After the Revolution the town’s population grew. By the 1790s there was so much growth that the citizens of Stephensburg petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia for the boundaries of the town to be expanded to the north along the wagon road on additional land owned by Lewis Stephens. After ironmaster Isaac Zane died in 1795 and his operation at Marlboro closed down, some of the residents of the iron working community purchased lots in Stephensburg and set up new shops.
By the first decades of the nineteenth century an important industry was emerging as the dominant trade for which Newtown/Stephensburg would gain fame and notoriety. This industry was the wagon making trade. Strictly speaking, wagon building in this period was a cooperative effort between different groups of specialist tradesmen employed by a single contractor or “master” wagon maker. In others words, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and other specialist woodworkers combined their efforts and skills under a master wagon maker to produce wagons quickly and efficiently. The 1820 Federal Manufacturers’ Census of Frederick County, Virginia listed the names of twenty-seven owners of wagon making shops, of which thirteen were either Stephensburg residents or had family connections to the town. This number seems even more significant when we consider the fact that in 1820 Frederick County included the areas of modern Warren and Clarke Counties. The earliest published account that mentions the fame of the town’s wagon industry is in the 1835 edition of A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia by Joseph Martin. The wagon industry in Stephensburg is described as follows: “Great numbers of wagons are made, – no less than 9 different establishments being engaged in this business, which make and send wagons to almost every part of the State, which for neatness, strength, and durability, are said not to be surpassed in the United States.” Ten years later, in 1845, traveling author Henry Howe in his book Historical Collections of Virginia describes Stephensburg as “a neat & thriving village” and goes on to say that there are “about a dozen shops for the manufacture of wagons, (for which the place is noted) together with other mechanical and mercantile establishments, and a population of about 800.” By far one of the best descriptions of the wagon industry in Newtown/Stephensburg was published in 1883, not long after the business had declined. That year Major J. M. McCue of Staunton, commented on the ironic prominence of smaller towns like Stephensburg in the early 19th-century transportation industry of the Valley, when he wrote the following in an article for a periodical called The Industrial South:
This was particularly so with Newtown, which, for more than a half century, retained the supremacy in building and fitting out the immense wagons capable of sustaining 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of freight. The wood work of the best material was made sometimes by the same man who had them ironed. The pitch in front and rear of the bodies, surmounted with bows and sheet, was such that four or five men could shelter under the projection. The harness is very heavy and the traces, breast and tongue chains of twisted links, and tire and all the iron used was of the best bar, made by Miller, Arthur, Newman, Blackford, Pennybaker and others. They cost from $150 to $200.
McCue went on later in this article to list the names of the prominent wagon makers in Newtown/Stephensburg during this period and added that these makers traditionally advertised their businesses’ name “on the hind-end gate” of the wagons they produced. The one thing that each of these makers’ hind-end gate advertisements shared was the “Newtown Stephensburg” address.
The wagon industry fueled the town’s economy and its other trade shops. This list of other trades included at least two saddle and harness makers, three earthenware potters, three hatters, a machine shop, a tannery, a silversmith and a weaver. “But railroads put an end to the wagon trade and with its decadence all others declined” wrote one local historian at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, before its decline during and after the Civil War, other important developments were taking place during the period while the town’s wagon industry thrived. One improvement came with the establishment of the Valley Turnpike Company in 1834, and the macadamized paving of the old dirt wagon road that is today U.S. Route 11. Because this dirt wagon road went through the center of the town, refining its ability to shed water in wet weather meant reducing the amount of mud and standing water on the town’s Main Street. A market house that stood in the center of the town’s main square (the modern intersection of U.S. Route 11 and Virginia Route 277/Marlboro Road) was torn down to make way for this new road, and toll gates were established to collect fees from travelers to pay for the improvements. These were small sacrifices in comparison to the improved transportation experience of those who used this new road.
During this same period there were changes occurring in the social attitudes of some of the town’s most prominent Methodists toward African American slavery. Among these prominent Methodists was a veteran of the Revolution named John Bell Tilden (1761-1838). Dr. Tilden studied at Princeton until 1779, when he accepted an ensign’s commission in the Pennsylvania line of the Continental Army. After the Revolutionary War he moved to Stephensburg in the early 1790s and quickly became recognized as a Methodist preacher. As an ardent early Methodist he acknowledged the equity of all people before God. These egalitarian views of society extended across the racial divide. Tilden demonstrated his anti-slavery sentiments by freeing his slave Lucy and her small child James in April 1806. Some local Methodists followed Tilden’s example by either freeing their slaves or never buying any. Nevertheless, there were many who felt that if they treated their slaves with greater kindness, they were under no moral obligation to set them free.
By the time of John Bell Tilden’s death in 1838, there was one African American from Stephensburg named Joseph Taper who had had enough. Taper ran away in 1837 with his wife and at least one of his children. He made it to Canada by August 1839, and in November of 1840 he wrote a letter from St. Catherines, Ontario to a white slave owner named Joseph Long (1791-1864) whom he had known back in Newtown/Stephensburg. In this letter Taper said he preferred the freedoms he found in Canada. In fact, Taper stated he had “enjoyed more pleasure with one month … [in Canada] than in all [his] life in the land of bondage.” Taper also wrote that he had met some of Long’s “neighbors who lived in the house opposite” Long in Stephensburg and that “they were very glad” to see Taper there in Pennsylvania. Taper also wrote that he had worked for a while in Erie, Pennsylvania before moving across the border into Canada, and that while he was in Erie he had “met many of our neighbors from New Town.” It is possible that the “neighbors” Taper was referring to here were other runaway slaves, or sympathetic whites he had originally known in the area of Stephensburg.
Those African Americans, both free and enslaved, who stayed in Newtown/Stephensburg apparently found great comfort in the Methodist faith and, by the late 1850s began to worship together separately from the white Methodist congregation in their own chapel. It was also in the 1850s that a new community of free African Americans started to develop about a mile east outside of Stephensburg on the old Nineveh Road (now called Double Church Road) just south of where it crosses the Fairfax Pike (Rout 277). In April 1853 two free African American men named George Fletcher and Enoch Jenkins each bought adjacent lots where they would eventually build log homes for themselves and their families. A year later in March 1854 a free African American woman by the name of Clara Banks bought another adjacent lot to the north of Fletcher and Jenkins. These three were the first of a number of African Americans who would later make up the unincorporated community of “Crossroads.” This community was also known as “Freetown” among the white population of the area. This neighborhood was the first free black community to develop in the region before the Civil War.