Back at the beginning of March 2020, it was becoming apparent that the new coronavirus would cause major disruptions in the U.S., both socially and economically. Here in Maryland, we were told early on to “shelter in place” and avoid contact with other people. As a good citizen, I immediately decided to spend a day “sheltering in a moving place,” namely my 2013 BMW 335i convertible. I packed up a day’s worth of sandwiches and sodas, topped off my tank with gas from the lawnmower can, and headed for the wilds of West Virginia.
I was not expecting to get near to anyone. Still, I was surprised to see how little traffic there was on the highways as I headed toward West Virginia.
After an hour and a half, the interstates had disappeared, and I found myself on this little road. It was straight and flat—quite unusual for West Virginia!
Just 3 days after the official beginning of Spring, the forsythia and dogwoods were glorious. It was only in the mid-thirties, but the day looked promising.
A Bridge Not Far Enough
Of all the rivers in the U.S., the Cacapon River is my favorite. It’s peaceful and unspoiled, and growing up I canoed it many times with my father. Fittingly, the Native American word “cacapon” means “medicine waters.”
West Virginia is a wonderfully scenic place. Views such as this one, with Cacapon Mountain in the background, pop up around every corner.
Here, the mountain and the river manage to coexist just enough to allow room for a narrow road. Major flooding in 2018 eroded about half the width of the road here, but it has since been repaired.
It’s not easy to find Yellow Spring, WV on a map or in person. (Look for the post office that shares its building with a NAPA car parts store.) The Yellow Spring Mill, which operated from 1896 to 1990, produced 30 to 40 tons of animal feed daily. The building still contains its various grain elevators, hoppers, threshers, and even a molasses mixer.
My route for this trip was adapted from the November/December 2019 issue of RoadRunner Magazine. It passed by the Capon Lake Whipple-Murphy Truss Bridge, which is the oldest metal-truss bridge still in existence in West Virginia. Its history is anything but straightforward.
Since 1838, a wooden covered bridge had carried the Northwestern Turnpike across the South Branch of the Potomac River, just west of Romney, WV. During the Civil War, Romney changed hands between Confederate and Union forces approximately 56 times. During their final retreat, the Confederates burned the covered bridge, thereby disrupting a major travel route for the Union Army for the remainder of the war and beyond.
A replacement bridge was built in 1874, using the latest iron-truss technology developed by Squire Whipple and J.W. Murphy. It had two long spans and did just fine until late in 1936, when a car leaving Romney managed to run smack into the side of the first span, knocking it off its abutment. The car fell into the South Branch, followed shortly by the bridge span. Not long after, a driver coming from the other direction failed to notice the missing section of bridge and drove straight off the end, joining the calamity in the river below. Astonishingly, the Hampshire Review noted that “the only injury was a broken leg, and it was a wooden broken leg.” (The bridge is visible in the distance in the period photo.)
A new concrete bridge soon went up outside of Romney, and the remaining span of the Whipple-Murphy Truss bridge was disassembled, moved 18 crow-fly miles to Capon Lake, and reassembled there—halfway across the Cacapon River. The engineers used an old, leftover Pratt Truss bridge section to complete the crossing. The Pratt section was falling apart by 1991 (with no loss to life or wooden limb), and it was removed. What was left is now a scenic pedestrian walkway.
History is almost never straightforward.
Hard Times in a Hard-Luck State
As I was walking back to the patient 335i, I spotted the ruins of this old riverside house. I suspect that one more flood will be the end of it.
A crumbling stone wall sits just a little ways past the house ruins. A similarly fancy stone house may have once stood higher up the hill, but I could see no signs of it.
Further along Highway 259, I found the Hebron Church. German immigrants worshipped here in the original log church as early as 1786. The current Greek Revival church was built in 1849 and continues to hold services to this day.
Did I mention that the BMW was running perfectly? It seemed joyous to escape its shelter-in-place garage for some robust exercise.
Approaching Wardensville, my “route circuitous” proved fortuitous, and I was rewarded with this view:
With a little research, I learned that this house was built in 1778 by Nicholas Switzer. A few years later, he married Barbara Michael and they raised 21 (!) children. The ground floor of the house was originally just that—dirt. Apparently the Switzers would herd their cattle into the first floor during the winter to help heat the house! Did George Washington ever sleep here? Well, sort of: Before the stone mansion was built, there was a log cabin, and a young George stayed there at least once while working as a surveyor in this area.
