Coming Home

A Shepherdstown native comes to love the community, but only after spending time away.

By Shay Maunz | 10/17/2011

Fifty years ago, growing up in Shepherdstown, Jay Hurley just wanted to get away. He wanted nothing more than to leave Shepherdstown and make a lot of money so he could come back, buy the town and burn it to the ground.

“Now that has definitely come full circle,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Hurley did leave Shepherdstown. He spent 18 years away working toward an education and on various jobs, spending some time abroad and some time in Michigan. And 31 years ago, he came back.

But he didn’t try to burn the town down. Instead he made his mark on the community. When Hurley moved home to take over his father’s store on East Washington Street, he did it with gusto.

In his last 31 years in Shepherdstown, he’s worked in historic preservation and become a vocal commentator at city council meetings. He’s organized lectures , picnics and dinners—all, he says, for the love of the town.

His store, which he remodeled and revamped before taking it over from his father, has become a fixture in the community. It is filled with a mishmash of goods, from hardware and appliances to dresses and shoes and toys for children.

Everything in the store is dipped in a deep sense of nostalgia.

“I think the year 1900 is kind of stamped in my brain,” he said. “I like to think of us as the guinea pigs. We’re trying to stay the same in a simpler time, while everything else races headlong toward high technology.”

Mr. Hurley has been slow to adopt most technology, though he does now carry a cell phone and own a computer. Still, as a self-proclaimed man of many-projects, his calendar is quite full.

His many projects encompass his vast range of interests and often become huge undertakings – Mr. Hurley doesn’t do anything halfway.

An amateur pilot who is fascinated with airplanes, his shirts are chronically smeared with dirt and grease from a decade-long project to build a turn-of-the-century era bi-plane in his backyard. He’s also working to restore another vintage plane with the help of a group of “aviation enthusiasts” from around town. They hope to have that plane completed by spring.

His interest in religion – he doesn’t ascribe to any single faith, but believes in reincarnation and takes his spirituality very seriously – led him to host a monthly discussion on religion in his store, often featuring lectures from scholars in the field.

His affection for history and historic preservation yielded one of Shepherdstown’s foremost tourist attractions – a half-scale replica of James Rumsey’s steamboat.

Shepherdstown residents, and some historians, claim Rumsey invented a steamboat years before Robert Fulton. In the 1980’s, Hurley decided the town should have a project to honor Rumsey, and the idea resulted in the replica. It is fully functional, and both the boat and engine are identical to Rumsey’s.

And Mr. Hurley’s love of music led to a regular community event, “Thursday night jam sessions” at O’Hurley’s General Store.

Each week, more than a dozen local musicians come together at the store to play old-time music, a tradition that evolved organically over the years. When Mr. Hurley took over the store in 1979, he was in the habit of practicing his hammer dulcimer every Thursday.

Eventually, Charlie Cassibona , who runs a business making chocolate in Martinsburg, joined him to practice his fiddle.

Over the years more and more people joined the group. All of the musicians grew much more proficient with their instruments than they once had been, and they eventually gained a following. Some Thursdays as many as 50 people will pack into the store for the informal concert.

Mr. Hurley doesn’t socialize much with people his own age, saying they “can’t keep up” with him. A friend once called him the “Peter Pan of Shepherdstown,” a title Hurley likes.

But he is part of a close-knit community group, most of whom are both musicians and vegetarians, (though Hurley does eat meat occasionally.) These relationships, he said, have been honed through his involvement in the community, a fact that surprises him.

When he returned to Shepherdstown 31 years ago, Mr. Hurley wasn’t looking to do right by the community or immerse himself into Shepherdstown. But now, he’s glad he has.

“It’s kind of like, you just take things one step at a time. You don’t know what’s coming more than a step or two ahead of you,” he said.

“There were some things I needed to learn before I came back. I think humility was a big one. I didn’t expect it to turn out like this, but it definitely is something I relish.”

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