A June 2003 trip
to Philippi by Idler
Quote: When the men-folk go off in search of adventure, the modern-day Penelope doesn’t sit spinning by the hearth, patiently awaiting their return. No, she heads off on her own Odyssey. Mine took me to neighboring West Virginia, along country roads to a charming place called Philippi.
Still, something close at hand and inexpensive was called for, as we’d already planned a big family vacation later in the summer. Weighing my options, West Virginia seemed the obvious choice: easy to get to, awash in scenery, known for its excellent parks, and full of off-the-beaten path byways. I loaded my camping gear into the car and hit the road.
My West Virginian odyssey took me through quiet valleys, over rolling hills, and along sparkling rivers. Armed with a killer collection of old-timey music, a good road map, and a camping guidebook, I had no particular itinerary. It was liberating, given that I’m known for "micro-managing" the smallest details of family trips. With no one to please but myself, I dawdled along back roads, stopping whenever something caught my eye.
Someday, maybe I’ll take my husband and son to Philippi. Then again, maybe I’ll just keep it to myself.
I greatly benefited by having Johnny Molloy’s camping guide to West Virginia. Molloy rates campsites in terms of security, privacy, beauty, spaciousness, and quiet, and his assessments are right on the mark.
West Virginia has one of the best state park systems I’ve seen. Well maintained and invariably scenic, the parks have diverse appeal to outdoors enthusiasts. While I’d expected –- and found -– ample gorgeous scenery, what I hadn’t expected was the wealth of local history. West Virginians cherish their local traditions and place great emphasis on preserving historical buildings, battlefields, and other culturally significant sites.
It pays to expect the unexpected in West Virginia. By nature unpretentious, don’t let this low-profile state fool you into thinking there’s nothing but mountains and countryside here. Outmoded stereotypes of moonshiners, feuding clans, and mountain shacks have little bearing on present reality.
Make sure your brakes are in good shape and shift gears rather than relying on brakes going down mountains. Keep gas in your tank, too, as it can sometimes be further than you’d expect between gas stations.
Major road maps don’t usually include smaller back roads, though driving these roads is arguably one of the great pleasures of West Virginia. More detailed maps are available at gas stations, but by far the best resource is a detailed atlas of county maps available for .85 from County Maps, N2454 County Road HH, Lyndon Station, WI 53944. I called County Maps (608-666-3331) several days before my trip and had them send me the West Virginia County Map book by express mail.
Hotel | "No Finer Prospect: Audra State Park"
I had the good fortune to have a copy of Johnny Molloy’s The Best in Tent Camping, West Virginia : A Guide to Campers Who Hate RVs, Concrete Slabs, and Loud Portable Stereos with me, which is precisely what it says it is. By choosing from campsites listed in this guide, I found places that were secure, scenic, and (for the most part) quiet wherever I went. Molloy’s description of Audra State Park sounded almost too good to be true, but it wasn’t.
Audra has several things going for it, not the least of which is its remote location. People come here for the scenery, not because the park is conveniently located or features much in the way of activities. While of little interest to the "passing through on the Interstate" crowd, however, Audra is a big hit with locals. A couple from Philippi that I met later in the week smiled broadly when I told them I’d stayed at Audra. "That’s where we did most of our courting," they explained.
Audra’s biggest draw is its beautiful setting, with many of the campsites right on the banks of the Middle Fork River. When I first drove into the park, I pulled over and simply stared. The Middle Fork was the river of my dreams, a clear, cool torrent of aquamarine water tumbling over large rocks, flanked by thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel in full bloom. And then there was the all-encompassing roar of the river, almost but not quite drowning out all other sounds, providing the ultimate in white noise.
Though Audra is a small park, it boasts one of the nicest hiking trails I’ve been on. It parallels the Middle Fork through a lush forest, passing through a large "alum cave" for additional interest. I highly recommend this modest 2-1/2 mile trail as well as the park-run swimming area featuring a natural swimming hole in the river.
Last but certainly not least, Audra is an extremely well supervised and meticulously maintained park. The ever-active rangers were present day and night, and as a lone female camper, this was something I truly appreciated. The head ranger was especially kind -- after checking me in during the late afternoon, he later stopped by my campsite just before dark to see if everything was okay. This was not long after another ranger had made the evening rounds collecting all the trash –- an effective method of "critter control."
