An old man walking through his hometown – Union, West Virginia – in 1894 – Part 1

On February 8, 1894, the Monroe Watchman newspaper published an article written by John A. Francis, then an old man, walking through the town of Union, West Virginia, remembering his childhood growing up there, before, and during, the Civil War.

Aerial photos of Union, West Virginia, from the 1940’s above, and 2018, below. Not all that different….

Aerial photo of Union, WV from the 1940’s.
Drone photo of Union, WV, from 2018.

In John A. Francis’ words…. (Note: I attempted to find more information on Mr. Francis, but wasn’t able to find much. It appears that he may have died in 1899, after which his son William substituted in his place in the election for a civil service type job he held in that community. I did find that his middle name was Andrew.)

On entering town the first building on my right is the Presbyterian Church, which I remember when it stood on its former site, on the turnpike leading to the “Old Sweet.” From some cause it was deemed unsafe and moved to the other extreme end of town, and near the home of the minister. I will not pass by the Presbyterian Church without showing my respect and love for the Rev. Dr. S.R. Houston, who for forty-two years broke bread of life to the people of Union. I often think of that tall, manly form, and the grey hair rolled back ofver his broad brow and the pathos of his voice as he called poor sinners to repentance, and told them of a dying Savior’s love.

Rev. Houston’s home is still standing, and it’s actually for sale at the moment. We looked at it before buying Willowbrook, but since we bought Willowbrook, we had our hands full. It’s a beautiful, large, brick home in great condition. It has been well-cared for by the Johnson family, who still owns it, and needs nothing.

Rev. Houston’s house, still standing.
Rev. Houston’s house, still standing.
Houston/Johnson house, looking north.

This is our church, and Rev. Houston’s house is still there, though the original church was replaced with a newer one in the early 20th century. I don’t know what the old church looked like. I have previously posted the Diary of Rev. Houston from the Civil War years, which shows a civilian preacher’s point of view of the war, and the effect it had on the people of the town.

Well, I must be moving up to the turn of the street where once stood the blacksmith shop where Oliver Nelson and Black Allan made the sparks fly, which often put a move on us barefooted boys.

A few steps farther on is the little house that Olley Nelson occupied then, when I can first remember old Mr. Dick Powers lived there . . . . As a rule, then, all the stockings and socks were knit by the family, and there was not much time for idle fingers. The invitation then was, “bring your knitting and stay till bed time.” The ladies not only had their knitting but had their sewing to do without the aid of a sewing machine, and many of them spun and wove the goods to make clothes for both men and women. Then it was a rare thing for ladies from the country to bring money to the store to make purchases, but instead brought the product of the farm and the fruit of the loom. Many of them were might sharp on a trade. Notwithstanding, work seemed never ending. The ladies had time for pleasure as well as now, and many were the time they danced all night and rode home behind the boys in the morning. Those were good old times for I have tried them.

I’m not sure yet what house this refers to. It may be that this is the house currently being renovated by Chris and Anita Wszolek.

Looking north, the Hutchison/Rowan house to the left.

We digressed a little and come back to the old corner property where we find the old shop gone, as are the Powers and Nelsons. We find the house filled with colored people of the James Clair persuasion.

I’m guessing the corner where the blacksmith shop existed was the corner of the current “Knobs Road” and Main Street – the site of the large Queen Anne Ballard home, currently being renovated. I believe “Mose Hollow Road” refers to the current “Knobs Road.”

Just across the Mose Hollow road we find the house built by B.G. Morgan in 1845, and afterward purchased by Mrs. Dunlap, who spent many years of her life there, with old Uncle Caesar as her man of all work.

In 1811, a slave of Samuel Ewing by the name of Moses, murdered Will, a slave of Oliver Ewing, by stabbing him to death in the kitchen. Moses was “drunk and quarrelsome.” He threw his knife into a chimney corner and fled. Moses was sentenced to hang near Union on March 29, 1811. He indeed was hung, which was the first hanging in Monroe County, and the spot of the hanging became known as “Mose Hollow.” I’m not sure exactly where Mose Hollow is today.

