lady not burning

Stephens City, Virginia

Stephens City is an incorporated town in southern part of Frederick County, Virginia, United States. The population was 1,146 at the 2000 census, and estimated to be 1,446 in 2006.


The town of Stephens City has a long history spanning over two and a half centuries. From its beginnings in the 1730s and through the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the town and its inhabitants witnessed and participated in events of national significance. After the Civil War into the twentieth century the town suffered through a forced name change and economic hardships associated with the general advancements in transportation technology. Today, the town faces unprecedented growth along with other towns in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Beginnings, 1732-1783

Stephens City was chartered in 1758 as the town of "Stephensburgh", but its origins reach back into the early 1730s when Peter Stephens (1687-1757), an immigrant originally from Heidelberg, Germany, built his homestead on land that would eventually become part of the far southern end of the original town. Stephens and his family, along with other German immigrants, came to the Valley of Virginia after spending some years in the Skippack Creek area outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Chief among this group of German colonists was Jost Hite (1685-1761), one of the purchasers of a large land grant in the lower Shenandoah Valley from the Governor of the Royal Colony of Virginia. Hite, Stephens and other German Protestants came to the Shenandoah Valley as early as 1732 and established the "Opequon Settlement" south of what would later be known as the town of Winchester. This Opequon Settlement was not a town but a group of homesteads on land claims held by these early pioneers.

Their land claims mostly stretched along the rich bottomlands next to the streams that emptied into the Opequon Creek and the Shenandoah River. These first homesteads were found in the area around the "Indian Road" or the "Great Philadelphia Wagon Road" (what is now today U.S. Route 11), in the core of what is today the central and southern part of Frederick County, Virginia. Hite settled on the north bank near the headwaters of the Opequon creek in what would later be known as the community of Bartonsville. Peter Stephens established his claim on the North Branch of Crooked Run, a stream that would later be named Stephens Run in his honor. Shortly thereafter, an informal community of Stephens' family members and their associates began to grow up along the Great Wagon Road around the Stephens' family homestead. Peter Stephens and his wife Mary had seven children. The oldest of them, "Ludwig" or Lewis, had been born in Germany in 1714 and was already a young man by the time his father moved the family to Virginia. As early as 1736 Lewis was authorized by the county government to keep an "Ordinary" or a roadhouse or tavern, at his home in the Stephens family settlement. It is unclear how long Lewis Stephens operated this ordinary in the new community associated with the Stephens’ family land claims. It is known Lewis was married around 1740 to Mary Rittenhouse and shortly thereafter began purchasing land from Jost Hite and others.

One of the other important local property owners who sold land to Lewis Stephens was Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron (1693-1781). Lord Fairfax came to Virginia in 1735 to see for himself the lands he had inherited through his mother, Catherine Culpeper, Lady Fairfax. He liked what he saw, and after living east of the Blue Ridge for a number of years he eventually chose to settle and build his manor home "Greenway Court" just west of the Shenandoah River near what would become the community of White Post, eight miles (13 km) east of Stephensburg, in modern Clarke County. Lord Fairfax's maternal grandfather, Thomas, 2nd Lord Culpeper, had secured a patent from King James II in 1688 ensuring that all of the lands between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers belonged to him and his heirs. Thus, Lord Fairfax claimed all of the lands in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, including the lands already granted to Jost Hite, Peter Stephens and others by the governor of Virginia. While Jost Hite fought Lord Fairfax's claims in court, Peter and Lewis Stephens chose to work with the Baron and remained friendly toward him.

In 1745, Lewis Stephens purchased on Cedar Creek, about seven miles (11 km) to the west of his father's home, where he built a house for himself and a water powered grist mill. With the outbreak of hostilities on the frontier that would eventually become known as the French and Indian War, Lewis Stephens served as an officer in the Frederick County militia reporting to the young George Washington. As part of this war effort Lewis built a hexagonal stone gunpowder magazine that reaches deep into the ground near his house and mill on Cedar Creek. This powder magazine, which still stands today, was later used as an icehouse and was most likely encircled by a log stockade during the war. The stockade enclosure with its powder magazine and Lewis Stephen's home was known as "Stephens Fort" and provided refuge to other settlers in the area during Indian attacks.