I had to laugh, though, when he opened my trashcan and saw the bottom was filled with Coors Light beer bottles. (Alcohol is prohibited in this as well as many other West Virginia parks.) "They’re not mine!" I protested. "I wouldn’t be caught dead drinking light beer!"
Surveying my ample form, he had to concede that had the ring of truth to it.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 15, 2003
Audra State Park
Rt. 4 Box 564
Buckhannon, WV 26201
Restaurant | "With a side of gossip: The Medallion Restaurant"
During my various solitary rambles I’ve lit upon a method of being relatively thrifty, absorbing a bit of local color, and having a nice hot meal all at once by patronizing local diners, pubs, or whatever eatery the locals favor. Generally I sit unobtrusively in the back and eavesdrop on local conversations. (Okay, so being the talkative sort I often get drawn into conversation as well.)
I knew I’d hit pay dirt when I spotted The Medallion Restaurant directly across from the county courthouse. Although it was late afternoon, between lunch and dinner, I was feeling a little hungry, not to mention fairly hot and dusty. Some iced tea and something to go with it would sure go down a treat, I decided.
Listen, I’m not going to tell you that the Medallion features superb food, has a wonderful décor, or anything like that. It doesn’t. The menu and furnishings probably haven’t changed since the sixties. But it’s a virtual beehive of conversation, and the food manages to hold its own alongside the gossip.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There are three women sitting at the lunch counter when I walk in the door, and two waitresses behind the counter. The younger waitress detaches herself, all smiles, and shows me to a table, while the older waitress continues to hold forth, uninterrupted, in a throaty smoker’s voice:
"If she thinks she’s going find anyone better than him, she’s crazy! Hell, I’ll take him if she don’t want him!"
A murmur of assent from the trio at the counter.
"What do you want to drink, honey?" asks Younger Waitress. She’s about half my age and calls me, in succession, "honey," "sweetheart," and "sweetie." This is, I decide, more a West Virginia thing than a waitress thing, though arguably it’s a bit of both.
I order one of my favorite diner foods, a tuna melt, along with iced tea, requesting French fries instead of potato chips. (All this driving and camping out is hungry work.) I’ve barely had time to absorb Older Waitress’ sage advice to one of the trio concerning her latest beau when the sandwich arrives: a classic tuna melt in every respect.
I eat it, slowly. When I finish, Younger Waitress brings my bill. I surprise her by ordering a slice of chocolate meringue pie and a cup of coffee. The conversation has shifted to a detailed account of a drowning that occurred the day before. One of the trio has connections with the rescue squad: the inside track on tragedy.
Two young women with three small children enter and sit at the table next to me. The two boys shoot the ends of their straw wrappers at each other and giggle.
I hate to leave this place, but there’s really not much more I can eat. I take my check to the cash register and Younger Waitress rings it up. Older Waitress is discussing her cousin’s wedding plans as I walk out the door.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 15, 2003
7 South Main Street
Philippi, West Virginia 26416
Attraction | "Gift of Memory: Barbour County Historical Museum"
At times travelling through rural West Virginia, it seems I have returned to a simpler time, when people were bound to the land their ancestors cleared and the heart of a community still centered on the church and town hall. It’s easy to imagine that Philippi looked exactly the same twenty, eighty, a hundred years ago.
But I am mistaken. Things have changed. I’ve only to step into the Barbour County Historical Museum to find out just how much.
My guide down the river of the past is named Evangeline Poling. A silver-haired lady of kindly disposition, she seems to me a modern day Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses.
What Mrs. Poling doesn’t know about Philippi’s past isn’t worth mentioning. But it is her peculiar gift for narrative that attracts me. All I have to do is express simple curiosity about any of the objects in the museum and she summons the words to bring them to life.
"My great-grandfather carried that drum at Appomattox," she says, following my gaze to an enormous drum mounted on the wall. "He was a drummer boy."
Indeed, the museum is full of artifacts Mrs. Poling can personally account for. Her grandfather, for example, created the switchboard on display in one room. "We didn’t have direct dial until 1953," she tells me. Leafing through a thin directory from the 1950’s, she finds his number: 4.
In another room are displays of old medicines and surgical equipment. And here, with a bit of gentle prodding, Mrs. Poling tells me of her family history; of the grandfather, Dr. Myers, who rode in a buggy over rough country lanes, and who, concerned about the quack claims of patent medicines, started his own company to manufacture and distribute medicines. An oak display cabinet contains his treatments; nearby rests a photo of the doctor’s family. The sons and then grandchildren in turn all pursued medical degrees.
