The mountains and hollers of West Virginia are dotted with the remnants of communities past, reminders of earlier times when gossip was exchanged at post offices, when general stores were locally owned, when education was tailored, and when neighbors knew their neighbors. Braxton County is no exception, with the region’s heyday coming in the early parts of the 20th century when employment was mostly centered around extractive industries: coal mining, timbering, and natural gas production. Its population peaked decades ago with nearly 24,000 residents.
Today, just a few small cities call this mostly rural county over 12,000 home: Sutton, Gassaway, Burnsville, and Flatwoods, primarily nestled along the Elk River and Interstate 79. With 516 square miles to explore, you don’t have to travel far to get away from the hubbub of activity, and that’s where you encounter Wilsie. Located at the juncture of two branches of Dry Fork, not much remains other than an old general store and an old post office that closed in mid-2005, surrounded by the remnants of an old school and several shuttered houses.
Interestingly, the false front of the general store was cut off and tagged with the name of the store and a reminder that it was “closed for remodeling.” It doesn’t appear that any work has been completed on the buildings which are in a state of severe disrepair.
In the vicinity of Wilsie is a long-abandoned two classroom school, one of hundreds that dotted the hollers and hilltops of the state. Simple in appearance, it boasted an unusual exterior comprised of stucco and a bank of large windows, and an interior featuring beadboard ceilings and plaster walls. The only hint that this was once a place of learning was the chalkboards. After this school closed, the building was repurposed as a haybarn.
A hop-and-a-skip along treacherous, icy backroads Exchange. Located along Perkins Fork and the Coal & Coke Railway, this faded community dates to the late 19th century when life centered around a mill and later the railroad that arrived in 1906.
Exchange was never a major town in Braxton County but it was the hub of the local community, once boasting a vibrant post office, several stores, a mill, and numerous residences. The population naturally declined over the 20th century because deaths exceeded births and because of a migration of jobs. No longer needed was the local mill when its function was replaced with large-scale machinery in faraway cities. Mines that were never numerous or all that prosperous, especially in comparison with those in the Pocahontas Coalfield further south, withered on the vine because of high extraction costs and environmental regulations. And so on and so forth, and it’s a story that’s repeated for so many communities in the United States.
Eventually, the combination general store and post office closed, and the last resident departed. The final nail in Exchange’s coffin came when the state constructed a new bridge in 1998 that bypassed the community completely.