This is the first in a series of stories about long-time Bolivar residents. We hope to profile someone new here every quarter. If you or someone you know would be interested in telling your story, please contact Deb Hale at (304) 535-1528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Raymond Biller
I was born right across the street [in the log cabin at 1168 Washington St.], May 18, 1920. I lived there until
1943 when I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I served three years in the Marine Corps, came back here &
got married, and lived in Brunswick for about a year and a half with my wife's people.
I met my wife through her uncle. He & I used to run around together. We'd go to a lot of dances, square
dances mostly. One night he said, Let's go down to Lander, [MD], they have square dances there in a little
one-room schoolhouse. So we went down. His sister was there, and his niece. And he introduced me to her.
That was in 1941. We went together – well, she was still in school yet, she graduated while I was in the
service, and then she went to nurse's training. I think she had a year to go in nurse's training. We got
married, and they wouldn't let her finish. We got married December 30, 1945, in Brunswick.
After a year and a half we moved back to Bolivar, lived up the road above the dentist's office. In two years the bigger apartment over the general store became vacant, and we moved into it because there was more room. We had one child by then, born December 12, 1946. We lived there 3 or 4 years until we bought that little house caddy-corner to where I live now, right across from Clay Street, that little house that sits in there by Helen Becker. I bought that house for $3,000 and the vacant lot beside it for $800. We put a bath and furnace in it that first winter (it didn't have either). The next spring we paneled the whole house with knotted pine and put hardwood floors in it. We lived there for 32, 33 years. Then we decided to sell and go south, but our boy was in school and he wanted to finish up at Jefferson High so we decided to hunt locally for another house. We hunted, hunted, hunted, but couldn't find anything we liked. Finally, Mr. Capriotta, the real estate man who was hooked up with Foremost industries, said, You got that lot across the street, why don't you put a house on it? So we went up to Foremost and looked at houses and bought one – it was pre-fab, they brought it in three pieces. I've been living there now for about 20 years.
I think the Billers originally came over from Germany – German Jews – and settled in the Shenandoah Valley. I had a great-uncle that lived in New Market. My father was born in Summit Point, WV, and my mother was born in Stubenville, Ohio. She was the only child of her father by his first marriage. Her mother died, and he remarried, and they moved to Charles Town. My people moved here from Summit Point by horse and wagon. They moved into the log cabin across the street, which they'd bought for $600. My father was killed when I was five years old. I turned six the day after he was buried. He worked for the B&O Railroad, and he was part of the carpenter gang, and he would pick his paycheck up at Harpers Ferry every payday. So he went down to pick his paycheck up that evening. The ticket agent there asked him if he had time to help him unload a corpse that had come in on a train heading west; he needed help unloading it from the train and bringing it across the tracks on one of those little baggage cars. Well, they hadn't gotten across that eastbound track when an oncoming train hit that car and my father was thrown completely over top the embankment where the old station used to be. He'd fractured his skull. I guess he lived maybe two or three hours. He died May 15, 1926, aged 47. There were five children left – three boys and two girls – and my mother took on all sorts of work to look after us. She worked for the WPA, and as a seamstress, and she helped as midwife to the local doctors, any job she knew she could pick up. She didn't get any money from the railroad, only a small lump sum. She raised us five kids and put us through school. She was about 78 when she died from a stroke. I know she worked hard to raise her family. People told her she should put us all in a home, but she wouldn't even think of doing that.
I went to school at the old high school in Harpers Ferry [now owned by the Park Service] through the sixth grade. I finished there in 1932. Then they had the new high school finished and I moved into that [now the Jr. High], and graduated from the old Harpers Ferry High School in 1938.
When we were kids growing up, we didn't have cars or television, so we'd all gather around the radio in the evening and listen to the programs. We'd visit each other's houses and play games and cards to pass the time. In the wintertime we'd ice-skate and sled ride. One winter we wandered back on Old Furnace Road where people lived on a lot stuck way back into the woods. We built a lean-to out of pine trees with a roof of pines over head until a big snow came and fell in on us. At Christmastime, the Halem's would have parties for us kids – they'd have a school bus haul us up to their "Scottish" castle up on Bolivar Heights.