Just before the war in 1754, Peter Stephens gave his son Lewis of his original grant. During the first years of the war, Lewis began to lay out his plan for the lots that would eventually become the town of Stephens City. In September 1758, during the height of the Seven Years' War, Lewis Stephens petitioned the colonial government of Virginia in Williamsburg for a town charter. In this petition, Lewis sited the need of the people living in the region to have a town where they could gather to better defend themselves against attacks of Indians and their French allies. Lewis Stephens succeeded in getting an act passed by Virginia's Colonial General Assembly recognizing and establishing a town that "shall be called by the name of Stephensburgh". In this act it stated that "All which lots, with the land annexed thereto, are purchased by different persons who are now settling and building thereon...may enjoy the like privileges as freeholders and inhabitants of other towns in the colony do enjoy". This indicates that settlement on the town lots had already begun before 1758. It is also interesting to note that the "h" at the end of the name of the town was promply dropped by its predominately German-speaking inhabitants. Thus, "Stephensburgh" became "Stephensburg".

It is probably at this same time that the benefits of the good relationship between Lewis Stephens and Lord Fairfax were manifested in politics of Frederick County. During these early years there was some question as to whether the seat of county government would remain in Winchester or be moved to a better location. Apparently, Lord Fairfax was in favor of permanently moving the county government to Stephensburg. Stephensburg tavern keeper and author Samuel Kercheval tells the following story in his book History of the Valley of Virginia published first in 1833:

"Tradition relates that Fairfax was much more partial to Stephensburg than he was to Winchester, and used all his influence to make Stephensburg the seat of justice, but...(James) Wood (Winchester's proprietor) out-generaled his lordship, and by treating one of the justices with a bowl of toddy (or spiked punch) secured his vote in favor of Winchester, which settled the question, and that Fairfax was so offended at the magistrate who thus sold his vote, that he never after spoke to him."

Thus, despite the early efforts of Lord Fairfax, Winchester was chosen over Stephensburg as the permanent seat of Frederick County, Virginia government. From that time on, Stephensburg would have to grow on its own merits.

After the war Lewis began to establish an ironworks on his tract at Cedar Creek. This ironworks was intended to produce pig iron and wrought bar iron. Lewis continued to live on this tract and work on the iron furnace until 1767, when Lewis sold this -tract to ironmaster Isaac Zane (1743-1795). After the sale Zane made Marlboro Furnace into a very successful iron-manufacturing business. At that time Lewis Stephens moved back to the family lands that he held in reserve in Stephensburg and focused his attention on the development of the new town.

By the start of the Revolutionary War, Stephensburg was becoming known by a nickname that would eventually become part of its official designation. In some documents of the period, "New Town" or "Newtown" is used to identify Stephensburg. It is hard to know when this nickname was first used, but it is likely that it had something to do with the fact that Stephensburg was the "new town" on the Great Wagon Road south of Winchester. By the time of the Civil War, this nickname of "Newtown" had become almost exclusively the only name for which the town was known.

Many who journeyed south, up the Valley, during this period rested from their travels in Newtown-Stephensburg. Fortunately one of these travelers kept a journal. On May 23, 1775, a young Princeton University-educated Presbyterian minister named Philip Vickers Fithian (1747-1776) came to Stephensburg to stay while he preached to nearby congregations. He described the town as "A small Village—Well situated—4 Taverns kept in this Town—One large Store kept by Mr. Holms where I am to lodge." On May 29, 1775, Fithian described the town’s setting in his journal.

"It is, in its Situation, very delightful; from it there is a good View of both the North & South Mountain, the first fifteen, and the other thirty Miles Distance. From this Town may be seen, six Counties and there are but few such Prospects in America Hampshire, Dunmore, Culpepper, Farquier, Loudon, Frederick!—The Mountains, on a smoky, or dusky Day, appear vastly beautiful—Like a fine well-designed, & finished, Piece of Painting!"

On June 8, 1775, Fithian also described a common scene in Stephensburg that gives us an insight into the important role that transportation has always played in the life of the town. "We see many every Day travelling out & in to & from Carolina, some on Foot with Packs; some on Horseback, & some in large covered Waggons—The Road here is much frequented, & the Country for an hundred & fifty miles farther West, thick inhabited."

Fithian left shortly thereafter and joined the fight for American independence. During the Revolution a number of young men from Stephensburg served and died for the cause of American independence. One group of Stephensburg’s patriots was recruited in August of 1776 by Henry Bedinger (1752-1843) of Shepherdstown and joined other rifle troops from Martinsburg in Berkeley County to the north. They were marched to New York under the command of Captain Abraham Shepherd (ca. 1753-1822) of Shepherdstown. There on Manhattan Island during the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, a British and Hessian force that outnumbered them by more than 5,000 captured the 2,818 Americans defending Fort Washington. Among the captured was one Conrad Cabbage of Stephensburg, the son of George Cabbage, the builder of the Stone House (which is now part of the Newtown History Center). Conrad suffered the same fate as the other men of his unit who were from Stephensburg. He died January 7, 1777 of starvation and disease incurred through the intentional neglect in his British captors. Another prisoner from Stephensburg who died in this same way was Gabriel Stephens, a grandson of Peter Stephens.

