By TIM COOK
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The mystery, interest and anticipation in finding the next owner of the historic Shepherd’s Mill continues.
The Wall Street bank that scheduled a public auction Tuesday under the front portico of the Jefferson County courthouse canceled the event. About 25 residents curious about the auction lingered outside the courthouse at the scheduled 1 p.m. bidding time looking to see what might happen.
Nothing did. And none of the onlookers admitted to having the personal capital to actually buy the 18th century grist mill located on a beautiful tree-shrouded lot on East High Street in Shepherdstown.
Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty, who was assigned executor to the past owner’s estate, announced to the courthouse lingerers that the auction was canceled. The bank foreclosing on the property, Wells Fargo Bank, was working with a potential buyer, he said.
None of the bank’s representatives even appeared at the courthouse.
Since the 2015 death of its last owner, longtime Shepherdstown resident Patrinka Kelch, settling the mill home’s ownership has worked its way through estate resolution procedures in Jefferson County Circuit Court. Rumors have swirled for weeks, if not months, that a buyer or potential buyer for the distinctive property had been found.
Resolving Kelch’s estate and financial affairs have proven convoluted and complex for Jefferson County court officials. Wells Fargo Bank issued a reverse mortgage to her in 2010, according to court records, giving the bank the right to sell the home to recover the loan’s principal and any interest owed in full.
Under the terms of a standard reverse mortgage, which in banker speak is called a home equity conversion loan, the borrower can continue to live in his or her home without repaying the loan. Once the borrower dies or perhaps moves out to enter a nursing home, the collateralized property is sold to repay the outstanding mortgage debt.
Just before auction time, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office employees checked the mill property to make sure everything was in order there. There in town, Dougherty said, a chain of phone calls were ringing through the local real estate community to relay that an offer on the property had been made and was being reviewed by Wells Fargo officials. But no purchase offer is publicly known to have been completed, and the identity of any potential buyer isn’t known either.
Dougherty said if any negotiation to purchase the mill property fails, the bank can reschedule another courthouse auction, a process that would take about 30 days.
The property was built by Thomas Shepherd, the town’s founder. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the three-story home has a 40-foot water wheel, considered the largest, freestanding water mill wheel anywhere. The home’s basement retains wheels, gears and other moving parts, including a circular table-sized mill stone.
Neighbors say the water wheel, powered by Town Run just before it cascades into Potomac River, last turned about four years ago.
Kelch had listed the property for sale for $1.2 million in 2015, two days before she died, said her longtime friend and real estate agent Nancy McBride.
Town and Shepherd University officials have sought to acquire the property for different purposes, including a possible artist retreat for the university. Kelch, however, had other ideas.
“I specifically instruct my executor to not sell this property to the city of Shepherdstown or Shepherd College,” her will states.
Active in local affairs, Kelch had served on the town’s utility board, tree committee and historic commission.
Whatever friction had developed between Kelch and the town and university, McBride described her friend as a kind, generous and free-spirited person toward others, something overlooked in stories and talk about the mill property’s uncertain ownership.
Kelch had many friends around the town and from around the country and the world, McBride said. During the annual summer Contemporary American Theater Festival, actors and directors would stay in her mill home and they became her lasting friends. People from Europe interested in historic mills stayed with her at the mill, and they went away lasting friends, too.
Several times she opened her historic mill home, a curiosity in the neighborhood and beyond, to the community during local open house events.
“She was just so nice to all her friends,” McBride said.
Raised on her family’s farm in New York, Kelch loved nature and animals. A Buddhist, she became a vegetarian, recounting how she would visit relatives on Thanksgiving but draw the line at eating their turkey.
“She was a farm girl,” McBride said. “She was very nature loving. She wanted everything organic.”
Kelch was also a liberal-minded person, a contrast to McBride’s more conservative outlook. But those differences didn’t matter. The pair enjoyed discussing their different views and perhaps grew to be closer because of them.
“We used to joke about it all the time,” McBride recalled. “She was just a real loving and compassionate person. She was as honest as the day was long. She was a wonderful friend.”
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