Exploring the South Fork Region

Autumn arrived in a hurry along the South Fork South Branch Potomac River valley in the Potomac Highlands region of West Virginia. A beautiful backdrop presented itself amongst broad family farms, quaint country churches, and picturesque houses.

The South Fork region is changing. Driving the backroads presents a kaleidoscope of forlorn buildings against restored properties, old versus new money, and in-state versus out-of-state interests. Nowhere was this more evident than coming down the Rough Run glen, where corporate-owned farms abut family farms and where a historic farmstead was meticulously restored—next to an abandoned house.

The area was first settled during the mid-18th century, with white settlers establishing claims as early as the 1730s. The settlers who were first in the area were an ethnic mix of Germans from Pennsylvania, Scotch-Irish, also from Pennsylvania, and English from the tidewater area of Virginia. During the French and Indian War, the area was frequently attacked by Native Americans, who largely destroyed the fledgling settlements and private stockade forts.

The earliest structures were temporary, mostly built of log construction. Vernacular, traditional structures, built of logs and covered with siding, began appearing by the 1770s. The region experienced a period of prosperity in the mid-19th century because of a strong economy and the agricultural wealth of the South Fork valley, which led to the development of houses mostly sporting Greek Revival styling. Another prosperous period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the development of numerous buildings featuring Queen Anne and Folk Victorian architecture.

In the South Fork valley are numerous examples of buildings from these burgeoning times, such as the former New Bethlehem Church. The Gothic Revival-style building, constructed circa 1890, features a front facade dominated by a square-plan bell tower, tall arched Gothic windows, a weatherboard exterior, and a standing seam tin roof. Its exterior has been well maintained, but the church itself has long been disbanded.

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

Further up the road is the vacant Lambert House. Constructed circa 1909, it features weatherboard siding, a standing seam tin roof, a sandstone foundation, and original 2/2 windows.

At the end of the road is a gorgeous weathered residence adorned with Folk Victorian architecture and plastered with ornate scroll-sawn cornices and ornamentation and diamond wood shingle wall cladding. With a local landowner’s permission, I strolled inside.

The inside has generally remained unchanged since its inception. Extensive beadboard covers the walls in the foyer, with layers of paint or wallpaper covering the walls elsewhere. Much of the hardwood flooring remains intact, although some of it was painted over and other portions covered with lamination. The kitchen was altered when the wood cooking stove was removed. A primitive bathroom was constructed in the place of a back porch to replace an outhouse.

Nearby is a slightly newer dwelling with Queen Anne styling that was constructed circa 1900. Adorned with gabled projections with decorative bargeboards, diamond windows, and fish scale wall cladding, it remains in use and has been well maintained. A spring house and accessory buildings for the farm are nearby.

After a quick lunch at a local cafe in town, I ventured southward along the South Fork and stumbled upon the seemingly closed Martin Luther Church. Constructed circa 1890, it features a Gothic Revival architectural style with a tall pyramidal roof steeple with decorative scroll-sawn brackets and trims. Originally part of the United Brethren evangelical Christian denomination that was almost exclusively German, it merged with the Evangelical Church, which was exclusively English, in November 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Further south is the former St. Michaels Lutheran Church. Four acres of land for the church and cemetery were acquired for one shilling from Michael and Sophia Wilfong on October 1, 1794. A log structure was soon constructed circa 1800 and served German-speaking immigrants who had settled in the area. The earliest record of church service held there was January 1, 1807.

The building was consumed in a fire in 1921 but was promptly rebuilt. Weekly services were held until 1974 before the congregation was consolidated with other nearby Lutheran churches.

I couldn’t help but photograph a quaint Folk Victorian-style residence surrounded by fading autumn colors nearby, its traditional architecture accentuated by a split rail fence, wood clapboard siding, 2/2 windows, paneled doors, a standing seam tin roof, and large porches.

In the shadow of Bullpasture Mountain, I entered Virginia. I came across a fading weatherboard-sided house with original 6/6 and 4/4 windows and a standing seam tin roof on a farmstead.

Abandoned House in Virginia

The nearby village of McDowell may be a quiet stop along US Route 250 today, but it was the location of the Battle of McDowell during the American Civil War. Situated on a large corner lot in the shadow of Cedar Knob is the Felix Hull House, a stately brick home built circa 1855 in the Greek Revival architecture for Felix Hull.

During the Civil War, his widow, Eliza Mathews Hull, was living here on May 7-8, 1862, when the house was commandeered for use as headquarters by Union Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and his superior, Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck. On May 9, after the Battle of McDowell on Sitlington’s Hill, the victorious Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson made his headquarters here. He pursued the Union army westward, then returned here on May 14 for the night before heading to Staunton.

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

Also in McDowell is the Crab Run pony truss bridge which was constructed in 1896 by the West Virginia Bridge Works of Wheeling, West Virginia, to cross Crab Run along the Staunton to Parkersburg Turnpike. It was functionally bypassed as a through route in 1927 and closed to motorized traffic in 1994.

The Crab Run Bridge design, with specifications to use straight and bent railroad and trolley rails, was patented by Daniel Lane in 1890 and improved in a subsequent patent by the Lane Bridge Company of Painted Post, New York, in 1894. The single-span, four-panel Lane truss features top chords and end posts fabricated from railroad or trolley rails by the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, bottom chords from straight rails, and posts and diagonals from looped tie rods with simple U-bolts serving as connectors.

I headed a bit north toward Monterey Mountain to check out the community of Blue Grass along the South Branch Potomac River. Formerly known as Crabbottom and Hulls Stone, it is within the shade of the impressive Devil’s Backbone rock formation, a near-vertical outcrop of Tuscarora sandstone. It still features an active community-oriented bank and general store. As I was making my way out of town, strong late evening light descended on Blue Grass United Methodist Church, a picturesque fieldstone building constructed in 1924.

New Hampden may be a pass-through for some drivers but a curious stop and chat with a local revealed more of its background than I would have realized. Settled around 1858, the agrarian community was the site of a flint quarry that Native Americans used to produce arrowheads. It was considered to be an area of high importance and regarded as a neutral ground by native tribes.

The town features the historic Rexrode grist mill that was in operation from 1816 to 1944, an old general store that was open into the 1980s, a warehouse, and a scattering of residences. It is hoped that the former general store and warehouse will be repaired and put to some active use.

Heading toward my camp for the night, I passed by a rustic log cabin that, at some point, had been covered by weatherboard siding and capped with a standing seam tin roof. It looked to still be structurally sound, a testament to the quality of the roof composition. I call into question the validity of “long life” asphalt shingle roofs and cheap metal roofs that dominate new housing construction and produce so much waste these days.

East Back Creek House

Along the way, I passed by an old general store wrapped in rustic tin siding with a lone gasoline dispenser. It features what I’ve always considered a conversation porch, a place to sip a soda and chat with passersby. The inside was practically bare to the walls.

Cutting across the Allegheny Mountains, I entered back into West Virginia and came to Frost, aptly named for the frost that frequents the high-elevation community. With each visit to the area, I make it a point to photograph the circa 1890 frame residence that fronts the state road. It features a tar-paper exterior with a faux brick pattern, a standing seam roof, and the remains of 1/1 and 2/2 windows.

Frost House

I ended the day with a visit to a house at Valley Draft, named for its location at the entrance to a sheltered valley along the seasonal Valley Run stream. The circa 1880 building was built with a rather unadorned architectural style with National Folk influences and features a standing seam tin roof, original 2/2 wood windows, and an off-center front door. The addition of a broken picket fence, waning hues, and fading light emphasized the melancholy appearance of the residence.

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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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