Growth, 1784-1860

After the Revolution the town's population grew. By the 1790s there was so much growth that the citizens of Stephensburg petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia for the boundaries of the town to be expanded to the North along the wagon road on additional land owned by Lewis Stephens. After ironmaster Isaac Zane died in 1795 and his operation at Marlboro closed down, some of the residents of the iron working community purchased lots in Stephensburg and set up new shops.

By the first decades of the nineteenth century an important industry was emerging as the dominant trade for which Newtown-Stephensburg would gain fame and notoriety. This industry was the wagon making trade. Strictly speaking, wagon building in this period was a cooperative effort between different groups of specialist tradesmen employed by a single contractor or "master" wagon maker. In others words, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and other specialist woodworkers combined their efforts and skills under a master wagon maker to produce wagons quickly and efficiently. The 1820 Federal Manufacturers' Census of Frederick County, Virginia listed the names of twenty-seven owners of wagon making shops, of which thirteen were either Stephensburg residents or had family connections to the town. This number seems even more significant when we consider the fact that in 1820 Frederick County included the areas of modern Warren and Clarke counties. The earliest published account that mentions the fame of the town's wagon industry is in the 1835 edition of A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia by Joseph Martin. The wagon industry in Stephensburg is described as follows: "Great numbers of wagons are made, – no less than 9 different establishments being engaged in this business, which make and send wagons to almost every part of the State, which for neatness, strength, and durability, are said not to be surpassed in the United States." Ten years later, in 1845, traveling author Henry Howe in his book Historical Collections of Virginia describes Stephensburg as "a neat & thriving village" and goes on to say that there are "about a dozen shops for the manufacture of wagons, (for which the place is noted) together with other mechanical and mercantile establishments, and a population of about 800." By far one of the best descriptions of the wagon industry in Newtown-Stephensburg was published in 1883, not long after the business had declined. That year Major J. M. McCue of Staunton, commented on the ironic prominence of smaller towns like Stephensburg in the early 19th century transportation industry of the Valley, when he wrote the following in an article for a periodical called The Industrial South:

"This was particularly so with Newtown, which, for more than a half century, retained the supremacy in building and fitting out the immense wagons capable of sustaining 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of freight. The wood work of the best material was made sometimes by the same man who had them ironed. The pitch in front and rear of the bodies, surmounted with bows and sheet, was such that four or five men could shelter under the projection. The harness is very heavy and the traces, breast and tongue chains of twisted links, and tire and all the iron used was of the best bar, made by Miller, Arthur, Newman, Blackford, Pennybaker and others. They cost from $150 to $200."

McCue went on later in this article to list the names of the prominent wagon makers in Newtown-Stephensburg during this period and added that these makers traditionally advertised their businesses' name "on the hind-end gate" of the wagons they produced. The one thing that each of these makers' hind-end gate advertisements shared was the "Newtown-Stephensburg" address.

The wagon industry fueled the town’s economy and its other trade shops. This list of other trades included at least two saddle and harness makers, three earthenware potters, three hatters, a machine shop, a tannery, a silversmith and a weaver. "But railroads put an end to the wagon trade and with its decadence all others declined" wrote one local historian at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, before its decline during and after the Civil War, other important developments were taking place during the period while the town’s wagon industry thrived. One improvement came with the establishment of the Valley Turnpike Company in 1834, and the macadamized paving of the old dirt Wagon Road that is today U.S. Route 11. Because this dirt Wagon Road went through the center of the town, refining its ability to shed water in wet weather meant reducing the amount of mud and standing water on the town’s Main Street. A market house that stood in the center of the town’s main square (the modern-day intersection of U.S. Route 11 and State Route 277) was torn down to make way for this new road, and toll gates were established to collect fees from travelers to pay for the improvements. These were small sacrifices in comparison to the improved transportation experience of those who used this new road.

During this same period there were changes occurring in the social attitudes of some of the town’s most prominent Methodists toward African American slavery. Among these prominent Methodists was a veteran of the Revolution named John Bell Tilden (1761-1838). Dr. Tilden studied at Princeton until 1779, when he accepted an ensign's commission in the Pennsylvania line of the Continental Army. After the Revolutionary War he moved to Stephensburg in the early 1790s and quickly became recognized as a Methodist preacher. As an ardent early Methodist he acknowledged the equity of all people before God. These egalitarian views of society extended across the racial divide. Tilden demonstrated his anti-slavery sentiments by freeing his slave Lucy and her small child James in April 1806. Some local Methodists followed Tilden's example by either freeing their slaves or never buying any. Nevertheless, there were many who felt that if they treated their slaves with greater kindness, they were under no moral obligation to set them free.