Driving through West Virginia, abandoned buildings are a common sight. These were just utility sheds of some sort, but their weathered appearance fit right into the bare, winter-like setting.
Small farms in pretty much every state have had a hard time, even long before the coronavirus, and none so more than in West Virginia.
I don’t know what this long structure was used for. It extends roughly 140 feet. Anyone care to hazard a guess?
Across the road, and on the other side of Sperry Run, lie the ruins of what was probably a sawmill. It currently houses a few American cars from the 1950s. In the second picture, I’m pretty sure that’s a 1954 Chevrolet Belair. (I’m still looking for a barn-find Aston Martin, Jaguar, or Mercedes…)
A Lost River
The Cacapon River may be my favorite waterway in the U.S., but the Lost River in West Virginia is one of my favorite phenomena. The river winds its way northeast through Hardy County for 33 miles, from Brocks Gap (near West Virginia’s southern border with Virginia) to 4 miles southwest of Wardensville. Along its way, the Lost River generally looks like this:
Over millions of years, the Lost River carved a narrow chasm through Sandy Ridge in the Appalachians. In the process, it created the Hanging Rock Anticline, so named for the impressive Hanging Rock formation.
Between Baker and Wardensville, the Lost River decides it’s had enough—and it just disappears!
The disappearing act baffled Native Americans, frontiersmen, and settlers for centuries until geologists figured out that the Lost River goes underground for just over 2 miles and finally reappears above ground on the other side of Sandy Ridge—as the Cacapon River!
There is a hamlet in West Virginia named for the Lost River, featuring a general store, motel, and a few houses. Nearby, I spotted the ruins of the old A.M. Snider gristmill. No one seems to know when it was built, how long it operated, or anything else about the place. A look through the window suggested that exploration inside the old building would be perilous: Note the floor and the broken beam in particular!
Only in West Virginia…
The town of Rio (pronounced “Rye-Oh”) has been around since at least 1826. It was named after the nearby North River, with “Rio” being the Spanish word for river. This one-room schoolhouse is now being used as a Baptist Sunday School.
Of course, I was looking for the world-famous landmark known as the Rio Turtle. There are no signs indicating where it is, so I had to search along the river for a bit. This spot looked promising:
But the large rock in the distance turned out to be a Rio Whale and not the Rio Turtle.
Before long I spotted the true Rio Turtle and scrambled down the riverbank to get a better look. Local residents have been painting the turtle since 1985, when the large rock washed into the river during a major flood.
Here’s a better look, courtesy of Tommy Warshaw’s excellent photo from Flickr:
The climb back up to the BMW looked (and felt) a lot steeper when I was there. But that’s what happens when you reach my age!
Any Fort in a Storm
Here is my favorite photo from the trip. It evokes a past era of farmhouses sitting proudly on hilly properties, now gone to ruin. You can almost sense the despair that accompanied the decline of this once-thriving farm.
Looking more closely, the farmhouse has a very unusual front entrance, with an upper arch and three separate doorways. I’ve never seen another like it.
Do you ever sense that you’re being watched? It happens to me a lot, sometimes because I’m just feeling paranoid, but other times because I am being watched! Apparently someone is still using the old farm for grazing cattle.
How’s this for rural handiwork?
I’d been following Grassy Lick Road for many miles, and eventually it dead-ended at Route 50 (the old Northwestern Turnpike), just outside of Romney. The Wilson-Wodrow-Mytinger house is the oldest in town and actually comprises three separate houses, standing close together. The oldest dates to sometime between 1730 and 1760. Did I mention the beautiful dogwood trees?
Romney was originally known as Pearsall’s Flats, named for brothers John and Job Pearsall who settled here sometime before 1738. At the start of the French and Indian Wars in 1754, Native American Indian raids forced many settlers to abandon their homes and farms and to move further east for safety. The Virginia House of Burgesses directed Colonel George Washington to build a series of forts from North Carolina to New York to defend British interests. The results became known as Washington’s Chain of Forts—ironic, since he was convinced that the forts would be too far apart to be effective.