An the hour passes as I hear of the Philippi bridge restoration, the saga of the Philippi mummies, and accounts of historic disasters. I’m mesmerized by this wise cicerone, who seems to me beautiful in the way that all contented people are.
All too soon, our boat bumps gently against the shores of the present, and I step back into June 23, 2003.
"Please assume...that there is in our souls a block of wax....Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it…and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know." Plato, Theaetetus
Barbour County Historical Museum
200 North Main Street
Philippi, West Virginia
I dislike traffic. I’m bored by freeways. And I absolutely hate being rushed or pressured by tailgaters and aggressive drivers.
But actually, given a near-empty country road and no worries about arriving anyplace in particular, I love driving. I’m relaxed on narrow, winding roads, easing around curves with the minimum of effort.
Only minutes off of I-79, as the road slithers like a yellow-banded snake through valleys and along ridge tops, I feel the knots in my shoulders begin to ease. My two-handed death-grip on the steering wheel relaxes, and I breathe more freely. I’m headed in a general southeasterly direction, with the glare of the afternoon sun behind me. The road beckons as I put a CD in the stereo and my West Virginian odyssey begins.
One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fire was burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking
And he said, "Boys, I''m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountain
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains."
Before I left, I had a hazy plan to do two things: to see some of West Virginia’s covered bridges and to scout for promising rivers to kayak. However, I soon found that navigating solo put me at something of a disadvantage in finding some of the covered bridges, and I soon gave up the search for the remoter ones. As for the river scouting, that was ludicrously easy as many roads run alongside the rivers.
West Virginian roads are inviting, almost animate, and lay in wait with low-key surprises. There’s poetry in their names. Raccoon Run. Mud Gut Road. Sugar Creek. Snake Skin Road. Slaty Fork. Pigs Ear Road. The roads meander through valleys and over bridges, often recrossing the same stream in several places. They wind up the sides of mountains, come down, and then climb up again. There’s a certain rhythm to them.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There''s a land that''s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Driving near Washington, D.C. has made me defensive. I had plain forgotten how much fun it can be to drive on country roads. The absence of traffic in central West Virginia strikes me as almost miraculous. Road rage is almost inconceivable here, and the courtesy of the drivers I share the road with is remarkable. No one tailgates me, even though my touring pace is a leisurely 40 mph. I keep an eye on my rear view mirror so that whenever someone comes up behind me, I can pull over and let them pass. This is easy to do, given the ample number of gravel layovers on the roads. But even when there is no convenient layover, I never feel rushed. Recognizing a tourist (my out-of-state tags and bike rack are a big tip-off), West Virginians courteously give me plenty of leeway. There’s not a single unpleasant moment behind the wheel in a week of near-constant wandering. I’ve died and gone to motorist heaven.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I''m bound to go
Where there ain''t no snow
Where the rain don''t fall
And the winds don''t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I’m not looking for anything in particular, so of course I see plenty. Tiny towns appear every eight or ten miles along the road, invariably in the most scenic spots. Thornton . . . Fellowsville . . . Century . . . Volga . . . Nestorville . . . Buildings are on a reassuringly human scale. The modest white houses are in proportion to the other buildings and surroundings; there are no pretentious MacMansions jutting out in self-importance. Each town is graced by at least one small white clapboard church, Methodist or Presbyterian, generally. There are no malls, no ugly strips of commercial development, and no billboards. Small signs advertise the local businesses: Sewing Machine Repairs. New Hope Boarding House. Me & My Dad’s Game Preserve. Mabel’s Beauty Shop. Tom’s Auto Repair. Stemple & Forman Funeral Home. Rick’s Taxidermy.
