Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blennerhassett Island

In the middle of the Ohio River, on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, there is an island. It's had many names over the years - Backus Island, Eden, and others in languages long forgotten. It's been the home of people probably since time began, and one visit will tell you why.

Today it's known as Blennerhassett Island, from the surname of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, who were its most famous residents. They built their home here in 1798, which you can still see today.

Actually this palladium-style mansion is a reconstructed one, built on the original site of the Blennerhassett Mansion. It follows the same footprint, contains the same details and furniture, and tells one heck of a good story!

Harman was an Irish aristocrat who sold off his family's lands in Ireland and came to America. This was not only because he was fleeing the Irish Rebellion (of which he was a supporter), but also because he had married his niece, Margaret - not something that was looked kindly upon by the church or society.

They settled on the Island and built this home using their lavish amount of money - decorated it in a grand style and were a great boon to the local economy through its creation. They lived many happy years there, until 1806, when their lives were invaded by Aaron Burr. His plot to create a new country in the West was treasonous, and President Thomas Jefferson had both men arrested. Margaret and her two children also left the island and went to New Orleans, where they met back up with Harman when he was released from jail.

Financially ruined, the Blennerhassetts never returned to their home, which was seized by the sheriff of Wood County, VA (now West Virginia) and all its contents auctioned off to pay the family's debts. This auction proved a boon for later historians and archaelogists, as the furniture, books, and family belongings survived the fire that destroyed the mansion in 1811.

Sadly, Harman and Margaret moved back to Ireland and lived with his sister in poverty until Harman's death 1831 on the Isle of Guernsey. Margaret moved to New York City where she lived with her son until her death in 1842 during a cholera outbreak in the city. She had asked the US Government for retribution for the loss of her house and land. It was granted, but Margaret died before receiving any compensation.

Margaret and her son Harman Jr are today buried on the island behind the mansion. They were moved there from NYC following the house's restoration. And on cool, clear nights they say Margaret still roams the island she loved so dearly...

This is the left wing of the house - it contains the kitchen, which is outfitted with period antiques. Some of them, like the family's sugar chest, are from the Blennerhassett family.

The middle of the mansion contains three parlors, the entrance foyer, and the dining room on the first floor. The second floor contains the nursery, the library, the ballroom/game room, and the bedrooms. All are outfitted with period furniture, paintings, and books - many belonged to the Blennerhassett family.

This is the right wing of the mansion, which contained Harman's library of scientific and medical tomes as well as other books and instruments. It also housed the wine cellar in the basement. It was in this area that the fire started in 1811, when hemp that was stored there caught fire and spread to the rest of the house. It was not until 1984 that the foundation of the house was found again, since flooding along the Ohio River buried the ruins in mud and debris for many years. After reconstruction, the house is now open for tours and is really inexpensive. A boat ride to the island is only $8, and the house tour is even less. This has to be one of the best values in the entire state!

There are also several other things to see in Parkersburg, one of my favorites being the Blennerhassett Museum that houses other Blennerhassett antiques, a HUGE collection of WV Native American relics, and WV historical items. This is part of the Stahl collection of Native American items in the museum's basement. It's a copper necklace that was found on Blennerhassett Island.

The museum also has a large collection of oil paintings and portraits of famous WV people, authors, and notables. The painting below is of Margaret Blennerhassett herself - not only was she Harman's wife, she is also West Virginia's first published poet. Her poetry is truly West Virginian in nature, and speaks fondly of the island and the area that she so loved along the Ohio. It is still in print, so I suggest it to anyone who is in need of a WV literary fix.

The book below allegedly belonged to Margaret Blennerhassett, and is written in her own hand on birch bark. This book only measures about three inches square, but it was to me the most impressive item in the entire museum. It contains two of her poems.

There is a large selection of furniture in the museum, as well as antique wedding gowns, porcelain dolls, antique vehicles, a moonshine still, and tons of riverboat memorabilia. By far one of the more impressive museums in West Virginia. It also houses a few ghosts, I'm told.

This is the left of the Victorian parlor display.

This is the middle of the Victorian parlor display.

