses and found the golden needle. [She] went to Richmond and then to Winchester, which of course is Frederick County, of which Jefferson County was then a part, [before West Virginia earned statehood] looking for a deed under Thomas Shepherd.
Through her efforts which were significant, detailed, and comprehensive and perfect, she found the deed which Abraham Shepherd (son of Thomas) executed in 1786 and which was recorded in Berkeley County. Jefferson County didn’t exist until 1801. The script was very difficult to read, but Cheryl Brown found it–to the surprise of everybody.
“When we located the deed, we contacted the Methodist Church. (New Street United Methodist Church). The deed was written at that time to the ‘Episcopal Methodist Church’, which was the name assigned to the church at that time. We contacted the pastor of the church Dee-Ann Dixon, and she marched the matter upstairs, literally and figuratively to get the blessing that the property could be conveyed to the town.
“The church, through its efforts over some time secured permission to do this (transfer the deed). On Dec 11, 2016 the church had a congregational meeting and voted to convey the property to the corporation of Shepherdstown.
“The property now been surveyed and recorded in Jefferson County, along with the 1786 Berkeley County deed. Now there’s complete linkage of how the property was conveyed from Abraham Shepherd to the corporation,” said Hill.
With the parsonage of Trinity Episcopal Church being located adjacent to the cemetery, it came as a surprise that ownership was, in fact, deeded to New Street UMC. Shepherd had conveyed land to two or three churches in the late 1700s, with the stipulation that on this particular cemetery parcel, hid descendants would be able to use it as a burial ground. Hill believes that last interment there took place in the 1950s.
Hill also wanted to punctuate the hard work of Brown and the graciousness of New Street United Methodist Church pastor and Trustees.
“Without the commitment of the church, this would not have happened, said Hill. “I personally appreciate all that the trustees did and Pastor Dixon for nursing this through the hierarchy of the church. And I want to say that Cheryl Brown’s efforts were extraordinary. She deserves the credit for doing this.”
Pastor Dixon was present, along with a number of trustees who all had signed the deed.
Great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of Thomas Shepherd, Gay Shepherd Henderson was also in attendance. She expressed delight that the corporation of Sheperdstown now held the deed to the property, and was included in the formality of presenting the deed to the town.
Neil Super, local artisan wood turner, made a wooden bowl from the tree, and presented pens that he made from the wood to Mayor Auxer and Gay Shepherd Henderson.
Hill concluded by saying, “I am so pleased to see so many people turn out for something that is a once in a lifetime event.”