Most of the towns boast white historical markers detailing local history. I stop and read them with polite interest. Here’s where Lee set up camp in his campaign of 1862. And there’s where Indians killed a group of settlers in 1758. Over yonder is the oldest cemetery west of the Alleghenies. Another sign claims that Mahlon Loomis, local resident, invented the first radio back in 1872, two years before Marconi. Who knows? It all seems possible. I’m thinking I just might encounter anything. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And little streams of alcohol
Come a-tricklin’ down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railroad bulls are blind
There''s a lake of stew
And of whisky, too
You can paddle all around them
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I ride with the windows down. It would be a sin to roll them up on such a gorgeous afternoon. The sweet scent of mown grass rushes in as I pass fields of freshly cut hay. If the farmers are cutting hay, they’re expecting at least a couple days of fair weather ahead. I smile to myself: good weather means good driving. In one field encompassing an entire hillside, a boy about 12 nonchalantly steers a tractor, the hay falling in neat swaths behind him. I give him a wave as I pass.
Cruising by farmhouses and through towns, I amuse myself by coming up with a taxonomy of outdoor decoration. Let’s see now, there’s the Patriot, partial to American flags, red-white-and-blue wind socks, and plenty of yellow ribbons. Then there’s the Ardent Hobbyist, whose passion for gardening, antiques, or some other interest is symbolized by an implement set in a flowerbed -- a wheelbarrow, perhaps, or an antique milk jug. There’s the Devoted Pet Owner, whose front door or gate is flanked by wooden cutouts of Doberman Pinschers, Scotties, or Siamese cats. The Kineticist favors wind chimes, whirligigs, or anything else that moves. The Mountain Mystic runs to gazing balls, gnomes, and wishing wells, while the Humorist can’t resist those fat-lady-bent-over-weeding cutouts. Or, in the case of the owner of this barn, a little practical joke:
The school of Rural Realism is characterized by life-like tableaux of plastic animals such as deer, rabbits, donkeys, and foxes. At one point, I’m taken in completely by a set of fake Canadian geese. Only when I check my rearview mirror do I realize they haven’t moved. Just up the road I see a squirrel poised motionless on a tree stump on a lawn and make the natural assumption. How amazingly lifelike! Then it jumps down and I realize it’s not a lawn ornament.
One yard defies categorization, blending elements of the Patriot, Mountain Mystic, and Rural Realist. I dub this Native Electivism:
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon you are in.
There ain''t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I''m a-goin’ to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Initially, I head in whichever direction seems most appealing, but before long I’ve come up with a general plan. Philippi . . . that has a nice ring to it. Plus, it’s got a covered bridge. Whenever I reach a junction, I just follow the sign for Philippi. It’s the seat of Barbour County, and all the roads seem to eventually head there, which makes navigating a lot less complicated. But it isn’t really the destination that matters to me as I drive along these country roads. It’s the process of getting there.
Barbour County, West Virginia looks ordinary enough, with its broad river valley and trim little towns, but looks are often deceiving. Scratch the surface of this unassuming place and some singular oddities emerge, not the least of which are the Philippi Mummies.
Homemade Mummies in the Bathroom
Elsewhere I’ve written about the Barbour County Historical Museum, located in a restored train station just across from the Philippi Bridge. Well worth a visit for its wealth of historical artifacts, the museum is best known for two rather unorthodox residents: the Philippi Mummies. The mummies, housed in what was once a bathroom, are the remains of two institutionalized women. Ensconced in glass cases, the mummies are nameless, though when the National Geographic Channel’s "Mummy Road Show" visited the museum, the mummy sleuths discovered that lesions on the lungs indicated the women probably died of tuberculosis.
The story behind the mummies is convoluted, but this much is certain. In 1888, Graham Hamrick, a local storeowner and part-time undertaker, obtained the two cadavers from the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Hamrick, who had developed a process for mummification, had previously conducted experiments on small animals, vegetables, and other items using his specially developed embalming and mummifying fluid. A devout Baptist, Hamrick claimed to have gotten the recipe from the Bible. He envisioned his embalming fluid as providing an easier and cheaper method of eternal preservation for the common man. Hamrick was convinced that his simple, inexpensive method of mummification would soon revolutionize mortuary science.
Hamrick treated a number of other corpses with his process, including a baby, though accounts vary as to how many mummies he actually produced. At one point, Hamrick offered his mummies to the Smithsonian, but since he refused to divulge his secret process, the institute turned down his gift. He found another interested party, however, in P.T. Barnum, who took Hamrick’s mummies on a tour of Europe in 1891. At some point during this tour, the mummies came to the attention of the Paris Inventors’ Academy, which elected Hamrick an honorary member. The following year, Hamrick took out a patent from the U.S. Patent Office for his mummification fluid. He displayed his mummies every chance he could get, but remained cagey about the secret to his process. All he would say was that a nickel’s worth of ordinary ingredients were all that was needed.
