Last year, during the holidays, I spent some time in Sharpsburg, Maryland, where I enjoyed a lovely stay at the Jacob Rohrbach Inn. During that time, my travels took me through the small town of Boonsboro, where I noticed a cozy, cute little Inn all lit up for the Christmas season. I was pulled to it like a magnet and vowed to return to explore the area when the weather warmed.
That opportunity occurred just this month, when I was able to clear my schedule for a long weekend to see what Boonsboro had to offer.
Arriving in Town
When we arrived in town, our first stop was Vesta Pizza, which I learned is owned by the NY Times bestselling author Nora Roberts and her husband Bruce Wilder. The back of the building beckons with a cheery mural which seems to invite visitors to step inside where they serve pizza, burgers, salads, sandwiches and pasta.
It doesn’t take long for out-of-towners to realize that Nora Roberts is big here and that the quaint little town is quite proud of the prolific author who lives in nearby Keedysville.
We learned later that the brightly colored Vesta pizza building has a colorful past as well. Built in 1811, it was used as a residence by Dr. Silfer, then later as a female seminary. During the Civil War, it operated as the U.S. Hotel where a Confederate officer by the name of Bassett French was surprised by Union troops as he hid in the coal bin in the basement.
A Walkable Downtown with Plenty of Shopping Opportunities
Downtown Boonsboro is home to a number of boutiques, which offer everything from gifts, to apparel, jewelry, books, home decor and more.
One thing that is clear is that the Shop Small movement is alive and well in Boonsboro and the merchants downtown are united in supporting each other, as they work to promote other small businesses. The Gifts Inn Boonsboro is one example. The shop works with more than 75 artists who specialize in jewelry, fiber art, crafts and more.
Fans of Nora Roberts will find a comprehensive collection of her works under one roof at Turn the Page bookstore, which is owned and operated by her husband. The bookstore also works with other local authors to promote their works as well. Those who are interested in seeing Nora in person can check the website to find out when she will be scheduling her next book signing and if you miss one you’re in luck because she is known to schedule book signings about six times a year.
If you just happen to be hungry and in the market for rifles and ammo, you can kill three birds with one stone at Crawford’s Restaurant, Guns and Ammo. The sign gave me a chuckle, so of course I had to venture in. I later learned that plenty of visitors take a moment to stop, smile and snap a picture of the popular sign. When I asked the lady behind the 50s-era counter the age of the business, she said that she didn’t know, but that she had been with them for over four decades.
If you enjoy antiques, I highly recommend Market Place Antiques, which touts more than 130 vendors selling everything from Civil War memorabilia, to furniture, Victorian-era items, primitives and more. I spotted this weathered trunk and couldn’t help but let my imagination wander as to who owned it, where she traveled and how it ended up in an antique store in Boonsboro.
Learning about History
I particularly enjoy viewing old houses and imagining the lives of those who came before, which is just one reason why I was so delighted to find walking tour pamphlets in a weather-proof box in downtown Boonsboro. On the map are 34 places, each with a paragraph or two detailing a few interesting facts about each structure. We split the tour into two during our three-day visit, which made viewing and photographing each place more manageable.
Among the most interesting were the two log homes. The first, located at 14 South Main, seems to sigh with the burden of age, but has nonetheless managed to withstand the test of time. It operated as a grocery in 1802 until it shuttered its doors in 1983, which I find pretty incredible.
The second log home, located at 323 North Main Street, is known as the Bowman House. It was built in 1826 and is typical of log houses built in Western Maryland at the time. John Bowman purchased the home and operated a pottery business on the site after he was mustered out of the Union Army in 1865. He lived there until his death in 1906 and in 1971, his grandson turned the property over to the Boonsboro Historical Society. It now serves as their headquarters.
Another interesting, yet more modern structure on the walking tour, is a Queen Anne Victorian era style home built by Dr. Edgar T. Smith, a Boonsboro physician who served residents of the area. The Smith family was Irish Catholic and provided most of the funds for the St. James Catholic Church, which closed in 1898. Visitors who look closely can see 12 crosses, which decorate the fascia of the uppermost gable.
This is just a sampling of the many historical houses on the tour. You can learn more by downloading PocketSights on your mobile device from the Apple App, or Google Play store. Launch the app and search for “Boonsboro.”
What was once a peaceful farm turned out to be a scene of chaos for Philip, Elizabeth Pry and their six children, whose lives were forever changed when General George B. McClellan came knocking, making the fateful decision to use the house as his headquarters for the Union Army of the Potomac. During this time, Pry’s best parlor furniture was thrown out into the front lawn, fences were knocked down, loads of hay confiscated and livestock was taken to feed the army. One of the exhibits memorializes the family’s extensive war claims, which were never fully paid.
