YOUR HOMETOWN: Port Republic’s Doctor Of History

Hess Helping To Ensure Town’s Storied Past Is Not Forgotten

Posted: February 27, 2013

Dr. Irvin Hess, Civil War historian and former chairman of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, gestures toward the fields outside his home along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. The surrounding fields were among those where the Battle of Port Republic was fought on June 9, 1862. Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R.
Madison Hall, located just southwest of the village of Port Republic, served as headquarters for Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson during the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic. Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R.
PORT REPUBLIC — History has enveloped Dr. Irvin Hess — or he has immersed himself in it. The line between the two is difficult to delineate.
Regardless, one fact is unmistakable: Hess and Port Republic were meant for each other.

“People cringe at me when I say this, but I think Port Republic is Rockingham County’s Harpers Ferry,” he said. “The people who visit here just think it’s a magical place. They think a town like Port Republic is idyllic in its situation and appearance.”

Hess, 75, is Exhibit A in the case to be made that it is never too late to pick up a new hobby. Having “absolutely no interest” in history when he came from Hershey, Pa., to attend Bridgewater College, Hess fell in love with the Shenandoah Valley while also learning that he has deep family roots here.

But not until he reached 60 did Hess truly commit to what he’s become today: one of the area’s most dedicated Civil War enthusiasts. He decided then that he was not going to spend all of his time, including vacations, “doing medicine” — he was an orthopedic surgeon until the end of 2001, and his Harrisonburg practice still bears his name.

“At that point, I was going to take half my time off doing other things,” Hess said. “History took off. I’m still pursuing it. It’s still growing.”

Port Republic, which was incorporated in 1802, has proven to give Hess enough to whet his appetite. If old pictures in his possession do not paint a good enough portrait of the past — for example, one of the Port Republic Milling Co., at the south end of Water Street, circa 1918 — then the physical landscape will do the trick.

Hay from a rundown barn near Hess’ home was used to burn a covered bridge over North River during the Battle of Port Republic on June 9, 1862.

He identifies nearby land once part of New Haven, an incorporated town of mills and other buildings that could not support itself over time.

Those fields contain “all sorts of historical artifacts,” including coins and Native American relics, Hess said.

And the neighboring South Fork of the Shenandoah River has plenty of its own stories. In Port Republic’s early days, bargelike structures known as “gundalows” were loaded with farm products, alcohol, lumber and more, then shipped downriver to Harpers Ferry in present-day West Virginia.

Once the river journey was completed, the vessels were dismantled and used for construction.

“It was a bristling little city,” Hess said.

Projects And Learning Ongoing

With the help of Hess and his wife, Nancy, Port Republic’s story lives on. The couple purchased the Widow Pence Farm on the Cross Keys Battlefield in 2000 and placed an easement on it, restricting future alterations and construction on the tract.

The battles of Cross Keys and Republic, fought on back-to-back days, were part of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign that forced Union forces from the region.

Hess’ ancestors lived adjacent to the Widow Pence property during the battles. Nancy Hess often portrays her husband’s grandmother, a pacifist at the time of the Civil War, at various functions while someone else depicts Pence, who had four sons in the war.

Efforts are under way by others to restore Port Republic’s town hall and Madison Hall, which served as Jackson’s headquarters for a time.
People also “marvel” at how well-kept the Port Republic Museum is by the Society of Port Republic Preservationists Inc., Hess said.

All those projects give him the satisfaction knowing that others will have an opportunity to learn about the town’s history in the future.

It’s never too late to start.

“The history is romantic. The stores, agriculture, it being so critical to the history of early transportation,” Hess said. “I spend a good bit of time learning a good bit of history. …  It just keeps going.”

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or

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