"Would you like to see the mummies?"
I’d just come into the Barbour County Historical Museum as Evangeline Poling, the docent, was concluding her spiel to a group of three elderly visitors, who seem baffled by her offer.
"Mummies? You have mummies?"
Mrs. Poling launched into an account of the chequered history of the Philippi Mummies. She told them all about Hamrick and his patented mummification fluid. She related how the mummies were ultimately passed on to Hamrick’s grandson in 1948, and how they were displayed each year at local fairs. Then in 1970, the mummies were purchased by "Bigfoot" Byrer, a local man who had long coveted these peculiar relics. He stored them at home, under a piano, until they were swept away in the devastating flood of 1985. Later found on a riverbank, the mummies were taken to the local funeral home for restoration. They were in terrible shape, covered with green mold and stinking to high heavens. Given chemical baths to combat the mold, the mummies were returned to Byrer, a little worse for the wear (both mummies lost their hair in the cleaning process). Byrer later donated them to the Barbour County Historical Museum. His only stipulation was that anyone who wanted to see the mummies had to pay $1, the proceeds to be divided between a football scholarship (Byrer’s brother had been the coach at the local high school), and the public library.
The trio of visitors hesitated when Mrs. Poling informed them of the $1 fee. After a long pause, one, a sickly-looking man with a cane, said he wasn’t interested. His wife, however, handed over a dollar and was led to the back of the museum for her viewing. Later, after the others had left, I spent an hour in the museum chatting with Mrs. Poling. Of course, I wanted to see the mummies and duly handed over my dollar for a viewing.
The mummies lie in state on a raised platform in what was once the train station’s bathroom. The white tile walls of the room are covered with clippings of articles about them that have appeared in newspapers and magazines. In contrast to their porcelain surroundings, the mummies are dark brown, their skin resembling old shoe leather. The remains are not so much gruesome as poignant, however. A few plastic flowers lie on the mummies’ chests but do little to alleviate their sinewy grimness. Their biers are lined with satin, but the contrast between the sheen of the fabric and the wizened limbs draws even greater attention to the mummies’ most salient characteristic: their undeniable deadness.
A shelf near the mummies holds a collection of items that have been immersed in Hamrick’s fluid, and these items, rather than the desiccated women, are almost ghastly in their lifelike state of preservation, particularly a large jar containing dozens upon dozens of perfectly preserved mice. I asked Mrs. Poling if I could take some photos, and she readily agreed, but my camera, as if refusing to participate in postmortem voyeurism, malfunctioned and the photos did not turn out.
The Fluid That Is Always Dependable
Before I left the museum, I purchased copies of a few pamphlets that Mrs. Poling showed me, a reprint of an article on Hamrick and his mummies, and photocopied testimonials regarding his patented fluid. Later that evening, as an owl hooted in the stillness outside my tent, I read these documents by flashlight, contemplating the saga of Graham Hamrick and his itinerant mummies.
In graphic detail, the testimonials told of the amazing preservative properties of Hamrick’s fluid. A mother and father recounted how their daughter, who had choked to death, had been preserved "in good condition and free from odor" after treatment with Hamrick’s fluid. Physicians in Ohio and West Virginia testified to the fluid’s ability to fight "decomposing influences." Most macabre, however, was the account of a burn victim and the use of Hamrick’s fluid in combatting the "offensive odor." I could not help but reflect that despite all the visual images of death that bombard us today, that in the 19th century, death was a much more immediate and tangible thing.
Among the documents was a leaflet extolling the properties of Hamrick’s fluid, including the claim the Hamrick had rediscovered the secrets of Egyptian mummification and even improved upon them. The fluid was touted as a germicide, deodorizer, antiseptic, and disinfectant. According to the pamphlet, its virtues included simplicity (no blood need be drawn during the mummification process), harmlessness (it could be drunk with ‘no evil consequences’), cheapness, and permanence (‘absolutely prevents decomposition’). At first, I assumed these claims and testimonials had been prepared by Hamrick, but a look at the date on the document –- 1913 -– told me otherwise.
