Exploring the South Fork Region

Autumn swiftly descended upon the South Fork South Branch Potomac River valley in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands. The season transformed the landscape into a stunning scene, with sprawling family farms, charming country churches, and idyllic homes set against a vibrant backdrop.

Autumn swiftly descended upon the South Fork South Branch Potomac River valley in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands. The season transformed the landscape into a stunning scene, with sprawling family farms, charming country churches, and idyllic homes set against a vibrant backdrop.

The South Fork region is undergoing noticeable changes. Traveling its backroads reveals a striking contrast of neglected structures alongside rejuvenated properties, a clash of old and new wealth, and differing interests between local and out-of-state stakeholders. This contrast is particularly striking in the Rough Run glen, where corporate-owned farms neighbor family-owned lands, and a meticulously restored historic farmstead stands in stark contrast to a neighboring abandoned house.

The area’s initial settlement dates back to the mid-18th century, with white settlers staking claims as early as the 1730s. The early settlers were a diverse group, comprising Germans from Pennsylvania, Scotch-Irish also from Pennsylvania, and English from Virginia’s tidewater region. During the French and Indian War, the area suffered frequent attacks by Native Americans, who severely disrupted the nascent settlements and private stockade forts.

The initial buildings in the area were temporary and primarily made of logs. By the 1770s, more permanent and traditional structures, still log-based but often covered with siding, started to emerge. The mid-19th century brought prosperity to the region, thanks to a robust economy and the agricultural richness of the South Fork valley. This period saw the rise of houses predominantly featuring Greek Revival architecture. A later surge in prosperity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the construction of many buildings showcasing Queen Anne and Folk Victorian architectural styles.

In the South Fork valley, there are numerous surviving examples of architecture from these prosperous eras. One such example is the former New Bethlehem Church, a Gothic Revival-style building erected around 1890. It is characterized by a square-plan bell tower dominating the front facade, tall arched Gothic windows, a weatherboard exterior, and a standing seam tin roof. While the exterior of the church has been well-preserved, the church itself has been out of use for a long time.

Autumn surrounds the closed New Bethlehem Church.
Autumn surrounds the closed New Bethlehem Church.

Further along the road stands the unoccupied Lambert House, built around 1909. This house is notable for its weatherboard siding, standing seam tin roof, sandstone foundation, and original 2/2 windows.

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At the road’s end lies a striking, weathered residence showcasing Folk Victorian architecture. It’s distinguished by its elaborate scroll-sawn cornices, ornate decorations, and diamond-patterned wood shingle wall cladding. With permission from a local landowner, I had the opportunity to explore its interior.

Inside, the house largely retains its original character. The foyer is lined with extensive beadboard, while other walls are layered with paint or wallpaper. Much of the original hardwood flooring is still in place, though some areas have been painted or covered with laminate. The kitchen has seen some modifications, notably the removal of the wood cooking stove. Additionally, a basic bathroom has been added in place of a back porch, supplanting the original outhouse.

Close by stands a dwelling from around 1900, showcasing Queen Anne styling. This slightly more modern house is notable for its gabled projections with ornamental bargeboards, distinctive diamond-shaped windows, and fish scale wall cladding. It is still in use today and has been well-maintained. Nearby, there is a spring house and several outbuildings associated with the farm.

Following a brief lunch at a local café in town, I headed south along the South Fork and came across the Martin Luther Church, which appeared to be no longer in use. Built around 1890, this church is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture, distinguished by its tall pyramidal-roofed steeple adorned with decorative scroll-sawn brackets and trims. The church was initially part of the United Brethren, an evangelical Christian denomination predominantly German. In November 1946, it merged with the Evangelical Church, an exclusively English-speaking denomination, to become the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Traveling further south, one encounters the former St. Michaels Lutheran Church. On October 1, 1794, Michael and Sophia Wilfong sold four acres of land for the church and its cemetery for just one shilling. Around 1800, a log structure was built on this land to serve the German-speaking immigrants in the area. The first documented church service there took place on January 1, 1807.

In 1921, the original building was destroyed by fire, but it was quickly reconstructed. The church held weekly services until 1974, after which the congregation merged with other nearby Lutheran churches.

