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County seat debate to be renewed after 150 years in Martinsburg

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MARTINSBURG — Should the Lewis County seat return to its original location here after 150 years in Lowville?

That question will be debated by political leaders of both communities, separated by a roughly 3-mile stretch of Route 26, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the old Martinsburg Town Hall on Route 26 in the hamlet. The historic structure, the oldest public building in the county, was built in 1812 and served as the county’s courthouse until the county seat was relocated to Lowville in 1864.

“Hopefully, it’s going to be a comedy,” said Nelson K. Schwartzentruber, president of the Martinsburg Historical Society. “I told both boards to keep it funny.”

The debate — intended to be a modern version of the one that took place between leaders of the two communities more than a century and a half ago — will pit the Lowville village Board of Trustees, led by Mayor Donna M. Smith, against the Martinsburg Town Council, led by Supervisor Terry J. Thisse.

While the Martinsburg Historical Society over the past couple of years has organized similar events involving historic re-enactments and discussions, this year’s version will not be scripted.

“This will just be impromptu, which should be good,” said Mr. Schwartzentruber, who will serve as moderator for the event.

Following the debate, the audience will have an opportunity to vote on which community’s leaders made the most compelling arguments.

While not anticipating the event will start a renewed push for Martinsburg as the county seat, Mr. Schwartzentruber does have one expectation.

“It will probably spark conversation,” he said.

According to the 2010 census, the town of Lowville has 4,982 residents, nearly 3 times the population of the town of Martinsburg, which stood at 1,433.

While Lowville additionally boasts a solid manufacturing base, centralized school and hospital, Martinsburg over the past several years has received a significant fiscal boost from the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, given that a majority of the 195 turbines are within its municipal borders.

Lowville Town Historian Charlotte M. Beagle, also executive director at Constable Hall, will open the debate with a historical sketch outlining the reason for moving the seat from Martinsburg to Lowville 150 years ago.

Gen. Walter Martin, founder and namesake of Martinsburg, moved to Lewis County in 1801 and pushed to keep that communty as the county seat in competition against Lowville. He donated land and money toward the construction of the original county courthouse to further Martinsburg’s claim to the seat.

However, by the 1850s, a growing Lowville population was raising money to build a courthouse and capture the title of county seat. Martinsburg suffered a setback in its efforts to keep the title when an 1859 fire destroyed numerous buildings in the town. In 1863, county supervisors passed resolutions to the state Legislature relocating the county seat to Lowville.

The Martinsburg Historical Society also plans to hold its annual organizational meeting at 10:45 a.m. Saturday in the town historian’s office, on the first floor of the historic hall, while an open house will be held in the building from 1 to 3 p.m.

Refreshments will be served.

In the event of bad weather, the program will be postponed to Jan. 25.

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