Six Feet Under
In 1899, Graham Hamrick died, and the secret of his mummification process was bequeathed to his heir. Oddly, Hamrick never seemed to make any real attempt during his lifetime to profit from the process. At one point he even turned down an offer of $10,000 for his patent –- a considerable amount of money in the late 19th century. Whether Hamrick’s heir was able to cash in successfully on the mummifying fluid remains a mystery, but the story of Graham Hamrick himself has an ironic end.
Hamrick left a supply of his fluid, along with detailed instructions on how to use it, with several of his friends, who were charged with mummifying him after he died. His friends, however, were apparently too squeamish to carry out his instructions. And thus it was that Graham Hamrick, inventor of the "simplest and most efficient substance known to the scientific world for Embalming," was given a conventional burial.
His body lies in Mary’s Chapel Cemetery, just north of Philippi.
Old Mummies and Older Bridges
Start in Philippi, at the Barbour County Historical Museum, home of the Philippi Mummies. Although no one knows their names, they’re undoubtedly Philippi’s most famous residents, granted a peculiar sort of immortality back in 1888 by Graham Hamrick, who used a mummification process he’d invented. It worked extremely well.
After visiting these wizened residents, take a few moments to walk across the lovingly restored Philippi Covered Bridge across from the museum. Then begin the drive by passing through the covered bridge across the Tygart Valley River, heading north on Rt. 119/250 toward Grafton.
Speaking of Mummies…or Mommies
Some ten miles along 119, stop in Webster, a town whose chief claim is its association with Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day. Across from the park and tourist information center is the Anna Jarvis House, which has been set aside as a museum. During the Civil War, the house was used as General McClellan’s headquarters. Webster’s a charming little town; however, behind its façade of respectability, it apparently has a darker side. Or at least that’s what this sign infers:
Happily, before 5 p.m. vagrancy is perfectly legal. Bear that in mind when passing through Webster.
The Army Corps of Engineers, at Your Service
Four miles up the road from Webster lies Grafton, featuring one of the largest and oldest concrete dams east of the Mississippi, the Tygart Dam. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1938 to control flooding, the lake formed by the dam is now the site of Tygart Lake State Park. The park’s tranquil lakeside cabins are much in demand, and recreational boating on the lake is a popular activity. Dam enthusiasts should follow the signs from Grafton to the state park, located three miles south on County Rd. 9. There’s a Visitors Center overlooking the dam that provides a good view and information. After returning to Grafton, pick up Rt. 50 heading east. A few miles past Evansville, turn south on Rt. 92.
A View of the Valley
Views of the Tygart Valley are the sole attraction on Rt. 92 heading south, but that’s saying a lot. Rt. 92 may not provide much in the way of excitement, but it provides some lovely vistas as the road threads its way through the hills, suddenly opening out to stretches of green valley. The road passes through the towns of Kasson, Nestorville, and Meadowville, each as bucolic as its name implies. Most of the level land in West Virginia lies in bands bordering the rivers. On these narrow strips of flat land, historic barns are framed against a backdrop of undulating hills.
As people first settled in these remote valleys, the barns were often the first structures built. The weathered barns generally sit smack in the middle of fields with absolutely nothing around them, as if posing for a photograph.
Another Civil War First
Approaching Belington on Rt. 92, keep an eye out for historical markers for Camp Belington and Camp Laurel Hill. After the rout of Confederate troops at Philippi, Union troops under General T.A. Morris established a camp at Belington, about two miles from the Confederate camp under General Garnett''s command at Laurel Hill. Confederate troops were massed on two strategic mountains: Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill.
The battles fought in West Virginia did not usually result in many casualties, but were strategically important as they decided which side controlled to key lines of transportation and communication. By driving the Confederates from Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill, Union troops gained control over the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike (modern-day Rt. 250), as well as the B&O Railroad.
In his retreat from Laurel Hill, General Garnett was killed, becoming the first general to die during the Civil War. His troops made a disorderly retreat across the mountains into Virginia, though some remaining Confederate guerillas, or "bushwackers," kept Union troops continually off balance by engaging in a campaign of harassment, striking and then vanishing into the rugged mountain terrain.
In Belington, follow the brown state park sign for Audra State Park, turning right on Rt.11.
Down by the Riverside
There’s no better place to lay down your burdens than at Audra State Park, a riverside gem some eight or nine miles along Rt. 11. Picnic tables and a refreshment stand near the natural swimming hole provide a good opportunity to get out and stretch…or to jump right in, as the case may be. The swimming hole is surrounded by huge flat rocks which deflect the river current and provide a perfect place for sunbathing.