Job Pearsall responded to the call for action and constructed a log blockhouse and stockade at approximately this location. Fort Pearsall guarded the Northwestern Turnpike and its crossing of the South Branch of the Potomac River.
As indicated by the photo above, this location is now a graveyard. The Indian Mound Cemetery was formed in 1860 and has remained in operation ever since.
I happened to photograph this interesting monument and later discovered that it marks the resting place of Ann Markee Van Meter Gibson (1805-1859). She was (i) the wife of David Gibson, who donated the land for the cemetery, (ii) the daughter of Isaac Van Meter, and (iii) the great granddaughter of Isaac Joost Van Meter, of whom we shall learn more anon. I could find relatively little about Ann herself: She married at age 28 and had 6 children, 4 of whom lived past infancy. An article in the Hampshire Chronicle includes a quote, “[Her] deeds live after her—her charity was as sweet as incense, daily offered.”
The cemetery is named for this ancient Indian burial mound. It’s relatively small compared to some others in West Virginia, but it has never been excavated, plowed under, flooded, or otherwise disturbed. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution believe the burial mound was built sometime between 500 and 1000 AD (or CE, if you insist) by Native Americans of the Hopewell tradition.
Back on the road, following alongside the South Branch of the Potomac, the BMW reveled in the twists, turns, and elevation changes while crossing the foothills of Little Mountain. Such roads abound in West Virginia, and the ones I encountered on my trip were in very good condition. The top on the 335i disappeared once the temperature reached 41 degrees. It was a glorious day.
South Branch River Road offered a number of beautiful views overlooking the river, with Fairview Mountain in the distance. And yes, the drop-off here is every bit as steep as it looks!
This farm was built in the South Branch River Valley sometime around 1750. The farmhouse started with a small log cabin, which is still there, within the expanded building. Of most interest, however, is the 14-by-20 foot stone building on the right. Unlike most other structures in Washington’s Chain of Forts, this one was made of stone and has survived virtually unchanged to the present day.
Fort Van Meter was built in 1754 by Henry Van Meter. Its walls are 15 inches thick, and the various vertical slits are rifle ports. It was too small to serve as a garrison for Washington’s Virginia Militia, but it offered secure shelter for Henry’s family and their neighbors.
So What Does “Glebe” Mean?
A mile past Fort Van Meter is the town of Glebe, WV. In reality, there is almost nothing left of Glebe, other than a Presbyterian chapel…
…a couple of houses…
…and the Trough General Store, which is just past the house pictured above. The store becomes a very popular place in the summer, as hundreds of people rent canoes and kayaks here to float along the South Branch of the Potomac.
The word “glebe” means a church-owned property, typically one such as a farm that would generate income for a local minister. The town was named for such a property, which also served as the manse for the Episcopal (Church of England) minister. After the American Revolution, the Church of England was abolished in the U.S., the ministers were ousted, and the “glebe lands” were sold, with the proceeds required to be used in support of the poor. Thus the original glebe house here became the Hampshire County Poor Farm. It operated as such until 1945.
At Last, a Collectible Barn Find (and a Hidden Mansion)
Immediately past Glebe, the river valley narrows dramatically, with Mill Creek Mountain on the west and Sawmill Mountain on the east crowding the banks of the South Branch. The resulting 6-mile chasm is called “The Trough” and is a favorite of canoeists (including my dad, back in the day). (Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Regional History Center.)
After looking around Glebe, it was time to visit the (comparatively) urban metropolis of Moorefield. By the way, I can’t tell you how frustrated the 335i gets when it encounters a closed gate across a road.
On the outskirts of Moorefield, I happened across a dirt road called “Old Meadows Farm Lane.” I’m congenitally unable to pass by a road with a name like that, so I bumped along the lane for a half mile or so, crossed a very non-level set of railroad tracks—and suddenly found myself in the middle of somebody’s farm. A very old farm, and seemingly abandoned.
I couldn’t help noticing this massive Farmall tractor in one of the sheds. It dwarfed the BMW. They were made by International Harvester from 1939 to 1952 and are now prized by collectors. This one is missing its muffler—not to mention its 248 cubic inch engine. I was surprised to learn that the Model M was styled by Raymond Loewy, one of America’s foremost automobile designers. I shouldn’t have been surprised: he also designed buildings, radios, refrigerators, streamlined steam locomotives, and even the classic Coca Cola bottle.