I may be wrong, but being that this is the area described, the house just below center, I’m guessing is the B.G. Morgan house, built in 1845 and still standing. Across the street to the right, must be where the blacksmith shop stood which he discusses. Two structures to the left of the Morgan House, you can barely see the Jimmy Howell house porch sticking out. Further down the left side of the road, you see the back of the white Masonic Hall, discussed later on, as well as the Hutchison/Rowan House, on the other side of the street, discussed below.

A little below brings us to the old home of Jimmy Howell, for many years the town tinner, as well as the Baptist of the town. Here with his good wife and Bettie and Jud, they constituted a happy family. I learn that all of them except Mrs Howell, who is dead, have gone to Oregon. Here we find young Mr. John Rowan has taken up his abode.

The Howell House, now owned by Jill and John Fischer.

Next we visit the Baptist Church which does not look as though it had been well cared for. It was there we joined the Methodist Sunday School, probably the first Methodist school in the town. The Rev. E.P. Phelps was the Presiding Elder then of the District. He was a man of large size, energetic, aggressive, wearing good clothes and a profusion of jewelry. He seemed to talk well, and gave Methodism an impetus which it held for many years. I often think of the sweet singing of the old Bros. George Lynch and Samuel Wallace, Dr. Butt and others as they sang the old Wesleyan Hymns, while the old saint Sammy Keenan, looked as though he “Could read his title clear to mansions in the skies.” They have all gone to their reward.

The Baptist Church, as it now appears.
The location of the Baptist Church. The Hutchinson/Rowan House is two structures to the left, same side of the street.
The Baptist Church as of 2020, and the “Crebs House” behind it.

We hasten on to the old home of G.W. Hutchinson, who was for many years the County Clerk, as his father was before him. If I mistake not, the office was held by them from the organization of the county about 1800 to 1865. At the May election of that year he was again re-elected, but the powers that were had a new way of counting ballots, so that the one getting the most votes was the one who got left out. I find this property one of the best in town, well taken care of by the present owner, the Hon. John M. Rowan, now treasurer of West Virginia and who has been often honored by the people of his county, since he represented the county in the Legislature of Virginia, with Wilson Lively as a colleague away back in the [18]60’s.

The Hutchison/Rowan house as it appears today.

This brings us down to the corner where stands the old home of James Francis, who followed the occupation of tailor there for many years. About 1857 he moved with his family to Raleigh County, where a few years ago he died at the age of 88 years. A good man was Uncle Jimmy. I find this house occupied by Mrs. Jamison, his daughter, and is the first house I find occupied by the same family that I left in it 28 years ago.

I now step around to the old storehouse of J. and J.L. Hutchinson, where we remember as clerks Jack Nelson, John Humphreys, John Wiley Francis and others. This house was also occupied by J.B. Kearnes in 1868-9, now of Salem. As we see signs of printer’s ink we go upstairs into the office of The Farmer’s Friend and Fireside Companion, started about 1855 by Charles McLean Johnston. It was probably the first newspaper in the town. Mr. Johnston sold it and it was run by different parties with varying fortunes until the war. Mr. Johnston’s son has come back to town and is publishing a paper as his father did before him; but was not content but must needs go to the Legislature. This house is now occupied as a grocery by Hubert Spangler, who was but a lad when I left.

But a few steps brings me to the little house that was used by James Howell for many years as a Tin Shop. It has had some additions made to it since that time and is now used for a post office, which ought to be in better quarters.

A little further on brings us to the old Plunket Beirne store that was once occupied by C.J. Beirne and John Chapman, and afterwards by Andrew Johnston, Lanius and McCreery, Sterrett and others. This building is now occupied by Mr. McNeer. The little south room was a drug store owned by Benj. Carper from Fincastle, who conducted it but a few years, Union being entirely too healthy to support a drug store.

C.J. Beirne, was the owner of Willowbrook Plantation throughout the Civil War era. He evidently operated a store here. His father, George Beirne, became wealthy by operation of a store on the other side of the street, with his brother, Andrew Beirne.