Leaving the park, cross a bridge spanning the Middle Fork River and bear right at the T junction. Just a few miles further, there’s a sign indicating that the Rt. 36 is closed through December 2003. Ignore it and head down this narrow lane that terminates about three miles later at the Carrollton Covered Bridge. This is the second longest covered bridge in West Virginia, after the Philippi Bridge. While the bridge is still used, road construction on the opposite side of the bridge prevents passage through it, and also makes approaching the bridge from Rt. 119 less feasible.
After admiring the bridge, backtrack to Rt. 11, and proceed through little town of Volga, which is followed by the mysteriously named Century. Then comes the even more oddly named Century 2. Shortly after that, Rt. 11 ends back at Rt. 119. At this point, the route has come nearly full circle - a right turn leads back to Philippi. However, there’s one more diversion that I’d recommend before returning.
The Pringle Tree
The Pringle Tree ranks right up there with the Philippi mummies on the odd-ometer, though a bit more imagination is required to fully appreciate it. Turning left on Rt. 119, head south towards Buckhannon. About a mile from Buckhannon, keep a sharp eye out for signs to the Pringle Tree.
Okay, so what’s with the tree? Well, back in 1761, two brothers, John and Samuel Pringle, deserted from the British Army at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), making their way southward. After a number of harrowing events and various run-ins with Indians, in 1764 the two men came upon a huge hollow sycamore tree. It provided the perfect hide out, and they spent the next three years living in the tree, hunting and foraging in the surrounding countryside. The interior of the tree measured 11 feet across, a bit cramped, perhaps, but livable. They finally ran out of ammunition and ventured back to civilization, where they learned that the war (and their troubles) were over. However, they had become so enamored of their spot in the wilderness that they led a group back to the area, establishing the first settlement there
The Pringle Tree is long gone, but there’s a dead tree, supposedly descended from the third generation of the original, in its place. Truth to tell, it takes some imagination to summon up an image of what the original tree must have looked like, as the present tree is a skeletal, frail-looking thing. A large white historical plaque marks the tree. However, the road leading to the Pringle Tree tracks along a ridge offering some outstanding views of the peaceful countryside.
The day of my visit, a field of cream-colored draft horses, Belgians by the look of it, swished flies with their stumpy tails as they grazed in a field alongside the road. The hum of bees attracted to a massive clump of blue campanula at the base of the Pringle Tree was audible from yards away. In the park near the tree, a group of children from the New Covenant Church summer camp were playing tag.
"Ah’m it!" proclaimed a freckle-faced boy. "No, AH ayum!" called another. "Ya’ll sha-yur!" admonished a young woman supervising from a seat on the swing set.
Everything in this fold of land pinched between gentle hills seemed benign. No wonder the brothers came back.
Return to Philippi
Back on Rt. 119, it’s a mere mile further south to the bustling city of Buckhannon, but I can’t honestly recommend going there (at least on a driving tour), as the sudden increase in traffic pouring off of Rt. 33 seems like a rude jolt after such pastoral ramblings. Instead, head north on Rt. 119 back to Philippi, a distance of about eighteen miles. Coming into town, stop at the Blue and Gray Park on the near side of the covered bridge and stretch out on the grass or take a stroll along the riverside.
There’s more to see in Philippi, of course, but chances are this is more than enough for one day. Save the rest for tomorrow.
I’d been driving through the West Virginian countryside for hours, my intended destination being Philippi, a city known for three things: Civil War history, medical firsts, and its lovingly restored 285-foot covered bridge. After I rounded a final curve heading into Philippi, the vista of the long white bridge spanning the broad Tygart River suddenly lay before me. At the Blue and Gray Park, I got out of my car to stand on the quiet riverbank surveying the tidy city, with its prim white church spires and red stone courthouse. And yet it wasn’t always so peaceful here.
"We surprised the rebels, about two thousand strong, at Philippi this morning." General T.A. Morris
In the first land battle of the Civil War, Union forces took the Confederates completely by surprise in a two-pronged attack after making a 15-mile night march on Philippi during a torrential downpour. The poorly prepared southern troops were driven from the city in considerable disarray. As they fled, Union troops harried them through the countryside in a rout later dubbed "The Philippi Races."