By the time of John Bell Tilden's death in 1838, there was one slave from Stephensburg named Joseph Taper who had had enough. Taper ran away in 1837 with his wife and at least one of his children. He made it to Canada by August 1839, and in November 1840 he wrote a letter from St. Catherines, Ontario to a white slave owner named Joseph Long (1791-1864) whom he had known back in Newtown-Stephensburg. In this letter Taper said that even if former owners had treated him well as a slave, he preferred freedom to slavery. In this letter Taper stated he had "enjoyed more pleasure with one Canada than in all my life in the land of bondage." Taper also wrote that he had met some of Long's "neighbors who lived in the house opposite" Long in Stephensburg and that "they were very glad" to see Taper there in Pennsylvania. Taper also wrote that he had worked for a while in Erie, Pennsylvania before moving across the border into Canada, and that while he was in Erie he had "met many of our neighbors from New Town." It is possible that the "neighbors" Taper was referring to here were other runaway slaves, or sympathetic whites he had originally known in the area of Stephensburg.

Those African Americans, both free and enslaved, who stayed in Newtown-Stephensburg apparently found great comfort in the Methodist faith and, by the late 1850s began to worship together separately from the white Methodist congregation in their own chapel. It was also in the 1850s that a new community of free African Americans started to develop about a mile east outside of Stephensburg on the old Nineveh Road (now called Double Church Road) just north of where it crosses the Fairfax Pike (State Route 277). In April 1853, two free African American men named George Fletcher and Enoch Jenkins each bought adjacent lots where they would eventually build log homes for themselves and their families. A year later in March 1854, a free African American woman by the name of Clara Banks bought another adjacent lot to the north of Fletcher and Jenkins. These three were the first of a number of African Americans who would later make up the unincorporated community of "Crossroads". This community was also known as "Freetown" among the white population of the area. This neighborhood was the first free black community to develop in the region before the Civil War.

Civil War, 1861-1865

Despite the anti-slavery sentiments of some of its most influential citizens, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry Arsenal went too far for the majority of the town's white citizens. The militia units of Frederick County responded to the alarm, and Newtown-Stephensburg supplied its complement of citizen soldiers to quell the potential uprising. When the Civil War finally broke out in 1861, the majority of Newtown's young men of military age showed their loyalty to their state and joined the Confederate forces that were being organized. Fortunately, the Steele family of Newtown kept diaries during the period of this war. It is because of these diaries that we know many details of the war’s effects on the town. The Steele family's oldest son was a young lieutenant named Nimrod Hunter Steele.

"Nim" Steele grew up in Newtown before the Civil War. He served as a lieutenant in the Newtown Artillery, a prewar militia unit assigned to General Arnold Elzey's 16th Brigade, Battery C, 3rd Virginia Division that was headquartered in Winchester. Lieutenant Steele and his artillery unit were engaged at the Battle of First Manassas or "Bull Run" in July of 1861. By October an epidemic of typhoid infected the camp where Lieutenant Steele was stationed. He contracted the disease and was eventually sent home to Newtown where he died November 16, 1861. His two younger brothers, Mager William Steele and Milton Boyd Steele, also served the Confederacy during the war. Mager served in the 48th Virginia Infantry from November 1862 until the end of the war. Milton enlisted with Company A of the First Virginia Cavalry just after he turned eighteen on September 1, 1863 and served during the Gettysburg campaign. Both survived the war and went into business together, operating the Steele & Bro. Store.

Their youngest brother John Magill Steele (1853-1936) was too young to serve in the war but kept a diary with his sister Sara Eliza Steele (1851-1933) beginning January 19, 1863 until January 19, 1864. Forty-one years after the war the fifty-three-year-old John M. Steele wrote down his memories of the Civil War with the help of this diary. In this memoir John M. Steele characterized the wartime situation of the town as being "between the lines". Newtown became a no-mans-land for much of the war. It was close enough to suffer the effects and disruptions to daily life that came with the Federal troops’ occupation of Winchester and the surrounding region, but distant enough to return to limited Confederate control after nightfall. Fortunately for the town, most of the battles, skirmishes and engagements that took place in the vicinity of Newtown did not threaten the lives and property of the town's residents.

One notable exception was on May 24, 1862 when Stonewall Jackson's Confederate forces were advancing northward on the Valley Pike from Middletown. After defeating the Union troops in Front Royal the previous day, Jackson's men were now hitting the rear columns of the retreating Federal forces. At Newtown, General George H. Gordon (1825-1886) of the Second Massachusetts Infantry ordered the Federal troops under his command to make a stand and stop the Confederate advance. For the next hour or more there was skirmishing and continual artillery fire between the lines over and around the town. Gordon's men were able to halt the advance of the Confederate forces long enough to ensure that no more Federal wagons were lost. Gordon left the town to Jackson's forces, and both sides claimed a victory. Years later, Inez Virginia Steele (1838-1902), the eldest surviving sister in the Steele family, recalled the events of that day when "the town changed possession six times" and the artillery battle raged. "Considering how thickly the shot and shell sometimes flew, it seems almost incredible that but two houses were struck by cannon balls."