The museum inside the well-preserved home focuses on both the history of hospitals and medical care during the Civil War. On the second floor is a collection of graphic photos taken in the aftermath of the battle by photographers working for Matthew Brady.
The medical exhibits show the dreadful injuries caused by the bullets used in the war (called “Minie” bullets) and the ghastly treatments that were administered during that time. Common myths like “biting the bullet” are dispelled and we learn that the property was also headquarters for Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, who stayed at the house throughout the battle.
The incredible photos, which were used as models for the wood block prints published in newspapers and magazines during the war, portray battlefield conditions and the sad aftermath. Some of the photos, which are quite famous, are rendered in both stereo and enhanced in 3D to give visitors additional insight into death on the battlefield–a stark contrast to the sanitized versions that ran in newspapers at the time.
The family barn, located a short walk from the house, offers a glimpse into what took place during the occupation of the Pry property, with common items used to transport the wounded, like stretchers and a Civil War ambulance on display.
The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through October and on weekends in November and December.
The C&O Canal
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is yet another attraction in Washington County, with a visitor’s center in Williamsport, MD, just on the other side of Hagerstown.
Ground was broken for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in 1828 to create a navigable waterway from tidewater at Georgetown to the Ohio River. Before construction ended in 1850, however, the canal was rendered obsolete and replaced by the faster and much more efficient railroad, which completed the link to the West, while the canal stopped far short of the Ohio River in Columbia, MD.
Today, guests can traverse the towpath by foot, or by bicycles, which are available for rent at the Visitor’s Center.
Take a short walk up the hill past the Visitor’s Center to view several educational exhibits that help further explain the canal system, from the importance of locks, to the lives of the locktenders and the dependence on the mules that pulled the boats.
canal boat model
To learn more, download the C&O Canal Explorer Mobile App to become familiar with all 184.5 miles of the C&O National Historical park, which has over 600 points of interest, from hiking trails, to campgrounds, trailheads and more.
During our visit, we intended to visit two major attractions on the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the South Mountain Ridge. Instead, a driving rain scuttled our plans. If you happen to find time in your schedule (and weather permits) I suggest visiting these unique landmarks.
The Washington Monument
Nearest to Boonsboro is the Washington Monument, which was built by the citizens of Boonsboro in 1827. This makes it the first monument to the father of our country, as it predates the Washington Monument that can be seen at the National Mall. According to South Mountain Recreation Area Manager Mary Ironside, the monument was built by a community that believed in preserving the legacy of General George Washington. The monument is currently being repointed, but the public is permitted access to enjoy views of the mountainside. The area around the monument is fenced off for safety at this time and to prevent visitors from climbing up the tower. The museum, which is currently open, is well worth a visit to learn details about how the structure came about and the fanfare that followed.
monument to journalism
The War Correspondents Arch, courtesy of Charissa Beeler Hipp
Further away from town and closer to Antietam battlefield at Crampton’s Gap at South Mountain, is the National War Correspondents Memorial Arch, dedicated to journalists who died in war. The unique looking monument was built in 1896 by Civil War reporter George Alfred Townsend. The structure is 50 feet high and 30 feet broad. The three arches in the middle represent description, depiction and photography. The arch went unchanged for over a century until four names were added in 2003: David Bloom, Michael Kelly, Elizabeth Neuffer and Daniel Pearl.
Wine Tasting at Big Cork Vineyards
Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville, Maryland is just a 15-minute drive from downtown Boonsboro and is well worth the visit. From the bucolic setting amidst the rolling hills, to the sleek, contemporary interior decor, to the exceptional wines that you can’t find anywhere else, it’s a visit that you won’t likely forget and one that you’ll likely be sharing with your friends upon returning home.
Owner Randy Thompson teamed up with seasoned winemaker Dave Collins, to bring the public an exceptional selection of award-winning wine.
For $10, guests can taste a total of six wines, most of which are dry, all of which are exceptional. If I had to choose a favorite, however, I would recommend the off-dry “Russian Kiss,” which has earned its share of accolades, including winning the double gold in the INDY International Wine Competition. It’s described on the tasting menu as a “one-of-a-kind blend of Muscat and Russian grape varietals. Aromatically driven, with kiwi, orange blossom and honeydew melon. Refreshing on the palate with flavors of tangerine, kumquat and fresh-cut pineapple.”