But the biggest surprise was yet to come. As I was leaving the farm, I spotted this huge brick mansion, which was hiding behind a row of tall trees. It was magnificent—and this was the back of the house, as it turned out. The formal entrance at the front was even statelier.
Subsequent research revealed that “The Meadows” was built by Benjamin Seymour “B.S.” McNeill in about 1850. There is very little information available about this old mansion, although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt mentions in her diary that she stayed here in 1941. I hope The Meadows can be restored to its former glory.
As it turns out, there are a number of McNeill mansions in and around Moorefield. The masterpiece of these homes is Willow Wall. I’d stopped here years ago on a motorcycle trip with the intrepid Buzz (my college roommate and best friend; see Return to West Virginia). The U-shaped mansion was built in 1811-1812 in the Georgian-Tidewater style and features 38 rooms. Willow Wall is widely considered the most impressive mansion in the South Branch Valley.
Earlier, between 1760 and 1770, Daniel McNeill had settled here and built a large log cabin. To defend against Indian raids, which were still a common occurrence, he added a log stockade around the house. Over time, as the Indian threat subsided and his family expanded, Daniel added large log wings to the structure, forming a U-shape. One wing was used as a dormitory for his 7 sons and the other for his 6 daughters.
Daniel McNeill died in 1805, but the family businesses continued to prosper. By 1812, the entire log complex had been replaced with the current brick mansion.
Following the Battle of Moorefield in the Civil War, surgeons from both the Union and Confederate Armies used Willow Wall as a hospital—simultaneously. Like most plantations that depended on slave labor, Willow Wall fell into disuse after the Civil War. Thomas B. McNeill acquired the property in the 1960s and invested heavily in its renovation. Robert and Kathleen Taylor bought Willow Wall in 2000 and have continued its refurbishment.
Another McNeill mansion near Moorefield is The Willows. I got within a hundred yards of it before I was met with a flurry of “private property” and “no trespassing” signs. (Those Evil Twins, Garmin and Google, had shown this lane as a public road.) I might have gotten a look at the historic home from this nearby vantage point—but it looked a little shaky…
As I reluctantly retreated from The Willows, I was met by both rain and the slightly surreal appearance of a herd of cows lining the road. They looked at me with what appeared to be sympathy.
A final McNeill mansion was the birthplace of John Hanson McNeill, who became famous for his exploits during the Civil War as leader of McNeill’s Rangers. But that will be a separate story of war and rivalry, coming in the near future.
Caution Doesn’t Always Pay Off
Venturing into Moorefield, I found the 1876 home of P.W. Inskeep without difficulty. That’s about all I could find, however, since there is a dearth of information about this place and its original owner. As of 1985, the house was owned by Ruth Inskeep.
Although the day was cooling off, I was still enjoying the wind in my hair. The BMW is perfect for “historical touring”: Happy to plod about in search mode, even happier to go flying from one destination to another.
Archeologists estimate that indigenous peoples lived in what is now West Virginia as long as 14,000 years ago. Long before white settlers arrived, Delaware Indians cleared the forests north of Moorefield and farmed the land. European settlers called the area Indian Old Fields, and it is still known as Old Fields today. (Drawing courtesy of AG NETwest.)
As is well known, the colonization of North America by European settlers did not sit well with Native Americans. Joost Jansen Van Meteren immigrated to America with his parents from the Netherlands. When he was 7 years old, Minisink Indians captured him, his mother, and 43 other women and children. Little Sarah DuBois and her mother were also among the captives. (Drawing courtesy of Heritage History.)
I’ll let Scott Van Metre tell the story:
[quote]On June 7, 1663 while the men were away working in the fields the Minnisink Indians entered several villages under the pretext of selling vegetables and suddenly began murdering their unarmed victims. They took all they could find of value, set the villages on fire and took about 45 women and children captives. … For three months the men searched the Catskills, but had no success until on Sept. 3 a friendly Indian gave a clue to the location of the captives. A rescue party was formed led by Louis DuBois and Capt. Kreiger whose journal relates this event.