The other events that occurred during the last weeks of May 1864 and culminated on June 1, 1864 could have had devastating effects on the town for generations to come. On that first day of June, Major Joseph K. Stearns of the 1st New York Cavalry came to Newtown with orders to burn the town. It had all started over a week earlier on the evening of May 23, when partisan Confederate sympathizers from Maryland fired on a Federal wagon train from horseback as they rode away, shot one Union soldier and escaped. In the confusion that followed a number of the Federal troops unhitched their wagons, left them on the street in the town and rode the horses away to Winchester. In retaliation, and without knowing all the facts, Union General David Hunter (1802-1886) ordered Major Timothy Quinn of the 1st New York Cavalry to burn the houses from which the shots were fired as a warning to the citizens of Newtown not to attack any more Federal wagon trains. In turn Major Quinn burned at least three houses, including the Methodist parsonage and a brick house owned by a local slave trader. Ironically, Major Quinn burned the parsonage because one of the Federal wagons had been left on the street in front of the house by an African American man who had tried to move it to his own home but gave up on his plan before reaching his goal. It was also at this time that General Hunter issued a written proclamation saying that the he would order the burning of the town if any more of his soldiers and wagons were attacked.

By the evening of the 29th, the people of Newtown were the unfortunate bystanders once again when Confederate Colonel Harry Gilmor (1838-1883) and his Partisan Rangers attacked a Union wagon train guarded by 83 men of the 15th New York Cavalry at Stephens Run near the southern end of town. Despite the pleas of at least one resident, Eliza Kern Steele (1808-1882, the mother of the Steele family), Colonel Gilmore attacked the wagon train within the town boundaries. After it was all over, Colonel Gilmore and his men had killed three, wounded nine, taken the others as prisoners and burned most of the wagons at the southern end of the town. Colonel Gilmore then learned of General Hunter’s threat to burn the town if any more wagon trains were attacked. He was shocked but quickly wrote a note addressed to General Hunter. In this note he said he held thirty-five men and six officers, and Gilmore promised to hang all of them and send General Hunter their bodies if Hunter carried out his threat to burn the town. This note was then nailed to the door of a local store.

The morning of the following day Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby (1883-1916) and his men raided the rear guard of another Federal wagon train heading north on the Valley Turnpike just south of town. They killed two of the Federal soldiers and captured five others with their horses and equipment. One of the captured men was reportedly caught in the act of burning a barn south of town. Colonel Mosby's men brought him to the town's hotel and gave this prisoner some breakfast as his last meal. The prisoner was then taken to the burned ruins of the slave trader's brick house east of town and shot against one of the remaining brick walls.

The first of June came with the residents of Newtown scrambling to save as many of their moveable possessions as they could by hiding and burying them in their yards. When Major Stearns arrived in town to execute General Hunter's burning orders, he and his men were met by the sight of old people, women and children standing in the doorways of their homes with expressions of despair and helplessness on their faces. Community leaders also met him, protesting the innocence of the townspeople. They disassociated themselves from the attacks by Gilmore and Mosby and spoke of the aid they had given to the wounded Federals in their homes. Compassion may have played a role in Major Stearns' decision to disobey General Hunter’s orders. In exchange for not burning the town, Major Stearns required the people of Newtown to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. It is also likely that Colonel Gilmore's note nailed to the door of that local store threatening to kill his Federal prisoners played an important role in Major Stearn's decision. In any case, the town was spared and many of the old buildings that would have been burned by General Hunter's men still stand today in Stephens City.

Throughout it all the African American community in Newtown and its suburb of Crossroads were both observers and participants in the local events of the war. With Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the efforts of Union troops to enforce it, slave owners in Newtown were forced to let go of the people they had held as property. The majority of these emancipated African Americans left the area along with a number of the free blacks that had lived in the town. Ironically, for those who stayed, the collapse of Confederate military power in the northern Shenandoah Valley after the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, did not signal the end of the difficulties associated with the war. During the winter months of 1864–1865 Federal troops built a camp just north of Newtown in the area around Bartonsville and called it Camp Russell. In the course of building this winter camp the Federal troops dismantled the African American Methodist chapel with a few other structures in town and used the lumber and bricks to build their shelters. The demolition of this separate house of worship did not dampen the determination of the African American Methodist in Newtown. Fortunately for them there was in Winchester at that time, a former slave named Robert Orrick (ca. 1827-1902) who owned a successful livery stable business. Orrick was also a preacher and leader in the local African American Methodist community. With the financial help of Reverend Orrick, the African American Methodists of Newtown built a new house of worship and named it Orrick Chapel in honor of their benefactor. This chapel still stands today with modifications.