This is the right of the Victorian parlor display.

Other museums in town showcase other things - there is an Oil and Gas Museum just down the street from this one, which I also visited. It is much more rustic in nature, but wildcatting for oil wasn't a pretty process. There is also the Trans-Allegheny Bookstore, which is a stop all its own.

I greatly recommend a trip to Parkersburg and to Blennerhassett Island State Park. If you haven't been, then you don't know what fun you are missing!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Random photographs of life -

Each is worth a thousand words -

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Appalachia by Muriel Miller Dressler

Growing up in West Virginia (or anywhere in this country) - you really don't get a sense that Appalachia is a good place to live. The media, our teachers, and society in general has a tendency to try and force us to conform, to lose our accents, and give up our traditions as if they were bad habits.

I have to admit that I was once in that same frame of mind. For a brief moment of my life, I was confused and searching for my identity. I was able to glean bits and pieces from other places, but it wasn't until I returned to West Virginia and starting reading about Appalachian history and literature that I gained my true sense of place.

It had been there all along, just below the surface. Of course looking back now, it makes sense that my identity was there. Where else would it be? Certainly not in the halls of a preppy private college in Virginia. I suppose for a while I ignored it, running away from what I thought was a bad thing (as I was influenced to believe) - I was running away from what I was looking for.

But I'm finally in a good place with my heritage, thought it took me a many good year to get there. I suppose you could still find fault with this place, just as you can with any place. However I happen to like my home in the mountains.

One of my favorite poems about Appalachia is by Muriel Miller Dressler, a woman from St. Albans, WV. She originally published this in 1977, and I have an original copy signed by the author. It's one of my prized possessions. The imagery in the poem is hypnotic and intoxicating - as well as brutally honest.



By Muriel Miller Dressler

I am Appalachia. In my veins

Runs fierce mountain pride; the hill-fed streams

Of passion; and, stranger, you don’t know me!

You’ve analyzed my every move–you still

Go away shaking your head. I remain

Enigmatic. How can you find rapport with me–

You, who never stood in the bowels of hell,

Never felt a mountain shake and open its jaws

To partake of human sacrifice?

You, who never stood on a high mountain

Watching the sun unwind its spiral rays:

Who never searched the glens for wild flowers,

Never picked mayapples or black walnuts; never ran

Wildly through the woods in pure delight,

Nor dangled your feet in a lazy creek?

You, who never danced to wild sweet notes,

Outpouring of nimble-fingered fiddlers;

Who never just “sat a spell,” on a porch,

Chewing and whittling; or hearing in pastime

The deep-throated bay of chasing hounds

And hunters shouting with joy, “He’s treed!”

You, who never once carried a coffin

To a family plot high up on a ridge

Because mountain folk know it’s best to lie

Where breezes from the hills whisper, “You’re home”;

You, who never saw from the valley that graves on a hill

Bring easement of pain to those below?

I tell you, stranger, hill folk know

What life is all about; they don’t need pills

To tranquilize the sorrow and joy of living.

I am Appalachia: and, stranger,

Though you’ve studied me, you still don’t know.

This poem is still in print in the collection: Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999 published by Publishers Place, Inc., 2000.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Ghost Cow of Woodburn Hall

West Virginia University was founded in 1867 - four years after West Virginia became a state after splitting off from Virginia during the Civil War. Part of the first curriculum were studies in agriculture and livestock, and that is where this story begins. . .

The second building to be built on the WVU campus was the one above - Woodburn Hall. The first was Martin Hall, which stands to it's left in the above picture. Woodburn Hall has several stories - and a clock tower that is at the center of one of them.

In the early years of the school, some of the students from the agriculture department decided to pull a prank on the campus, which has lived on (a la FDR) in infamy -

As the story goes, some of the students from the agriculture department stole a cow from the WVU farm, and led the poor thing up into the top of the Woodburn Hall bell tower. Now it is a well-known fact that cows will climb stairs, but will not climb back down them.

Once the cow was in the bell tower, it proceeded to moo and beller like there was no tomorrow - and caused no end of bemusement to the campus's students, staff, and faculty. Not knowing what to do, they spent several hours trying to remove the unfortunate cow from the bell tower without success.

