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Barboursville: Quaint village with big city amenities

Jun. 03, 2013 @ 09:14 AM

There were several people along the way who shaped the “best little village in West Virginia,” many of whom are part of a bicentennial history book titled “The Lost Village of Barboursville” that will be released this fall. It is authored by Jeanette Rowsey, who has spent more than three years researching the village’s rich history.

The following are a handful of key figures, according to Rowsey, who cannot go unmentioned when discussing the village’s 200-year history:  

Capt. William Merritt

Merritt’s efforts would help Barboursville become a thriving Virginia frontier town, Rowsey said.

A retired Revolutionary War captain from Maryland, he came to the area sometime around the turn of the 19th century and purchased property on the north side of the Mud River. He first built a dam near the Mud River and, in 1801, applied to the County Court of Kanawha for an acre of ground to build a water grist mill, Rowsey said.

The mill, which was known as “Merritts Mill” for a decade or so before Barboursville was founded in 1813, became a gathering place for early county settlers, Rowsey said. It also helped sustain the county’s pioneer families and provide them with money at a time when hides, furs and salt were the only items of trade, she said.

Merritt also became an active politician in the new Cabell County in 1809, significant because the county was six times as large as it is now. The court business was first conducted in Merritt’s home, Rowsey said.

Merritt’s family lands are still a hub of traffic today but have undergone a drastic transformation, Rowsey said. The West Virginia Regional Jail Authority in the late 1990s contracted archeological investigations of the Merritt family cemetery, because the site for the Western Regional Jail was the resting place of a number of Merritt’s descendants and, most likely, Merritt, Rowsey said. He died around 1818, but no burial marker was found.

Marie Gardner       (1786-1854)

Gardner was the mother-in-law of William Clendenin Miller, but the woman born Marie Terese Sophie Clotilde Raison de la Geneste was an influential person in her own right, Rowsey said.

She was the daughter of a wealthy Marquis from the Bordeaux region of France and moved to the island of St. Domingo when she was a child because her father purchased three sugar plantations and several hundred slaves, according a 1902 historical magazine.

At the age of 14, she married Joseph Gardner, a Harvard-educated merchant trader. The couple left the island by boat in 1796 during a slave insurrection and landed in Philadelphia, according to the historical account. They decided to settle in New Orleans and loaded onto a flat boat in Pittsburgh. Their journey came to a halt on the Ohio River near Greenup, Ky., when the boat ran aground. Exhausted from the trip, the Gardners ended up renting the largest house in Greenup and settled there instead, according to the historical account.

After the Gardners oldest children were grown, they moved to Barboursville and operated an inn on the northeast corner of Main Street and Central Avenue, Rowsey said. Between their wealth, family ties and social principles, this “power couple” would shape Barboursville’s destiny in a number of ways, Rowsey said.

Marie Gardner was charitable and cultured, donating some of her French government annuity for the welfare of the town, Rowsey said. The Gardner homestead on Main Street, which was demolished more than 45 years ago to make space for the new Barboursville Baptist Church parking lot, became a gathering place for formal balls and other social gatherings.

Her role as hostess of a local Methodist society also helped lay the foundation for Barboursville to emerge as a decidedly Methodist town, Rowsey said. She died in Barboursville in 1854.

The Rev. William McComas (1796-1865)

McComas was the son of Gen. Elisha McComas, a 13-term member of the Virginia General Assembly and major, colonel and brigadier general of the state’s Militia. The Farmdale Road Bridge across the Guyandotte River bears his name.

William McComas became a Methodist minister by 1850, according to Census records, and he acquired a large amount of land on the south side of the village, Rowsey said. He was elected to the Virginia State Senate and went on to win election under the Whig banner as a representative in Congress from 1833-37, Rowsey said.

He returned to Richmond as Cabell County’s appointed delegate to the 1861 Virginia Secession Convention. There, he voted on Cabell County’s behalf, against secession from the Union. His sentiments were in sharp contrast to his brother, Judge David McComas, who in 1830 delivered perhaps the first secession speech on record in the Richmond State House, Rowsey said. It was published and later circulated among those who championed the Confederate cause.

William Clendenin Miller (1809-86)

Born in 1809, Miller came to Barboursville from Mason County as a young man and would become one of the wealthiest and most visionary businessmen in Cabell County, Rowsey said.

He came from an impressive pedigree. His grandfather, Major William Clendenin, served as a private under Lt. Col. Daniel Boone in the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant and co-founded the city of Charleston.

After moving to Barboursville, Miller married Eliza Gardner (daughter of Marie Gardner, whose profile appears separately) in 1836 and two years later, he received a share of his father’s “lands, negroes and other property,” Rowsey said.

In 1840, he began a 20-year turn as Barboursville’s postmaster. During this time, he helped form the Guyandotte Navigation Co. to construct six lock and dam systems for steamboat navigation between present-day Altizer and West Hamlin on the Guyandotte River.

In 1852, Miller directed construction of the new brick courthouse on Main Street and completed a family home on the south side of Main Street. Now home to a beauty salon and spa, the Miller home is the oldest standing brick structure in Barboursville.

The Miller home was attacked in September 1862 by Union soldiers who had been informed that Congressman Albert Gallatin Jenkins, a close friend of Miller’s, was headquartered there. A Union soldier was killed in the skirmish, and his body was placed on Miller’s front porch until his regiment could retrieve it. In 2009, the people who purchased the Miller home to convert it to a day spa were tearing out an old fireplace during the remodel when a cannonball rolled out of the chimney, Rowsey said.

William and Eliza Miller had seven children. Son Joseph S. Miller headed the nation’s Internal Revenue Service during President Grover Cleveland’s first term.

William Clendenin Miller sold his Main Street home in 1870 and relocated to a farm on the outskirts of Barboursville. He lived long enough to learn of his son’s appointment to President Cleveland’s cabinet and died shortly after in 1886.

The “Mall Six”

Dubbed by Rowsey as the “Mall Six,” the Barboursville mayor and five-member city council in 1978 conducted a vote that would forever change the village and the economic landscape of Cabell County.

When Republican Mayor Ted Kirk and council members James Dingess, Doliver McComas, Herman Grove, William Rucker and Glenn Holton were elected in June 1977, they were faced with providing police, garbage and sewer service with a $124,000 budget.

Rowsey notes the local economy worsened a year later with the impending loss of the state hospital and the 75-year-old Barboursville brick plant closing on Peyton Street.

Not long afterward, The Cafaro Co., a Youngstown, Ohio-based development firm, bought several large parcels of land about two miles east of the village and approached Barboursville officials about the possibility of annexing what the Cafaro brothers said would be the largest enclosed shopping mall in the state, Rowsey said. Under the arrangement, Cafaro would pay for laying pipelines for a sewer system and upgrading the village’s sewage treatment lagoon, while the village would provide police, fire, sewer, water and garbage services to the mall.

Rowsey notes the potential reward was equally as large as the risk. The proposed deal came with a promise of increased business and occupation taxes, but there was also the burden of providing services to a large shopping center when the small village had only a few employees at the time to clean its streets, she said.

With the help of the village Jaycees and Junior Women’s Club, the village hosted a town hall meeting at Barboursville High School on Oct. 2, 1978, to field questions from the public and let Cafaro officials explain the proposal.

The next day, the bipartisan council voted unanimously to accept the annexation proposal.