Reconstruction, the railroad and a name change, 1866-1899

For the next decade after the end of the Civil War, the town struggled to rebuild its economy and repair the damage caused by the horrors of the conflict. As veterans of the war came home and resumed their work as tradesmen and merchants, the local economy did improve. In April 1867, the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter to the Winchester and Strasburg Railroad Company. As its name implied this company was authorized to construct a railroad line between Winchester and Strasburg, linking Newtown-Stephensburg and Middletown with the existing Winchester & Potomac Railroad to the North and the Manassas Gap Railroad to the South. As previously mentioned, the coming of the railroads signaled an end to the wagon-building industry, seriously diminishing the other hand-skill trades practiced in the town. At the same time, there were new benefits to the advent of railway travel. Local merchants could begin to offer goods manufactured hundreds of miles away for more affordable prices. Day travel to places like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. required less time. Agricultural products that formerly had been hauled by local farmers in wagons to stations in Winchester or Strasburg could now be dropped off locally. In large measure, despite the negative effect they had on the town's old staple wagon-building industry, the railroads helped the town to recover from the effects of the war a little more quickly than it would have otherwise.

Just as the town was beginning to recover, an odd series of events caused by the heavy bureaucratic hand of the United States Postal Service forced the town to change its name. The problem stemmed from the fact that there were almost a dozen other places in Virginia called "Newtown", and there was one other community called "Stevensburg" in Culpeper County, Virginia. This caused a large number of letters and packages to go astray and made a lot of people very angry. Instead of assigning numbers to each town’s post office, the Postal Department in Washington, D.C informed the people of Newtown-Stephensburg in February of 1880 that the new name of their town was going to be "Pantops". Perhaps the panoramic views associated with Stephensburg's setting in the Shenandoah Valley were the reason behind this new name. In any case, the people of the town were shocked and promptly protested. After a community meeting the town's postmaster was sent to Washington with orders to have the ancient name restored. He returned with the news that the Postal Service was not going to change its mind but would consider any other name that was not already taken by another locality in Virginia. At a second town meeting the people of Stephensburg drafted a list of names that included the following: Newton City, Newtonburg, Newtonfield, Newtolona, Newtonapolis and Stephens City.

The name Stephens City was chosen by popular vote, and word was sent to the Postal Department of the decision. Six days later the citizens were dismayed once again to learn that the Postal Service had not changed the name to Stephens City but had assigned it the name Newtonfield. Once again the people of the town protested, and finally the town was officially re-christened Stephens City. To this day there are townspeople who wish to have the name of Stephensburg restored.

The 20th century & today

By the beginning of the twentieth century the town's economy had recovered. Apples were being grown in the orchards of the region and sold at a great profit. In 1906, Inez Virginia Steele wrote the following in her book Early Days and Methodism in Stephens City, Virginia:

"The town has improved greatly in the last twenty years. Many new houses have been built and old ones renovated till they appear new. Real estate has improved in value. There are no unoccupied houses; before a house is vacated there are several applications for it. There are five general stores, viz: Trussell & Samsell, L. A. Adams, Steele & Bro., Joseph A. McCarty and Steele & Dinges, besides, there is the clothing store of John R. Adams and grocery of Edgar Lemley and two millinery stores—Mrs. Luella McCarty's and Miss Annie Shryock's—all prospering. The People's Bank has been organized, property bought and is being remodeled. It will go in operation before the close of the year."

Miss Steele went on to add, "Outside the town the 'Stephens City Milling Company' flourishes, and the prosperous 'M. J. Grove Lime Works' give employment to from fifty to seventy-five hands." The M. J. Grove Lime Company would continue to operate in Stephens City through most of the twentieth century. The quarrying operation would close down in September of 1988 after being bought out by the Flintkote, and then Genstar Companies. The processing plant was then operated by the Shen-Valley Lime Corporation and would finally close down in 2003. Today the ruins of this original limekiln still stand next to the railroad tracks and the quarry is filled with water.

While the future looked bright in 1906 there were more troubled times ahead. In the years between World War I and World War II, the Depression troubled the town as it did most communities across the nation. It was during this period that the Peoples Bank of Stephens City failed along with other businesses in town. On November 17, 1936, there was a devastating fire that burned a newer section of the town that had grown up around the railway depot called "Stephens City Station" or "Mudville". The inferno began in the evaporation building of the Shenandoah Vinegar and Cider Company. Winds caused it to quickly spread, and when it was all over the flames had consumed the company’s evaporator, the cooperage plant, the apple packing shed, a storage house, a corn house, an auto shelter and a store building. The fire also severely damaged a blacksmith shop and workshop, a grocery business and a restaurant. While no one was injured or killed, the property losses were vast, and the owners did not have adequate insurance.