Finally, the decision was made to kill the poor animal, and it's carcass was divided up and brought down out of the bell tower in this manner.

It is unknown what became of the students who pulled this horrible prank - or what was done with the cow after its demise in the bell tower. However, many people who have visited Woodburn Hall have told stories about hearing the poor unfortunate cow's ghost in the bell tower, still mooing and bellering, trying to get out of a dire situation.

So the next time you visit West Virginia University, keep your eyes (and ears) open - you just might hear the sound of WVU's most vocal ghost - the Woodburn Hall Cow.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Bull & The Potato Masher

In the early 1980s, around 80-81, my family and I lived in a little house up Johnson Holler near Franklin, WV. It was the only time in my life I'd lived in the eastern side of Pendleton County. I had not yet started kindergarten, and was only around 4 years old.

The house we lived in was above the natural spring about a hundred feet, just past the fence and gate where the timber rattlers sat coiled on the rocks. They had bodies sometimes ten feet long and heads the size of a man's fist. The house had no running water, except when it rained, and then it came pouring through the kitchen ceiling. On drier days my mother and Aunt Tam, who lived with us, would carry water up the hill from the crick below the house.

There was a giant apple tree in the backyard that my brother and I played under with our dogs, Boney and her puppies. Mom said we often had more fleas than the dogs, but when you're 4 and 3 years old you don't notice. There was also an old cellar that I didn't like to go into because there were giant spiders and snakes inside it, and an outhouse no one would use because it was full of giant black centipedes.

It sounds rather hellish, and in some ways it was not ideal. Like most places though, we made it our home with creativity and talent - and one thing we did have was a beautiful garden. Rows and rows of corn, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers - all to be harvested in their time and canned for winter. The fence around the garden was as run down and old as the house, but my father and his brothers had fixed it up the best they could to keep the neighbor's cows out of it. It worked, mostly.

One specific memory I have is when my brother and I were playing under the front porch of the house (it was built high because of the slant of the hillside, so there was room under it for us to play in the dirt). We were having a high old time, when we suddenly heard my mother screaming and yelling cuss words like a drunken sailor. We ran around the corner of the house, and there was Mom running out into the garden. Apparently the neighbor's bull had broken through the fence and was eating the beans.

But there went my mother, potato masher in hand (she'd been making mashed potatoes for dinner) into the garden screaming and cussing that bull. Of course the bull didn't pay any attention to her yelling and cussin', but he sure did notice when Mom whacked him across the rear with that potato masher!

With a beller and a snort, that bull ran out of the garden, with Mom still chasing and cussin' him. It was a true David and Goliath moment. She'd saved the garden - and the fence was fixed later that evening where the bull had broken in. I asked why Aunt Tam didn't help Mom chase out the bull, and that was when I found out about my aunt's cow phobia. And still I ask, "Why would anyone be afraid of a cow?"

I'm not sure what happened to the original, but years ago I bought myself a similar potato masher that I keep in my home office/library. The picture above shows what it looked like. You might expect that to be in my kitchen, but I think it fits better among the books - because it too is carrying one heck of a good story!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The New Kitchen

The last time I posted photos of the kitchen, it started out looking like this, and then turned yellow. However that was the mini-makeover I gave it to make it functional, and in the last few months it has turned into what it was meant to be. A beautiful kitchen!

This is how it was - a white box with cabinets up WAY too high on the wall, a non-functional pass through (except for the cats - they loved being able to jump across the sink). The cabinets were also worn out - the sink cabinet came out in pieces - and not because it was ripped out menacingly. It was that bad! Also, notice the WHITE laminate floor which showed every speck of dirt, the ugly bathroom tile sheet glued to the wall, and the cherry on the cake was the institutional drop ceiling complete with flourescent light fixture.

So we ripped it all out - everything left the room except the stove! Even the refrigerator was in the dining room for a while. A lot of mess and a lot of work - but totally worth it. Above you can see the paint color that was chosen originally. It was a disaster - it was supposed to be a Tuscan terra cotta, and it turned out to be more of an NBA basketball. Live and learn - I got a better color later.