I was drawn to photograph a charming Folk Victorian-style residence nearby, set against the backdrop of autumn’s fading colors. Its traditional architecture was highlighted by features such as a split rail fence, wood clapboard siding, 2/2 windows, paneled doors, a standing seam tin roof, and expansive porches.

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As I approached Bullpasture Mountain, I crossed into Virginia and encountered a farmstead with a weathered house. This house, featuring original 6/6 and 4/4 windows and a standing seam tin roof, seemed to hold stories from the past.

Abandoned House in Virginia

In the nearby village of McDowell, which is a quiet spot along US Route 250 today, I found a significant historical site: the location of the Battle of McDowell during the American Civil War. Here stands the Felix Hull House, a prominent brick residence built around 1855 in the Greek Revival style for Felix Hull. It’s situated on a large corner lot, overshadowed by Cedar Knob.

During the Civil War, Eliza Mathews Hull, Felix’s widow, was living in the house. On May 7-8, 1862, it was used as a headquarters by Union Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck. Following the Battle of McDowell on Sitlington’s Hill, the victorious Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson used the house as his headquarters on May 9. He pursued the Union army westward, then returned to the house on May 14 for a night before moving on to Staunton.

The last owner of the Felix Hull House passed away a few years ago, and since then, the property has been neglected.

In McDowell is the Crab Run pony truss bridge which was built in 1896 by the West Virginia Bridge Works of Wheeling, West Virginia. This bridge was constructed to span Crab Run along the Staunton to Parkersburg Turnpike. It served as a through route until 1927 and was open to motorized traffic until 1994.

The design of the Crab Run Bridge, which utilized straight and bent railroad and trolley rails, was originally patented by Daniel Lane in 1890 and later refined in a 1894 patent by the Lane Bridge Company of Painted Post, New York. This unique single-span, four-panel Lane truss bridge features top chords and end posts made from railroad or trolley rails supplied by the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Its bottom chords are constructed from straight rails, while the posts and diagonals are made from looped tie rods. Simple U-bolts are used as connectors in this distinctive design.

I ventured north towards Monterey Mountain, exploring the community of Blue Grass along the South Branch Potomac River. Known earlier as Crabbottom and Hulls Stone, this area lies under the shadow of the Devil’s Backbone, a striking near-vertical outcrop of Tuscarora sandstone. Blue Grass still boasts an active community bank and a general store. As I left the town, the late evening light beautifully illuminated the Blue Grass United Methodist Church, a picturesque fieldstone building constructed in 1924.

In New Hampden, a conversation with a local enriched my understanding of this pass-through town. Established around 1858, this agricultural community was known for a flint quarry used by Native Americans for making arrowheads, and it was a significant, neutral ground for various tribes. The town features landmarks like the historic Rexrode grist mill, operational from 1816 to 1944, an old general store open until the 1980s, a warehouse, and several residences. There’s hope that the former general store and warehouse will be restored for active use.

Continuing towards my campsite, I passed a sturdy log cabin, now covered with weatherboard siding and a standing seam tin roof, still in good condition. This sight led me to question the durability of modern “long life” asphalt shingle roofs and cheap metal roofs prevalent in new housing, which often result in excessive waste.

East Back Creek House

Further along, I saw an old general store clad in rustic tin siding, featuring a “conversation porch” – a perfect spot for a casual chat and a soda. The interior was almost completely empty.

Crossing the Allegheny Mountains back into West Virginia, I reached Frost, a high-elevation community often graced with frost. Each visit compels me to photograph a circa 1890 frame residence along the state road, notable for its tar-paper exterior with a faux brick pattern, a standing seam roof, and remnants of 1/1 and 2/2 windows.

Frost House

My day concluded with a visit to a house in Valley Draft, named for its position at the entrance to a valley along Valley Run stream. Built around 1880, this building, reflecting National Folk architectural influences, features a standing seam tin roof, original 2/2 wood windows, and an off-center front door. The presence of a broken picket fence and the fading light added to the melancholic aura of the residence.


Add Yours →

Pretty darned thrilling, Mr. Cahal, reading your posts, seeing your stunning photos, being as one of those German immigrants who settled in what is now Hardy County, WVA was my 5th-great-grandfather, Johann Michael Ernst Horner [Harness] 1701~1785, who est. Fort Harness, c. 1739, just SE of Moorefield. Ever hear tell? In any case, I’m thanking you. Cheryl Harness, Independence, MO

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