In the summertime, we had a few different swimming holes. We'd swim up in the head gates past the
power plant down in Harpers Ferry, and up by where the dam is just above that in the Potomac, we'd
jump in off the embankments. There was a canal that ran up alongside the road that follows the river
that ran the power plant. The plant furnished all the electric power for the whole town. Every time we
had high water we wouldn't have electricity. I used to go down there [to the plant] because my neighbor
worked there as an operator. I spent many a night there fishing out the back window in the flumes.
Then there were two quarry holes past where you go to the Job Corps, off Route 230, where we'd
swim, called the Engle quarry. There was the Upper Quarry and the Lower Quarry. We had a great
big raft out there in the center of them and we'd go out there and swim in that awful cold spring water.
We went every day whenever the river was muddy; we'd hop a freight train to get there.
Back behind the little house I used to live in, there was a place to play baseball, an athletic field for the school and for Storer College (whose teams played football and baseball). But that was eventually sold off and developed. When we were kids, there was a baseball team in Harpers Ferry called the Monkey Wrenches. A fellow by the name of Buddy Stewart managed it. Two boys – twins – played on the team. One was the pitcher; the other was the catcher. They used to call them "Itch 'Em" and "Scratch 'Em." But they had a pretty good ball team at one time. After that the owner of that open field planted potatoes. He'd go along plowing up the potatoes and get us kids to pick them up in buckets and put them all in a tub.
A fellow who owned a lot of land out on Route 230, he took us out there had us picking beans for 5 cents a bushel. Back in those days, a nickel or a dime – that was big money – you thought you had something there. I started working for 50 cents a day and then when I got out of high school, things were really tight. I got out of school in May, and I worked odd jobs. They'd had a fire up at Storer College so I worked up there helping the man clean up the furniture and clean up after the fire. He paid maybe $3 or $4 a day. And then I went to work for Standard Lime Stone Quarry, I was on their construction gang, and I got 56 cents an hour, working an 8-hour shift. Then there was an opening at the US Steel Quarry for clerical work. I had to take a test and an interview. The man said I could start work tomorrow if I could get my birth certificate and a minor's release. I was lucky enough to get to the courthouse to get my birth certificate, and my mother signed a minor's release, and started working there the following day, July 1, 1940. I worked there until June 30, 1978. I joined the Marines in I943 and got early discharge in December 1945 in order to work at the Commandant's office in Washington in the discipline division. I worked there a couple months as a civilian before I came back to my old job.
Way before the Park came, there were tourists coming to town. Not like they come now, but they were here. They'd
mostly come by car, but sometimes there were excursion trains. My brother lived in that Harpers Ferry cemetery house,
and I would go down there on Saturdays and Sundays and offer a tour to the people who'd come to see Jefferson Rock
and old John Brown's fort, which was on the Storer College grounds at that time. They'd tip me and sometimes I'd
make five or six dollars a day, which was a whole lot of money back then.
Some local people were happy when the Park came to town, some people were not. There was a lot of opposition to
the Park. There were a lot of meetings around here before the Park came. Jennings Randolph and Dr. Henry
MacDonald, the President of Storer College, were very instrumental in getting that Park to come here. They'd hold
meetings up at the Hilltop – I took a lot of minutes for them at those meetings. Harpers Ferry was a rat hole before the
Park took over – you'd literally see rats running across the road. The first superintendent of the Park hired a boy by the
name of Floyd Wilt – they just buried Floyd the day before yesterday – as a helper. And the two of them started setting
Back when I was a kid, Harpers Ferry had two or three grocery stores, Ellie Doran ran a department store, and Abe Kaplan had one, too; there was the bottling works, a creamery, a restaurant and two lunch rooms, Annie Higgins had a millinery shop – all in the lower town of Harpers Ferry. There was even a movie theater in Harpers Ferry at one time, directly across from where the Park buses stop now. You can still see the wall and the stone steps. There was a bakery set on back in there further on the right, and at one time the Interwoven Stocking Company had a knitting mill where they made socks. On the corner was the Bank of Harpers Ferry. On the next corner was Cassell's store – a grocery store & feed store; Will Walsh had a grocery store. I worked at the bottling works when I was a kid going to school. Fellows by the name of Jim Grimes and Frank Longbrake bought it from Charlie Smith. He had two trucks to deliver the pop – we had routes to Brunswick, Frederick, Sandy Hook on the Maryland side, and in the other direction we went as far as Berryville, and up over the mountain and down through Bluemont, Hillsboro, Purcelville. Have you ever seen the little Harpers Ferry bottles? They did not make the bottles here, they just bottled the pop here. They made all kinds of flavors: strawberry, orange, grape, ginger ale, root beer, sarsaparilla, cream soda, lemon, lime, most any type you could want. There were 24 bottles to a wooden case, and when I first started, a case cost $1.20: 60 cents for the soda pop and another 60 cents deposit on the case of bottles. So it would only cost you 60 cents the next time if you had an empty case of bottles to return. I worked there a couple summers. We drank a lot of soda. The '36 flood took out the bottling works and ruined most of Harpers Ferry. After the flood, there was one place at the bottom of the big stone steps, a man had a beer joint there for a long while, Charlie Demory had a tavern there.