Remember the passthrough? These are photos of it's demise. It got framed out and drywalled. Please keep in mind that we are doing this ourselves - there was no contractor on this job!

We had thought about saving the sink, but as you can see in the bottom left of this photo it was a lost cause - the drywall dust and gunk got all over it, and I was not going to clean that off. Everything has a lifespan and this thing was done.

You can also see where we ripped out the old chimney (not functional). All that got drywalled as well.

Above is the lovely sink, which gives you an idea of how much crud was floating through the house. It was a chore simply keeping the dust down.

Here Julius is inspecting the new hickory cabinets, as well as the hole in the flooring where the sink cabinet used to be. Neither he nor Franklin were very happy about the renovation.

Here's the hole in the ceiling where the chimney was - and the steel framework is still up from the drop ceiling. Nasty stuff -

When the drop ceiling was removed, it looked like a scene out of 2012 - this faultline in the kitchen ceiling was always there - under the drop ceiling.
This is the new ceiling - white painted beadboard and 1x2's framing it out. Nice, eh?

The new light fixtures were a good choice. They're copper and brought much needed light into the space.

This is the new sink, cabinets, and backsplash. The dishwasher is also new, and I have a garbage disposal again! Two of the greatest inventions ever!

Notice the new oak hardwood floors, paint color, and cabinetry. This all cost a small fortune, but was totally worth it. I plan on making flour sack curtains for the window, but they have not been made yet.

The part of the wall that was covered with the old bathroom tile board was so damaged from the glue that we had to put up white beadboard around the bottom half of part of the kitchen. It fits in rather well, I think.

The chain on the far wall is the weight for the skeleton clock that is hanging up high on the wall. Recently the copper pot on the floor was moved a bit to the right and the cat's bowls are there, but other than that it looks the same.

Now if I can only keep it this clean!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Microfiction Tuesday

I'm trying my first microfiction today - some people blog this on Mondays because it's "Microfiction Mondays" - but I think its okay to do a "Microfiction Tuesday". I got the idea from Granny Sue, and she got it from Stony River. So here's the idea: You take a picture (this one from Stony River's blog) and you write a story about it using 140 words or less. Here goes:

"Wow!" thought Jane (clutching her now too-large dress), "That weight loss drink works fast!"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Manic Monday - Summertime Memories

Here are some photos of the summer so far, since it's flying by so fast - and like a Monday it will be Autumn before you know it! These are all things that I've done/seen so far this summer but have not had time to write about.

Julius, a.k.a. Helper Kitty, laying on some 2x6's on the front porch. He likes to help build around the house.

The gatehouse of Berkeley Castle in Berkeley Springs, WV.

South Mill Creek Lake in Grant County near Dorcas, WV.

Franklin, who has done something - but I'm afraid to ask what.

My great-grandparent's cellar (now in ruins, and has been since the 1985 flood).

A buckeye blooming in Berkeley Springs, WV.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Patio Project

Hello again! It's the height of summer and the July heat is baking the world to a crisp! At least, it is here in Morgantown. My garden has been getting regular waterings, but the cucumbers have fried on the vine - its that hot!

Prior to this heatwave, I did manage to get a few projects done outside - and this is one of them! I had wanted a patio with a firepit in the backyard since I bought the house, and now I have one!

The bricks for the firepit came from the old chimney that I tore out of the kitchen - it was only a shaft of brick in the wall, not decorative or functional. The rocks for the wall came from a friend's property near town, and the pea gravel came from Lowe's. The big concrete slabs were already there, just overgrown with grass and covered in black gunk - it may have been mildew. But now its been weeded and power washed.

We've already had the inagural marshmallow roast and bonfire, and it works great. I even got patio furniture - something I've NEVER had in my life - and a grill. The green plastic chairs functioned well for a while, but now they are starting to crack and sag, so I replaced them with chairs I found for $20 and a table that was given to me by a friend. I painted it all to match, and you can't tell it's not a set.

However, until this heat and humidity subside, the backyard activities are on hold except for watering plants and short trips. This heat is insane!