In W.Va., Unexpected Riches

By Kathy Legg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Quick quiz: At the turn of the 20th century, what town boasted more millionaires per capita than any other in the United States?

Newport, R.I.? No.

Palm Beach, Fla.? No.

Bramwell, W.Va.? Yes, that would be the one.

"No way," you say. At least that's what I said when the statistic first came to my attention. Not a town in West Virginia, the state of my birth, the butt of so many tired jokes involving poverty, obesity and lack of dental hygiene.

But apparently it's true. Even a hundred years after its heyday, Bramwell, in Mercer County at the bottom of the state near the Virginia border, remains a tiny Victorian testament to a time when coal was king and the geological riches of the state provided wealth to a collection of mine owners, men who built grand, beautiful homes, many of which remain today to be toured and appreciated by visitors.

At the end of the 1800s, there were 14 or 19 millionaires (accounts differ) living in Bramwell, whose population then was about 4,000. Today it's about 400. Fourteen passenger trains per day stopped there. Other than Paris and New York, it was the only place in the world where Chanel No. 5 perfume was sold, and, according to one account, the Bryant Pharmacy, now known as the Corner Shop, sold about $25,000 worth of the perfume per year. That's about $300,000 in today's dollars. There's nothing like the smell of success.

Bramwell is believed to be the first U.S. town with electric streetlamps (the originals are still there). It had its own water company, electric company and phone company and a weekly newspaper.

The Corner Shop, though closed and waiting for its new owner to complete restoration, stands at Main and Bloch streets. A peek through the window offers a glimpse of the long soda counter, the chicken-wire-pattern tile floor and the cherry cabinetry made on site by Welsh carpenters. It isn't difficult to find nostalgic old photos of the interior when the building served as ice cream parlor, pharmacy and perfumery to the town.

The store is a block from the rebuilt train station, the best place to begin a walking tour. Townspeople think the depot is the prettiest of its kind, and they might well be right. It is, in a word, adorable. It also serves as a museum and provides an overview of the area's coal history. Relics and mementos bring to life the era when 100,000 miners worked the rich and dangerous local coal seams without benefit of modern machinery and safeguards. They were, in large part, immigrants recruited right from the gates of Ellis Island. Others were descendants of slaves who crossed into the free territory of West Virginia when it became a state in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. But the miners didn't live in Bramwell. Their town was about three miles up the road and bore no resemblance to Bramwell's affluent beauty.

You'll want to tour that town, too. Pocahontas, Va., the miners' town, is only minutes away, but it's economically miles apart.

It was Bramwell's houses, though, that had me captivated. Those of us who are suckers for house tours can find nirvana in Bramwell. Twice yearly, on the second Saturday of May and December, the town's mansions open their doors. But you'd be surprised by how many houses you can find yourself unexpectedly touring on just any old Saturday.

I was poking around the town, which I had mostly to myself, looking into the few shops, checking out the cafe and sizing up the houses when a flirty little black and white cat lured me into its garden. That's when I came face to face with the force known locally as Molly Robinette. Molly and Larry Robinette own the River's Bend Bed and Breakfast, a.k.a. the Hewitt House. She's also a former mayor of the town, former drama teacher, current English teacher, gardener, stained-glass artist and community activist.

She stopped potting her geraniums, wiped the dirt from her hands and invited me into her house. It was built in 1914 by the wife of a coal operator who also was the town's first mayor, and it is now a B&B. Regardless of their current owner, all of the town's grand houses are known by the name of their original owner. Frank Lloyd Wright's influence might be evident in the design, but Robinette's hand is all over the place. Its 16 rooms are heavy with antiques and Robinette's vibrant personality. She barely hesitated before inviting me upstairs for a view of the Wisteria and Lace and the Reeds and Roses rooms, two rooms that would make any die-hard Victorian fan happy as a Victorian clam.

But the most fun was hearing her oral history of the town. She told me Buckingham Palace has always been partial to Bramwell's coal and to this day imports it because it burns hotter and cleaner than English coal. That's the same reason it was sought after for use on ships during both world wars. She told of the Bank of Bramwell and how on paydays the bank's janitor would load leather bags full of money into a wheelbarrow and wheel it up the street to the depot where it would be put on a train that stopped at each of the mines for disbursement. I wanted to listen to her all day. But she had things to do, and there was more town to see. So Robinette sent me up the street to see Curtis Bishop's beautifully maintained Victorian home. I found Bishop lolling away the afternoon in a front-porch rocker, while Sally, his giddy little Boston terrier, licked everyone who walked by. To my amazement, Bishop invited me in.

Apparently that happens a lot. One person invites you in and then will call the neighbor up the street to see if they'd show you their house, too. It's great.

There were many more private homes I wish I could have invaded, but I had to be content with admiring them from the street. The Perry House, for example, owned by Bishop's brother, is a graceful Queen Anne-style mansion. The turreted Cooper House has a vast copper roof, and its yellow bricks were imported from England. The grand Goodwill House features a third-floor ballroom. These private homes are open for the regular tours.

Although the town is small, give yourself time to wander around. The residents are friendly, chatty and clearly proud of their homes.

Once you've finished with Bramwell, don't leave the area without making that short and winding drive to Pocahontas to explore the town and tour the Pocahontas Fuel Co. Exhibition Mine and Museum, where you can actually walk deep into an old mine for a chilly look at the real thing. Claustrophobics, beware: Although the entrance is tall and wide, the reality of having 260 feet of black mountain pressing down on you is impossible to ignore.

Take it easy on those mountain roads, too. They'll throw you a few unexpected curves. But that's West Virginia for you: much more than you'd ever expect.

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