Meanwhile, since the Indians were running short of food and winter was not far off, they had decided to burn some of their Captives. Catherine DuBois and her baby Sarah were selected to be first. When the Indians were about to put the torch to her pyre she began to sing the words of the 137th Psalm. Enchanted by her voice, they demanded that she continue to sing. Of course, she did. The approaching rescuers heard her, were guided to the spot, attacked the Indians, and released all the prisoners.[/quote]
Almost 30 years later, Joost and Sarah married and raised a large family. Their sons Isaac, Henry, and Jacob moved to what is now West Virginia and settled there. Given their parents’ experience, the brothers were well acquainted with the dangers of living in this wilderness frontier area. At Indian Old Fields, Jacob was killed by Indians within 2 or 3 years. Henry moved back to New Jersey. Isaac stayed and in 1744 built a fortified log cabin.
During the French and Indian Wars, the entire western frontier of Virginia became unsafe, and the great majority of settlers fled back east of the Allegheny Mountains. Isaac and his family stayed. Isaac advised his son Henry to build a fort, resulting in the stone Fort Van Meter that we encountered earlier. Isaac’s log cabin was adjoined by a stockade fence with blockhouses at each corner, becoming Fort Pleasant in the process. Although the fort was fully garrisoned, it did not save Isaac. In December 1756, while he was working in his fields, he was killed and scalped by Indians. By some accounts, his wife Annetje and daughter Catherine also met the same fate that day. (Drawing courtesy of The Chamberlain Story.)
A Mansion Restored
Isaac’s son Colonel Garrett Van Meter inherited the Fort Pleasant property, and he wasted no time in building a very strong brick residence. It was half above ground and half below, with thick walls for defense. Garrett’s son Isaac married Elizabeth Inskeep in 1780, and the couple built the current Fort Pleasant brick mansion not long after. The roof and chimney of the earlier brick fort can be seen at the far left (shown more clearly in the historical photo). This “safe house” was joined to the stockade fort by a series of enclosed steps.
I was pleased to see that the Fort Pleasant mansion had been largely restored following the devastating collapse of almost its entire right half. As chronicled in Half a Mansion is Better than None, when I first visited here in 2011 there was nothing left of that side of the house except its roof and attic. However, I couldn’t help noticing now that the windows on this side were boarded over. Perhaps the money ran out before the restoration could be completed? I sincerely hope that the mansion can reclaim its full historic glory.
Isaac and Elizabeth Van Meter also donated the land for the Old Fields Meeting House in 1812. To reach the church, you drive about 900 feet through this pasture.
The meeting house is the second-oldest Methodist church in West Virginia. Its condition has waxed and waned over the years, but it is now carefully maintained by the Duffey Memorial Church in Moorefield. If you look carefully in the historical photo (courtesy of West Virginia University), you can see what was once a doorway to the balcony; enslaved African Americans could attend services but had to enter separately by outside steps to the balcony.
My 335i has conquered many a mountain pass, forest road, cornfield, and even the Appalachian Trail (briefly)—so negotiating this relatively level pasture was a breeze. And it remains (IMHO) one of the nicest-looking cars BMW has ever produced.
Remember that feeling of being watched? As I was about to leave the meeting house, I felt it all over again. This time, the observer was a bit smaller than the earlier bovine crew.
In addition to Fort Pleasant and Fort Van Meter, there are at least three other notable Van Meter properties in this area. This distant view is about the only way to see the Buena Vista Farm. The house was built in 1838, while the many-gabled barn was raised by the farm’s subsequent Leatherman owners in 1900. George and Miriam Leatherman are the current owners—and are locally famous for their pumpkins and other produce.
Col. Garrett Van Meter had a grandson also named Garrett, who in turn had three sisters who never married: Ann, Rebecca, and Susan. In about 1851, the sisters built a house for themselves outside of Moorefield near their brother’s home. They named it Traveler’s Rest. Getting there offered this beautiful view—and the opportunity to cross the downright scariest bridge I have ever encountered. At 4,000 pounds, the 335i is no lightweight, but I figured that the local farm trucks would be even heavier and so I pressed on, rattling the loose boards ominously and expecting at any moment to end up in Mudlick Run.
Fortunately, the rickety bridge held, and I soon encountered Traveler’s Rest. Rebecca Van Meter kept a diary all her life, although only the fourth volume is known to exist. Old Fields in Peace and War) chronicles life at Traveler’s Rest in the years leading up to, and during, the Civil War. Capt. McNeill knew the sisters well, and the Rangers would often stop here for food and help with their injuries.
