Exploring the Irish Corner of West Virginia

The Irish Corner district of Greenbrier County, West Virginia is dominated by large family farms, the remains of early mills and industries, country churches, and stately residences. Initially isolated by rough terrain and a lack of good roads, the rural setting is seeing an uptick in residential development that could potentially change the character of the region.

Many years ago, I visited the Irish Corner region and documented some of the churches and houses I came across while randomly driving down the back roads. More recently, I trekked through the area with my girlfriend to see what’s changed.

We started the morning making an impromptu visit to the Prince train station as the Amtrak Cardinal line made a brief stop to allow for the departure of a few passengers. Constructed in 1946 for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, the Art Moderne depot was designed by the Garfield, Harris, Robinson & Schafer architectural firm of Cleveland. It features Streamline Moderne stainless steel lettering spelling out Prince on the exterior, and terrazzo flooring inside with an embedded “Chessie” kitten logo.

Up the hill from the Prince train station along Route 41 is the ironic Laurel Lodge No. 104 with its iconic lettering set in blond brick. What I assumed was an older building was actually built in 1964 to replace a burned Masonic facility in Lawton. Interestingly, furnishings and floorings for the new building came from the Thurmond Lodge in Thurmond, while brick, roofing materials, and slate came from the old McKendree Hospital.

Laurel Lodge No. 104

We then detoured down towards Lewisburg and came across a unique but abandoned circa 1929 residence. Earlier in the year, it was surrounded by a grove of wildflowers as the vegetation around the property had been recently clearcut, but on a more recent visit, the ground was scraped bare and melancholy. Inside, the building was in rough but stable condition. It was clear from the vintage Zenith televisions, rusted antique radios, and bottles of instant coffee that the place had not been inhabited for quite a few decades.

Heading further away from civilization, we drove southward through a part of the Mountain State that is defined by wide, uninterrupted valleys and long narrow ridges. Agriculture plays an outsized role in the local economy rather than coal, and the sparsely populated landscape is largely unbothered by sprawling development. It’s here where you encounter long-held and cherished family homesteads and wayside oddities next to quaint covered bridges and winding roadways. It was in this area, climbing over Baker Mountain and along Back Creek on an unimproved one-lane path that we stumbled upon some Stick-style houses.

We came across a more rustic find along US Route 219 north of Union. The former tenant house for the Erskine family, which was for the adjoining Walnut Grove Farm, was constructed circa 1800. The log cabin structure was originally covered with clapboard siding which was removed around 1975 to showcase the hand-sewn logs underneath. It does not appear that the building is in active use although it remains in very good condition.

With daylight waning, we descended to the Irish Corner region along the plateaus south of the Greenbrier River. Named for early settlers who were of Scotch and Irish descent, most were sons and grandsons of Presbyterians who fled Ulster, Ireland in the 18th century. Others who came in the mid-1800s were dissenters from Great Britain.

Along the way, we stopped by the shuttered Mt. Zion Methodist Church which was constructed around the turn of the 20th century. Rather plain in design, its only architectural feature is its Gothic-inspired windows. For a church that doesn’t appear to have been active for decades, the grounds have been well maintained and the building secured.

After turning onto Hokes Mill Road, large family farms come into view. The sun was setting as we arrived at a bend; to the right was the Middle Ridge Farm which featured a stately red barn with a traditional American flag painted on the side. Gap Mountain rising in the distance made this picturesque view even better.

Middle Ridge Farm

Closer to Organ Cave is a derelict circa 1938 dairy barn. It was once proposed for demolition to make way for the Stony Glen residential subdivision but the process was delayed after the county commissioners failed to take action on an annexation petition to have the development annexed into the city of Ronceverte. The out-of-state developers filed suit. To make a long story short, the case made its way through the court system and it was ruled that because the houses would not be contiguous with the Ronceverte’s boundaries, because illegal non-person votes in favor of Stony Glen were counted, and because of potential environmental issues that were not considered, the annexation petition was nullified. The Stony Glen subdivision was quietly shelved after further appeals were exhausted. The roads, while graded, are slowly reverting back into farmland and the lone foundation for a house was abandoned.

The c. 1930 dairy barn at the once-proposed Stony Glen subdivision remains abandoned.

Seemingly not much has changed on the surface for the Irish Corner region. The barns, churches, houses, and back roads that I remembered from my first visit many years ago all seemed familiar on my return visit. Some new houses were spotted dotting the landscape, but a lack of infrastructure, preservation easements, and agricultural lands trusts have helped to protect the agrarian landscape. For now, time seemingly stands still in this corner of West Virginia.

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