Saving the Clowser House

One of the biggest dilemmas in historic preservation is that what one person values as historic, another person doesn’t.

Shawneeland, located on the southern slope of the Great North Mountain in northwestern Frederick County, Virginia, began life as a resort community. Founded in 1955, the community had 3,000 home lots and many recreational amenities including ski slopes, two man-made lakes, a swimming pool, and lodge. By the early 1970s, the developer abandoned Shawneeland with only a fraction of the lots sold. In order to provide services to the residents of Shawneeland, Frederick County formed a sanitary district and took over maintenance of the roads in the community. Frederick County also became the owner of two historic structures, the Tecumseh Lodge and the Clowser House. Sadly, the Tecumseh Lodge was demolished in 1992, but the Clowser House has survived.

In late 2013, the sanitary district board wanted to demolish the Clowser House, due to its deteriorating condition. At that point, the house had been boarded up and used for storage for years. The lack of gutters on the building led to serious water damage on the back wall. Rather than spend money to restore a building for which it had no use, the board voted to demolish. However, a group of Shawneeland residents protested and persuaded the board to create a subcommittee to investigate the house’s history and options for saving it.

The house had belonged to the Clowser family who settled in the area in the mid-1700s and still owned the property in 1955 when they sold to the developer of Shawneeland. In July 1764, a band of Delaware Indians attacked members of the Clowser family as they tried to make their way to the safety of nearby White’s Fort. The patriarch Henry Clowser, two of his sons, and his youngest daughter were killed. His wife and three of his daughters were taken captive. After about six months, Mrs. Clowser and her daughters were released and returned home.

The original Clowser home no longer exists, although its site is probably behind the current Clowser House, which was built around 1830 (based on the architectural details). Still, the house is one of the oldest existing structures in the northwestern part of Frederick County. For that reason, as well as its association with one of the earliest white families to settle there, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources determined that the house is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

The residents of Shawneeland were split in their reaction to the proposed demolition of the Clowser House. Some passionately wanted the house to be saved. Others were okay with saving it as long as no public money was spent. Still others supported its demolition. In a public meeting of the sanitary district board, one resident stood up and declared that the building wasn’t historic “because nobody famous ever lived there” and it should be demolished.

I became involved in 2014, as the president of Preservation Northern Shenandoah Valley (PNSV), a local historic preservation advocacy organization. Working with the sanitary district subcommittee, we offered to accept donations for the stabilization and repair of the building. As a 501(c)3 organization, donations to PNSV are tax deductible. In addition, donors could be assured that the donations would be spent on the Clowser House and nothing else.

Ultimately, the decision of what to do with the Clowser House was not left to the sanitary district board, but was made by the Frederick County Board of Supervisors. After all, they own the building. The project languished for more than a year, with no decision made one way or the other. Some of the original players left and new ones came on the scene.

Although PNSV never signed a memorandum of agreement with Frederick County, we did accept donations of over $3,000 for repairs to the house. One of our board members, Bob Stieg, played a huge role in helping a group of Clowser family descendents and others form their own 501(c)3 organization. In June 2017, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors granted the Clowser Foundation a 99-year lease on the house and surrounding land. Earlier this month, repairs to back wall began.

Due to its proximity to the Lake Cherokee dam, the house cannot – at the present time – be occupied, even temporarily, because it is in the inundation zone (meaning if the dam breaks, the house will be flooded). Right now, the Clowser Foundation plans to restore the building and install signage detailing its history. It is likely that the Lake Cherokee dam will be removed in the future, opening the door for additional uses of the building.

For more information about the Clowser Foundation and the on-going restoration of the building, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/clowserhouse.