I continued on, hoping to get a look at the old wooden railroad bridge across the South Branch. As usual, the BMW found a number of rutted dirt roads on this trip. Its stiff MSport suspension isn’t exactly ideal for such conditions, but it always manages to soldier through.
Before reaching the Sycamore Bridge, I was stopped by a forbidding gate and sign proclaiming that only residents were permitted to continue. Fortunately, there was a potential alternate route to the bridge. Unfortunately, it looked like this:
The low-water bridge over Anderson’s Run didn’t look like a problem. But the tractor path on the other side looked challenging for a car with only 5 inches of ground clearance. Moreover, the pool of water before reaching the concrete bridge was easily 18 inches deep… To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, “A man’s got to know his (car’s) limitations.”
Next time, I’m bringing a Jeep (or at least a BMW X-something)!
On the way back, I admired this old barn…
…and I got an unsatisfying photo of Garrett Van Meter’s house, which he built in about 1832. It has a great view of all the surrounding countryside, but there was no way to look up the steep bank and see the front of the house. (The old photos show the exterior from about 1999, before the current owners Sam and Kelly Williams started their substantial renovations.)
And then I still had to go back over the scary bridge. It doesn’t look as bad from this angle, but the loose boards still appeared flimsy and unreliable. I hadn’t noticed the ford on the left in this photo. Maybe that’s how the farm trucks get across! Whistling the theme from “The Brave Little Toaster,” I rumbled on over.
In Search of a Lawyer
West Virginia is justifiably famous for its hills and mountains, and views like these are common. If you look carefully in the first picture, you’ll see a long string of windmill generators along the top of the mountain in the distance.
Views like this are also common in West Virginia: No guardrails, and the tops of trees poking up at eye level from a nonexistent shoulder.
Along the way across the mountain to Williamsport, I spotted this abandoned house on a steep hillside. It practically cried out to be explored, but a deep ravine and creek prevented access. Whatever footbridge used to be there is long gone.
At the other end of the scale, this beautiful old mansion has withstood the test of time quite well. How such a large home got to be here, in the Middle of West Virginia Nowhere, is a mystery. From a real estate listing, I learned that the house has 9 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 4,590 square feet, and was built in 1876. Astonishingly, it last sold in 2011 for only $35,000.
Williamsport Maryland is well known, due to its location on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Williamsport West Virginia, on the other hand, is right up there with Lost City, Antioch, and other near-ghost towns in the state.
I was looking for the birthplace of John Robert (J.R.) Clifford, who was the first African American to be admitted to the bar in the state of West Virginia. He was born in Williamsport in 1848 to free African Americans Isaac and Mary Kent Clifford. When J.R. was 10, his parents sent him to Chicago High School in Illinois. At 15, he enlisted in the Union Army and served until the end of the Civil War. Afterwards, he graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, WV and was soon teaching in Martinsburg, WV, later becoming the school’s principal.
J.R. Clifford started The Pioneer Press newspaper in 1882 and served as its editor and publisher for the next 35 years. In 1898, he represented a schoolteacher named Carrie Williams in her discrimination suit against the Tucker County Board of Education. The Board had shortened the school term from 8 months to 5 months for African American students, while continuing the 8-month term for white students. J.R. won the case for Mrs. Williams at both the county level and before the West Virginia Supreme Court. This case established the right to equal educational opportunities for black children and equal pay for black teachers—a full 56 years before the national Brown v. Board of Education civil rights decision. Clifford also worked with W.E.B. DuBois to help form the Niagara Movement, which was a forerunner of the NAACP.
J.R. Clifford died in 1933 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. My question was, where in Williamsport had he been born? Was it one of the fanciest houses, such as this one?
Or perhaps something much more modest? In practice, I’m pretty sure this was a one-room schoolhouse in the town. J.R. taught in Williamsport for a time—possibly right here. I never did learn exactly where he was born. Regardless, he was a very accomplished individual, and his achievements in the early civil rights efforts have only recently become well known.
Just outside of Williamsport, I found this abandoned church. And yes, the little buildings behind the church were exactly what you think they were.