We were informed by Communications Director Amy Benton that we would be hard pressed to find another wine that tastes like “Russian Kiss” in the U.S. because the vines hail from Eastern Europe and were introduced to the winery by viticulturist and small fruit specialist Dr. Joe Fiola, who works at the University of Maryland. Collins liked the grapes so much that he sent several thousand vines off for grafting in California. His instinct turned out to be correct–Russian Kiss has been a hit with the public.
The vineyard also offers quite the lineup of entertainment. According to Benton, there is live music every weekend when the weather warms. On tap for this summer is the”Big Summer Concert Series,” with tributes to Frank Sinatra, ABBA and Bruce Springsteen. Visit the event page here to learn more.
A highlight of my trip was visiting the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts of Washington County (WCMFA) in Hagerstown, which has been recognized as one of the finest small museums in the United States. The museums collection includes over 7,000 works of art and hews to the wishes of its founders by actively collecting pieces in the fields of American art, world cultures and regional art.
The museum was established in 1931 by Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, who was an artist in his own right. Once you are familiar with his style, you’ll easily spot his pieces in the museum.
The generosity of the Singers and subsequent donors has enabled the WCMFA to continue to grow throughout the years. One of my favorite pieces is a more contemporary piece–a bronze created by Antonio Tobias Mendez in 1999 and titled, “Solitaire?”
Other interesting pieces include an imposing statue named Diana, who holds court in an atrium overlooking Hagerstown City Park.
European Old Masters are also represented in the Schreiber Gallery, which contains works like this one titled, “Saints Mary Magdalene and Paul.”
The story behind the Norman Rockwell original is as heartwarming as his art. When the museum wrote the famous painter requesting one of his pieces, they explained that they were limited to a $1,000 budget. Rockwell decided that he would grant the request due to a soft spot he had in his heart for small museums. This one is called “The Oculist.”
In keeping with the founders’ wishes to bring art to the community, the WCMFA also offers lectures, art classes, concerts and more.
Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
The first night in town, we walked across the street from the Inn Boonsboro to dine at an establishment with a connection to Nora Roberts. Dan’s Restaurant and Taphouse is owned by Nora’s son, who works with local breweries and farms to serve lunch and dinner seven days a week. If you visit, be sure to check out the beautiful tin ceiling that I tried to capture here. The building itself is also interesting. It is known as the “Cast Iron Building” and represents the style of the late Victorian era.
For a down-home experience, there’s Bonnie’s at the Red Byrd on Shepherdstown Pike down the road a stretch in Keedysville. It seems to be a local hangout and it’s no wonder. The prices are extraordinary low and the food was good. I ordered a tuna sandwich for a shocking $4.25 and was not disappointed.
For a more upscale experience, there’s the Old South Mountain Inn perched atop Turner’s Gap at 6132 Old National Pike in Boonsboro. One thing I can say is that there’s no lack of old buildings in the area. The Inn was founded in 1732 and speculation has it that General Edward Braddock, accompanied by young Lt. George Washington, may have passed by on the way to Fort Duquesne.
The South Mountain Inn served as a stagecoach stop for traffic passing on the National Road after it was surfaced in the 1820s. In the years that followed, the Inn would be visited by various Washington leaders like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and several presidents.
In 1859, the Inn was captured and held overnight as an outpost by John Brown’s followers and later became the headquarters of Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill during the Battle of South Mountain, which preceded the Battle of Antietam as in fact the first civil war battle fought in Maryland.
Today the Inn is as popular for its food as it is for its history. Visitors come from miles around for old-school favorites like crab imperial, chicken marsala, beef Wellington and pasta primavera.
For comfortable accommodations in a central location, look no further than the Inn Boonsboro located at 1 North Main Street and owned by Nora Roberts. The eight spacious rooms are all decorated differently and all but one are named after couples in literary classics. We stayed in the Eva and Roarke room named after a couple in Robert’s novels, from the “In Death” series written under her pen name J.D. Robb.
We appreciated the opportunity to sit outside on the balcony during a warm May evening. We were also impressed with all of the extra touches, from the scones and cookies available in the dining room, to the soda and water in the refrigerator, to the decanter of Irish whisky available for guests to enjoy a nightcap.
Breakfast of blueberry crumble, fried eggs over hash browns with bernaise and arugula started our day off on a delicious note.
As with many structures in Boonsboro, the Inn touts a rich history as well. You can read more about the background of the Bed and Breakfast here.
These are just a few recommendations for a long weekend in the Boonsboro area. If you’re like me and love walking around small towns, patronizing local businesses and learning about old buildings and the history behind them, you can’t go wrong in Boonsboro.