Recently I took a jaunt up to Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Despite having lived in the greater Washington, D.C. area my entire life, and having enjoyed many lovely days up in Harpers Ferry, Boonsboro, and Berkeley Springs, I had never managed to visit before. Shepherdstown is the oldest town in West Virginia, having been founded in 1734 and chartered in 1762. There are lots of great reasons to visit, even in February. The historic town and surrounding rural landscape are vibrant even in the dead of Winter, and the views of well-preserved 18th and 19th-c. buildings are unimpeded by trees and vegetation. Historic resources here have strong local support in the form of Historic Shepherdstown and the Shepherdstown Historic Landmarks Commission. As the town’s comprehensive plan states, “historic preservation remains a key quality of life that the citizens of Shepherdstown hold in high regard.”
From the ubiquitous (“George Washington slept here”) to the obscure (Bunny Man Bridge), every community has local lore unproved as fact or fiction. Local legends, like some old Hollywood screen legends, often refuse to die. Local myths linger on, taking on new life and usually growing more salacious with each successive generation. Sometimes the story is so preposterous, local historians won’t touch it. But often there’s just enough plausibility, or even a thin shred of evidence, to lure us on a wild goose chase for the truth. Ultimately, confirming or disproving the story becomes secondary to the value local lore holds in our personal and collective memories.
Pola Negri and the Gulf Branch Nature Center
In Arlington, Virginia, there’s a long-held story about a local visit from silent film star Pola Negri. Many Arlington residents have heard the story that Pola Negri once lived in the 1920s stone bungalow on Military Road, converted into the Gulf Branch Nature Center in the 1960s. The staff of the Nature Center have even incorporated the Pola Negri connection into their programs, screening her films during an annual “Pola Negri Night.” But despite the many affirmations of the Pola Negri connection in local news stories about the Gulf Branch Nature center, a source of documentation is rarely cited.