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Masonic Lodge - Bramwell, WV
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Town Hall sign
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Turn-of-the-century Bramwell, West Virginia, was a rich little town with more millionaires than any place of its size in America. Tucked away in the coal fields, 14 millionaires or perhaps 19, depending on which account you read lived sumptuously along-side the town's 4,000 citizens.
In the early 1880s, word spread quickly of the discovery of the Pocahontas coal field along the Virginia/West Virginia line. Fantastic coal seams eight to 10 feet high began at Bramwell, W.Va. and extended for 48 miles. Speculators, developers, entrepreneurs and miners flocked to the budding village, known informally as Horseshoe Bend. Some miners came from Pennsylvania coal areas, others directly from England, Scotland and Wales. Operators of the new mines recruited immigrants at Ellis Island.
One fortune-seeker was Joseph H. Bramwell, a New York civil engineer, who arrived in 1883. As first postmaster of a post office that needed a legal label, he said, "Every little baby has a name, and this little town must have the same. I therefore name it Bramwell."
Later, Joseph H. became first president of the famed Bank of Bramwell, and a big-time real estate investor. Unlike many millionaires who stayed around to lose their money during the Great Depression or when the mines began to play out in the 1930s and '40s Joseph Bramwell soon gathered up his fortune and moved to Switzerland.
By 1885, C.H. Durhing, a coal company engineer, had mapped out lots for homes and businesses. On the Bluestone River's horseshoe bend, he designed the two major brick streets to form a cross. A three-mile-long chartered area included the mine sites of Cooper to the west and Freeman to the east. Each mining community complex had its own houses, schools, churches, and stores. Located between them, Bramwell was the hub.
Within Bramwell's elongated limits, six railroad bridges and six highway bridges crossed the looping, snaking Bluestone River, and the highway crossed the tracks three times.
Bramwell was a residential oasis, where wealthy coal barons and their officials could live in luxury with their families, all enjoying a sparkling social life, perhaps even drinking the "beerine" produced in a local factory. A support system of merchants, ministers, doctors, attorneys and others undergirded their lifestyle. Before 1900, the town had electric street lights, a water company, telephone service and a weekly newspaper.
Officials' Victorian homes were avant-garde for the times. Imported furnishings were common. A copper roof covers the 24-room, 1910 Queen Anne-style Cooper home. Built of orange brick imported from England, its amenities included an indoor pool. The 1885 home of Dr. McGuffin, Bramwell's first physician, had indoor plumbing, a shower, and a speaking tube from the front door to his bedroom. The lovely blue 1895 Goodwill house has a ballroom. Imported Italian masons laid stone for the 17-room, 6,500-square-foot, Tudor-style Thomas house.
In Bramwell's heyday, the four major local mines each bore the title "Coal & Coke Company": Mill Creek, Buckeye, Booth Bowen and Caswell Creek. One company employed 400 men. A 16-foot-diameter fan ventilated 174 beehive coke ovens at another company.
One mine produced 100,000 tons of coal annually. Miners blasted coal seams with gunpowder, then hand-loaded the coal into mule carts to bring it out. In 1889, a year after the town's charter, miners got $1.05 for a coal car that held 2-1/2 tons. A strong, efficient worker could load 4-1/2 cars in a day. Accidents were common.
In early days, the Bank of Bramwell, through courtesy, managed the checking and savings accounts for local citizens. But this was small stuff compared to its real business. The well-heeled bank was the financial focal point for all southern West Virginia and points far beyond. For example, it financed construction of Burning Tree Country Club in Washington, D.C. For size and population, the bank sold more World War I Loan Bonds than any financial institution in the country.
Locals didn't look twice as the bank's janitor trundled wheelbarrow loads of payday cash down the street for train delivery to nearby mines.
Fourteen Norfolk & Western passenger trains a day whistled into the wooden station, bringing all kinds of luxuries. From here, the wealthy coal barons moved to and from the larger world. Their freight trains hauled coal over the same tracks.
On a fine October day, our chartered tour bus leaves I-77, travels about 10 miles through Bluefield, then turns off U.S. 52 N. Historical society members crane their necks to spot 100-year-old mansions as the bus begins the mile-long descent to visit this preserved Victorian sweetheart of a village.
Annual May and December (and occasional special) tours feature interiors of some of the ornate homes and other town buildings that seem suspended in time. Visitors may also use a walking (or driving) brochure to view exteriors of 21 houses and buildings in the historic district.
Our hostess and guides are Bramwell Millionaire Garden Club members. One is retired teacher Katherine Hewitt Barringer, granddaughter of Bramwell's first mayor. The Hewitt house, with its Tiffany lighting fixtures and unusual cherry-bordered hardwood floors, is on today's tour. The club is named, not because members qualify for the term millionaire, (although some well may), but for obvious historic reasons. The same is true for Bramwell High Millionaire Basketball Team, 1988 state championship winners.
For more than 15 years, garden club members have worked to beautify the community with plantings, encourage restorations, support local/area civic organizations, acquire "bird sanctuary" and National Register of Historic Places (since 1983) designations. Among Bramwell's 620 residents, the club has succeeded well in raising historic awareness of this treasured site.
Our group's first stop is the 1903-04 Bramwell Presbyterian Church, still active among 10 churches that once served the town. Isaac T. Mann, perhaps the town's wealthiest, most colorful citizen, donated the church he had patterned after a small Welsh cathedral. The local bluestone was cut and laid by early Italian masons who came, too, to seek their fortunes.
As we sit in church pews, Bob Barnett, local publisher, is sharing fascinating historical facts and stories.
"Bluestone," he tells us, "is a type of sandstone with coal dust mixed in. Buildings constructed of bluestone have no insects and no rodents."
At the small, two-story Bank of Bramwell building, which never had a sign and never needed one, the group marvels at interior opulence and elegance. Here, amid ornate wood carving, rare red oak paneling, European- style gargoyle decorations in the former board room corners, Barnett publishes the monthly Bramwell Aristocrat. It sells for 25 cents a copy and goes to 44 states. The issue he gives our group members is 14 pages of present-day news, history, pictures and ads. Barnett and his family live in the bank's second story.
Under original pressed-tin ceilings at the Corner Shop, the preserved 1910 Bryant Newbold Drug Store, Margaret's Catering serves a chicken-salad plate with hot homemade rolls and much more the best lunch in the entire history of our groups' field trips. From its antique cherry cases the drugstore was the third retailer in the whole country to sell Chanel No. 5 perfume.
Isaac T. Mann, who donated the church, was Pocahontas Fuel Company president for 35 years. A chain of nine banks was another of his many financial interests. His 1923 fortune was estimated at $18-$25 million. The next year he began to buy Chicago real estate, a lot of it: businesses, apartments, hotels. Before 1929, his property worth soared to $86 million some say $100 million a fortune lost to the Depression, along with his health.
Mann owned homes in Florida, Washington, D.C. (now the Turkish embassy), and on the Massachusetts coast. His three-story turreted Bramwell mansion displays a handsome staircase, ornate woodwork and special details such as a secret wall safe and a studded, leather-walled den. The curved porch follows the horseshoe curve of the Bluestone River it overlooks. Ken Beard, a Bluefield bank official, and his wife own and live in the home.
Across the river by footbridge, amid lovely gardens by a small lake, Mann built a house-size "playhouse" for his children and their governess. During the 1950s and '60s, thousands visited the then-famous Keesling rhododendron gardens there. The house today is a private residence.
The 1902 Pack house, built for a coal company superintendent, has lovely Victorian furnishings and is one of Bramwell's three bed & breakfast accommodations.