The twentieth century also brought changes in the technologies that were used in the homes and businesses of the town. Electrical service was introduced in 1915 before World War I when a line was run from the generator plant on the Shenandoah River to the M. J. Grove Lime Company west of the town. In 1941, just before World War II, a town water system was installed, and a town sewer system was introduced in 1964. Prior to that time those who enjoyed indoor flush toilet plumbing had septic tanks in their yards. Those who did not have indoor plumbing used outhouses in their yards, just as generations had before them.

By far, the building of Interstate 81 during the early 1960s affected the town in the twentieth century more profoundly than any other development. A number of significant old homes were torn down to make way for this new freeway, its interchange and the businesses that were later established around it. But for more than two hundred years the road that is now known as U.S. Route 11, and formerly as the old Valley Turnpike or "Great Wagon Road", had been the artery that carried traffic to all points both northeast and southwest of town. The businesses in town that had catered to the needs of these travelers (if they survived at all) would never be the same after Interstate 81 bypassed the town at its eastern boundary. But just as with the railroad in the late nineteenth century, the new interstate has brought growth to the area. During the last quarter of the twentieth century real estate developers constructed new subdivisions both inside and out of the town boundaries to the east.

Increasingly, the interstate helped make Stephens City into a suburban community for commuters who work elsewhere. Anticipating more growth and development, on July 1, 2005 the town annexed of land that had formerly been under the jurisdiction of Frederick County. This was followed with another on April 1, 2006 and on March 8, 2007.

As part of this wave of development new housing is currently being built on the same land that Peter Stephens had originally settled on back in 1732. The house he built for himself and his family was lost to time by the mid-nineteenth century. Fortunately, an archeological salvage survey was conducted before the modern building campaign started. Artifacts belonging to the Stephens family period of occupation were discovered and saved.

September 1, 2008 will mark the bicenquinquagenary, or 250th anniversary, of the founding of Stephens City.

On January 8th, 2008, the internet and the town of Stephens City finally met as the town's official website went online. Stephens City is the second Frederick County town to have an official website, Winchester being the first.

Stephens City Tornado

On September 17, 2004, as the remnants of Hurricane Ivan moved northward through Virginia, it spawned an F2 tornado which past just south of Stephens City, along Interstate 81. The tornado damaged parts of the Stephens City truck scales along I-81 causing two of the tall road lights to topple onto the interstate below. The tornado caused $250,000 worth of damage though no homes were damaged and no one was injured. It was the first time in a number of years the town's tornado sirens had been sounded.

Due to the tornado's close distance to Stephens City, it was called the Stephens City Tornado, even though it didn't pass through the town.

On the American Wood Council website, Dr. Robert Taylor (who, according to the site, lives in the area) reported what he had seen during the tornado and after the tornado:

The funnel took aim at a large recently-built post-frame building, completely stripping it of all sheet metal cladding, leaving only the wood frame, purlins, and girts still standing. It then continued, landing squarely on an old but well-built Amish-style barn about

Two other tornadoes were spawned from Hurricane Ivan in Frederick County that day.

Newtown-Stephensburg Historic District

Most of the buildings and land along Main, Mulberry, Green, Fairfax, Martin, Short, Germain, and Water streets in Stephens City were added to the National Register of Historic Places in August 1992 and carry a Historic Preservation Plaque.

The Old Stephens City School

The "Stephens City School" was built between 1908 and 1909 when federally-mandated publicly-funded schools were becoming the norm. Prior to the school being built, parents had to pay to get their children into private schools as it was the only choice.

The school housed students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. The school remained open until 1950 when it was closed and students were moved to James Wood Middle and James Wood High in Winchester.

The school fell into disrepair until the property was bought and repairs slowly began. Currently, not all repairs have been made due to lack of funds. There is a push for the Stephens City Town Offices to move to the building so that more state funding may be acquired for continued and quicker repairs.

Learning, though, continues in a side building of the old school. A local head-start school is located there and operates during the weekdays.


According to the census of 2000, 121 Veterans live in Stephens City, with 29% of those serving in Vietnam.

Conflict Number Served Percentage
World War II 25 20.7%
Korean War 23 19.0%
Vietnam War 29 24.0%
Served from 1975 to 1990 15 12.4%
Gulf War 23 19.0%
War in Afghanistan Unknown Unknown
Iraq War Unknown Unknown

According to the same Census Bureau statistics, of the 23 who served in Korea, three were veterans of World War II.