A Bridge Too Tilted, and Where Not To Stop for Lunch
Back on the road, I was in search of Antioch, WV, which makes Williamsport look like a metropolis. It’s ahead in the mountains, somewhere.
Getting there involved (yet) another narrow, mountainside road. Between the rural nature of this part of West Virginia and the coronavirus, at least there was hardly any oncoming traffic.
Here’s another example of “when things go wrong.” Fire was a common occurrence when wood-burning stoves were used for heating and cooking. To the right, I think that’s an early 1950s Ferguson tractor.
When I came across this 19th-century home, I initially thought there must be an Amish church meeting going on (it was a Sunday, after all). But then I realized that all the buggies were in identical, brand-new condition—and there weren’t any horses around. I concluded that the property owners manufacture these buggies here. (New buggies sell for $4,000 to $8,000 depending on options—kind of like BMWs, minus the extra zero!)
I finally reached Antioch and found the town’s 1787 gristmill. It was modernized in 1880 and converted to a woolen mill in 1918.
Antioch was first settled by Samuel Barker Davis, who built the mill and lived in a log cabin nearby. The cabin is said to still exist, and I wanted to find it. An 1842 article quotes the cabin’s “dimenshuns as follers, 16 feet square, 8 feet below jists, three logs above and outside chinbly six feet wide with one dure 6 by 3 and one winder.” The only clue I had was that it was located on the other side of Mill Creek. After nosing about, I discovered a promising trail that eventually led to a rickety footbridge across the creek.
The bridge was warped at a severe angle and was missing several of its planks. In my younger days I would have chanced it… I could see a small wooden building on the far side and surmised that it was probably Samuel’s cabin—even though there was no sign of a winder or the chinbly.
A few miles north of Antioch, I rejoined the old Northwestern Turnpike. After the French and Indian Wars, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the American Revolution, many families used this highway to travel further west in search of new opportunities. A number of taverns and inns arose to meet the travelers’ needs, including the Vandiver house, which was built in the early 1800s. Compared to the 1970s photo, the shutters are gone, the entrance at left is closed in, and—most oddly—the original chimneys have disappeared.
Another lodging sits just a mile or two further east. This one was also known as Traveler’s Rest, although it had no connection to Ann, Rebecca, and Susan Van Meter. The original part of the building (on the left in the photo) was probably built in 1810. The much larger section was added in 1927. Peculiarly, there were no doors between the two sections. To get from the kitchen to the dining room, you had to go outdoors by one door and back in by the other. Today, the building is owned by the Mineral County Historical Foundation.
A peak through the windows showed that the interior has been nicely restored.
I would think twice, however, before getting something to eat at the food court out back—or using the bathroom, for that matter!
Indentured No More
By late afternoon, the shadows were lengthening, I’d eaten all my food, and the low fuel light was glowing balefully. I stopped at the old Weaver’s Service Station for gas and food, fully expecting uniformed attendants wearing bowties to come rushing out to meet my every need, but no one was there. A sign indicated that parking was prohibited—except (no kidding) for Farmall tractors.
Heading back toward Romney, I found the 1790 Sloane-Parker House. Richard Sloane was a skilled weaver in Ireland who sailed to the new United States shortly after the Revolutionary War. He paid for the ship’s passage in advance, only to be billed again when he arrived in the U.S. Without enough money to pay a second time, and wishing to avoid jail, he became an indentured servant to David Van Horne. Within months, in an applause-worthy display of audacity, he ran off with and married Charlotte Van Horne—the daughter of his master. (Painting courtesy of The Whys and Hows of Eloping.)
The Sloanes soon established a weaving enterprise and built this beautiful stone house along the Northwestern Turnpike. With help from their 10 children, the business thrived. (Painting of weavers by A.W. Bayes, courtesy of History of the Handloom.)
A Questionable Island
My final photo-op was here, alongside the South Branch as it passes around the inauspiciously named Piss Pot Island. The sun was going down, the temperature was dropping, and it was a good time to raise the hardtop. It had been a wonderful day of touring.
Throughout the trip, I saw only a few people, all from a distance and most of them passing by in cars and pickups. I spoke to no one, which made for a quiet, somewhat lonely journey, but that was the goal—avoid any possibility of passing the coronavirus in any direction. I’m happy to report that I continued to feel fine after this adventure, and I’m confident that no West Virginians were harmed in the process.