This was a dramatic turn-around after the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter earlier in the year. The rugged and generally less prosperous folk of Virginia’s western counties were not supportive of the state’s decision to secede from the Union. As the Confederate troops fled from Philippi that day, a handful rich slave-holding families fled with them, much to the delight of the less prosperous pro-Union townfolk.
After the battle, General Porterfield, the Southern commander, was relieved of command. A series of Union successes in the western Virginia counties set the stage for their secession from Virginia, forming the loyalist state of West Virginia in 1863. As an interesting aside, General Robert E. Lee’s first offensive of the war took place at Cheat Mountain, where Federal troops held off a much larger Confederate force, an event which led to Lee’s eventual recall to Richmond. Conversely, Major General George McClellan’s success at the Battle of Rich Mountain led to his elevation to commander of the Army of the Potomac. As later events proved, Lee learned a great deal from his failures in West Virginia, but McClellan gained little boldness from his successes.
Although there were few casualties during the Battle of Philippi, the most famous was a Union soldier who was the first amputee of the Civil War. The soldier, J.E. Hanger, was unhappy with the prosthetic leg he later received, and proceeded to design his own artificial limb whittled from barrel staves. It was such a success that Hanger set up a company manufacturing "Hanger Limbs," which, it goes without saying, did a very brisk business in the aftermath of the Civil War. To this day the J.E. Hanger Company remains the world’s largest manufacturer of prosthetic devices.
Like the town itself, the Philippi Bridge has weathered a number of setbacks during its 150-year history. Designed in 1852 by self-educated architect, carpenter, legislator, and inventor Lemuel Chenoweth, the bridge remains the largest and oldest covered bridge in West Virginia, as well as the only covered bridge along a federal highway (US Route 250).
Chenoweth’s design and workmanship were remarkable. It is said that when bidders assembled to demonstrate their models for the proposed covered bridge at Philippi, Chenoweth demonstrated the strength of his hickory wood model by placing it astride two chairs and standing on it. None of his competitors were willing to subject their models to such a test, and thus Chenoweth was awarded the contract. He designed not only the bridge at Philippi but a number of other covered bridges in the area as well, though few of them remain. I had the good fortune to stumble upon two of them during my rambles along West Virginian roads.
Although the bridge was not substantially damaged during the Battle of Philippi, it narrowly escaped being burnt on two separate occasions later during the war. It was modified considerably during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most significant change being a concrete floor that was added after a young boy fell through the wooden flooring in 1934 and drowned. The historic flood of 1985 demolished over thirty bridges in West Virginia, including a huge iron bridge at Rowlesburg, yet the Philippi Bridge withstood the flood and was back in use as soon as the waters receded. Four years later, gasoline leaking from a nearby gas station ignited and set the bridge afire, destroying the siding and roof but sparing the foundation. A 1.3 million dollar restoration took place, sweeping aside all the modifications and additions to the bridge and restoring it to Chenoweth’s original design with only a few modern safety features, such as (wisely) a sprinkler system.
The first afternoon I set foot in Philippi, I walked across the bridge on its long external pedestrian walkway, pausing midway to look out over the Tygart River. It’s a lovely spot for a town and an even lovelier place for a bridge. Later, driving through the bridge, I surveyed the inside with its complex system of trusses, delighting in the rumbling echo of my tires as I slowly passed through.
On a second visit to Philippi the following afternoon, I stopped at the Barbour County Historical Museum, where I learned more about the town, the bridge, and local history than I had ever imagined possible. It was here that I learned, taking my cue from local historian Evangeline Poling, that the city’s name is pronounced "Philip-pee" and not "Philip-eye" as I had assumed.
At one point during my individual tour of the museum, Mrs. Poling led me over to a glass case and pointed to a group of small, lumpy objects within.
"Can you guess what those are?" she asked.
Dumbly, I shook my head.
"They’re minié balls, taken from the trusses of the bridge when the restoration was done. Been there ever since the Civil War!"
I asked her about the annual Blue and Gray Reunion held each June in Philippi, featuring a re-enactment of "The Philippi Races." With a twinkle in her eye, she recounted the following anecdote:
"The Rebels, in the minority during the original battle, always far outnumber the northerners during the re-enactment. There just always seem to be more Rebels who show up for these things. ‘Course it makes the re-enactment look pretty funny, because this little group of Union men ends up chasing this big group of Rebels out of town every time. But at least they don’t rewrite history!"