Two people from Stephens City served in three separate international conflicts: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.


Stephens City is located at (39.083181, -78.218322).

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 1.4 square miles (3.7 km²), all of it land.


As of the census of 2000, there were 1,146 people, 500 households, and 291 families residing in the town. The population density was 806.8 people per square mile (311.6/km²). There were 546 housing units at an average density of 384.4/sq mi (148.5/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 89.88% White, 6.54% African American, 0.44% Native American, 1.57% Asian, 0.26% from other races, and 1.31% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.01% of the population.

There were 500 households out of which 26.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 43.6% were married couples living together, 10.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 41.8% were non-families. 33.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.29 and the average family size was 2.97.

In the town the population was spread out with 23.7% under the age of 18, 8.8% from 18 to 24, 32.5% from 25 to 44, 23.8% from 45 to 64, and 11.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 86.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.4 males.

The median income for a household in the town was $35,200, and the median income for a family was $41,827. Males had a median income of $29,432 versus $22,313 for females. The per capita income for the town was $17,998. About 6.0% of families and 9.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 7.6% of those under age 18 and 9.4% of those age 65 or over.


Historic U.S. Route 11 traverses through Stephens City proper, while Interstate 81 serves as the eastern border of the town.

Stephens City serves as the western terminus of State Route 277, which begins at U.S. Route 11 and ends only away in Clarke County, VA at U.S. Route 340/522.

It is planned that, by the year 2008, the I-81 interchange at Stephens City will be moved south of Stephens City to alleviate congestion on the Route 277 bridge and that continued expansion of Stephens City will continue south. The current bridge that crosses State Route 277 will remain.


The Family Drive-In, located on U.S. Route 11 just south of Stephens City, is one of seven drive-ins left in the state of Virginia.


Stephens City holds its annual "Newtown Heritage Festival" on Memorial Day weekend. The two-day event features many crafts, a tractor wagon ride through town, bluegrass music at Newtown Park and a parade on Saturday.

The "Newtown" name comes from the one of the former names of Stephens City.

Notable residents

  • Kelley Washington - New England Patriots wide-receiver. Washington, who was born in Stephens City, graduated from Sherando High School, located from Stephens City proper. Washington attended the University of Tennessee and was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals with the first pick of the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft. He would play for Cincinnati til the end 2006 season and go onto the Patriots in 2007.
  • Timothy T. O'Donnell - author, educator, president of Christendom College. O'Donnell, was the first layman to receive both his licentiate and doctoral degrees in Ascetical and Mystical Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. O'Donnell has been with Christendom College since 1985, and president of the college since 1992. He also has filmed numerous programs for the EWTN.
  • Edna Lewis - chef, author, called "the South's answer to Julia Child". Lewis, was born in "Freetown" (now part of Stephens City) in 1916. Lewis would work, early on, for the communist newspaper The Daily Worker and an campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her real claim to fame would be in 1949 when she would open a restaurant on 58th Street, on the East Side of Manhattan, it was a success. She would continue cooking, trying to recapture "those good flavors of the past" and writing about them along the way. Lewis passed away in her sleep at her home in Decatur, Georgia in 2006.
  • Jeff Cesnik - Starred in TLC's Robotica

See also


Further reading

  • Bly, Daniel W. From the Rhine to the Shenandoah, Eighteenth Century Swiss & German Pioneer Families In the Central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia And their European Origins. Baltimore, Maryland: Gateway Press, Inc., 2002.
  • Brown, Stuart E. Virginia Baron, The Story of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax. Berryville, Virginia: Chesapeake Book Company, 1965.
  • Cartmell, T. K. Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants, A History of Frederick County, Virginia. Winchester, Virginia: Eddy Press Corporation, 1909, reprint, Berryville, Virginia: Chesapeake Book Company, 1963.
  • Dandridge, Danske. Historic Shepherdstown. Charlottesville, Virginia: The Michie Company, Printers, 1910, reprint, Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Specialty Binding & Printing Co., 1985.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Run Away Slaves, Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Frederick County Deed Book 30, pages 53-54. Frederick County Judicial Center, Winchester, Virginia.
  • Kercheval, Samuel. A History of the Valley of Virginia, Sixth Edition (Third Printing—Fourth Edition). Harrisonburg, Virginia: C.J. Carrier Company, 1981.
  • Smith, Byron C. “The Minnick-Zirkle Newtown Wagon: Its Rediscovery and Attribution.” Winchester Frederick County Historical Society Journal, 18 (2006): 39-61.
  • Wine, J. Floyd. “Frederick County Post Offices, Past and Present.” Winchester Frederick County Historical Society Journal 2 (1987): 43-96.

External links

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