The first gas station was on the corner of Shenandoah and High Streets. Later, another was opened halfway up the hill, where the gazebo is now – Eugene Brady ran it. Then at the top of the hill where the Appalachian Trail Center is now there was a car repair shop with a little store beneath it. They'd sell to the kids going to school: you could get three buns for a nickel, and a half pint of milk for lunch. Then where the Masonic Hall is, they had a grocery store and right above it was a confectionery shop that the Wentzell's ran. Where the Post Office is now used to be one big vacant lot. We'd play ball there. In 1928, I guess, that site was chosen for the first fire hall, a two-story one-base fire hall, and that's when they got their first fire truck. The Fire Company was incorporated in 1927. During the war, it just went to pot. They had an old 1927 Buick fire engine that someone had pulled in head-first into the fire hall and that's where it sat until we re-organized in 1947-48. We bought a new truck and put up an addition to the old building. In the late ‘50s, we tore that building down and built the one that's down there now, and purchased another truck. And it's just grown right along since then. I've belonged to the Fire Company now for 66 years.
Further up the street in Bolivar Bob Dunn used to have a grocery store (previously operated by Gomer Ott) then
Ms. McCormick ran an antique shop – in the big yellow building with the front shop windows. The dentist office
used to be the Bolivar Post Office (Mina J. Rau was Postmistress), and next to it was Rau's Grocery Store. Frank
Schilling had a store in what's known as the Canal House, and then Minnie Bridner ran a general store there for
years. She was an old maid. She lived in the brick house at the end of Clay Street, just across the street from where
I later lived with my own family. As she was getting old, she approached my wife about fixing her a hot meal every
day, whatever we were eating. She only came on holidays to eat with us. We took a hot dinner to her every evening.
She lived to be almost 100 years old. She died in a nursing home. That's how I got hold of that house. She left it in
her will for me to get that house at a certain price.
Bob Hardy's antique shop used to be Baden Brothers grocery store. You come on up to Polk Street and there used
to be a little general store there, people by the name of Billmyer ran it (later it would be the Ryman's), and the pub
across the street used to be a grocery store (run by Minnie Bridner) before it was turned into a lunchroom, which
Isabelle Daws operated. Kids from the school would get lunch there; she'd have soup and sandwiches every day.
Had a jukebox in there where we could dance at lunchtime and hang out after school. On the other side of Polk Street,
there was a filling station called Tipton's. And where the 7-11 is now there were cabins for rent.
Floods & Transportation
I remember the '36 flood when both bridges went out. I remember the Maryland bridge – I was going down the curve at the steep part of the hill when the bridge went out, sparks were flying, there was metal hitting together, it was late in the evening. On the Virginia bridge, there was a little toll house – I think it was 25 cents a car and then 5 or 10 cents for each additional person in the car – to cross the bridge. So in 1936 after that flood, they converted the old railroad bridge into a passenger bridge. They'd have a watchman on each end so when the train was coming, no cars could travel on it because the train ran on it, too. I guess it was sometime in the 1950s when they rerouted Route 340 and replaced both bridges. We had a flood in 1942 in the fall of the year. I worked for US Steel at the Millville quarry for 32 years as a storekeeper. We were right down on the river and moved everything from the lower floor to the second floor of the building and the Potomac backed the Shenandoah River up – it got higher than the Shenandoah – and the water got up on that floor, over 12 inches on the second story. Several times we had to shut the quarry down because of the high waters. We put all the dikes along the Shenandoah River there with dirt from the quarry. I worked for US Steel for 32 years. They shut the plant down in 1958. In 1978 I retired early at 58 years old with full pension. Since then I've knocked around with my tax business, DMV license in transfers, just keeping busy.
This used to be the main road through this area, up to the 50s. We took all the traffic through this town. Truck traffic was terrible. Come holidays, I'd see traffic backed all the way up from the bridge past the end of Bolivar waiting to get across the bridge. When we were young, cars were scarce. We used to sled ride on this main road in the wintertime. Very few people had cars. Some people had horses. When I was a boy there were school buses – in 1926 when I started school, they had school buses. Mr. Rockenbaugh had the buses and the school board hired him to haul the kids into school from Millville, Bakerton, Halltown, and other places. A couple winters school would close down a month at a time because of the bad roads.
We used to go to Washington on the train, and we had family living in Herndon, VA – they'd run trolley cars from the city out to the country and suburbs. In the other direction, we'd go as far as Winchester to the Apple Blossom Festival or to Martinsburg, but that was a big trip for us in those days. My mother used to take us to our grandfather's house in Summit Point. We'd ride the train from Harpers Ferry on a Friday evening and stay over until Sunday. We would hitch a ride into Charles Town to go to the movies. You could go to the movies for 5 cents. You could take a quarter, go to the movies, get a box of popcorn and have enough left over for a hotdog after the show at Arch Bower's hotdog shop.
They used to have a train that ran right up this valley, it ran every day, stopped at Millville, Halltown, stopped at all the
little towns along the way to Strasburg, Virginia, and then it came back in the evening. There were about three cars.
The Main Line had passenger trains at all hours of the day, going east and west about every hour. There used to
be bus service through here, too, from Winchester and Frederick. They'd come through in the morning and then
again in the evening.
Other Local History
At one time we tried to consolidate the two towns of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry. We ran on a ticket one election year
– five councilmen and the mayor – what we called a "consolidation ticket." Of course, the older people didn't want
that, and we got beat. We got 15 votes – that's all we got in the whole town! They beat us so bad it was pitiful. We
used to have a Post Office here in Bolivar, you know. They shut it down about 35 years ago. I applied for the
Postmaster job but at that time they said they were going to convert everything to Harpers Ferry, which they did.
I always had good sense to stay off of the Town Council. In the old days, they had a big time about the elections. But they didn't have any money, and the streets were all dirt. If there was a pothole, someone would go to the quarry, get a load of stone, patch it up. When Courtney became mayor, that's when things started turning around. He was mayor for 24 years. I think there was just a couple hundred dollars in the treasury when he took over. Now I understand they have more money than what they know what to do with!
I was at the Charles Town Racetrack the day it opened. What used to be the Grandstand was an open grandstand – bleachers – and underneath was a dirt floor where you placed your bets. My uncle was the superintendent there and I worked one summer while I was in school. Used to pick up paper on the ground using a broomstick with a nail in the end and a big cardboard box: $2 a day wages in '36-'37. They used to run excursions there every day in the early days. Of course they had a horse show there every year before A.J. Boyle from over in Maryland bought it and put the new racetrack in.
Jimmy Carter came to Harpers Ferry one evening. I shook hands with him. When John Kennedy was running for President, he was down in Charles Town a couple of times. And of course, Gore and Clinton were here together a couple years ago for Earth Day. When Harry Truman was running for President, he made a whistle stop at Harpers Ferry, spoke from the back of a train. I saw him. A fellow I worked with who was half-drunk shouted out to him, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" I remember that well.
Location: 60 Panama Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425, United States
Mail: PO Box 37, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425
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