That must have been the Beirne Store to the right with the two-story porch, or possibly the building next to it. At far right it appears to be the roofline and front porch of one of the two connected houses shown in the James Francis house description above, where my office now stands.

Besides doctors did not then give prescriptions and if the family was supplied with a bottle of camphor they wanted but little else and that the garden or woods furnished; catnip for babies, saffron for measles, if a purgative was wanted peel locust tree downward; if a vomit was needed, peal the bark upward, if an astringent, red oak bark was good, in a case of flux yarrow yea, if not feeling well they sometimes took ice, mint, sugar, and etc. – everybody their own doctor and druggist. So you see Union was no place for a drug store.

Main Street as of March, 2020. Monroe Watchman office at lower left. My office across the street. Courthouse upper left.

Then, later Henry Shanklin opened a confectionery in that room. Henry was a courting man, and I kept store for him two nights a week Oftener would have suited me better for I had a sweet tooth those days and was an expensive clerk. Henry is living at Norton, Va, and by the use of a two inch oak plank between him and the sun can still cast a shadow. Henry didn’t get the girl but I got the candy. He sold out to one Dr. Stroude of precious memory, to enter the army where he was supposed to have split several bullets without injury to himself. Dr. Stroude wore out and Tom Jackson went in, Union’s first professional barber. How it has been occupied the last 28 years I know not.

Across the street we find the old Byrnside store very much as we left it, a little worse for wear. Thomas Edgar was clerk there for years. H.C. Byrnside later. N.. Roberts occupied it several years before the war. The old counting room was often the scene of some wonderful talks when J.M. Byrnside, Jas. Alexander, Lewis Caperton, W.H. Shanklin and others related their youthful exploits and got the “rig” on one another. The old Bank of Union was quartered upstairs. The store is now used as a drug store by Mr. Boyd Campbell, who I find has many of the characteristics of his ancestors – polite, kind, jovial, and of large proportion – while I find the old counting and bed room has a sign with the single word, “Logan,” which I suppose is sufficiently expressive for a modest man. J.D. Logan is an old Salemite and has increased his circumference wonderfully. Blue grass agrees with him. You will always find Joe ready to take your case and state your grievance to the court.

This is the old J.M. Byrnside Store, which used to sit where the modern Bank of Monroe stands today. J.M. Byrnside grew up at Willowbrook, being the grandson of James Byrnside, who built Byrnside’s Fort, and the son of John Byrnside, founding father of Monroe County, who turned the large log cabin fort into Willowbrook Plantation. He later moved to town, built a large brick home, and this large brick store. He was later one of the founding fathers of the State of West Virginia.
The current Bank of Monroe, on the site of the old Byrnside Store.
This appears to show an earlier configuration of the old J.M. Byrnside Store, having trim indicating that it was now the “Bank of Monroe” building. Still prior to the modern Bank of Monroe which sits on the lot today. It’s a shame they didn’t renovate this one again instead of destroying it and building an entirely new building in the mid-20th century style.

We next find ourselves at the old R.M. Allen property. He was allured away from Union by the supposed advantages offered by the new town of Princeton, Mercer County, in 1850. Since that time until his death it was occupied by Madison McDaniel, a life time cripple from rheumatism; but notwithstanding his great sufferings, was very companionable, cheerful and a great lover of a social game of cards with his friends . . . . This property I find occupied by Will Snydor and his mother, while the old tailor shop is used by Will to make clothes for horses. A good horse tailor is a useful man in a community and I learn Will fills the bill.

You can see the old chimneys of the Byrnside Store to the left, so the visible building with the white picket fence at far left, must be the building described as the “old R.M. Allen property.”

A few steps further on brings us to the old Steele property, generally known as the saddler’s shop. The first room was utilized by W.J. Whitcomb as a fashionable tailor shop. William was always noted for his independance of all rules of grammar not invented by himself and for coining words to suit the occasion. Though still living he has gone into innocuous desuetude as a tailor. He was once in the fur trade. That room is still used that way as I find a barber there. Before reaching the next room we see a door and steps in the porch floor which leads to the cellar, and down which Emory Lynch when a lad fell and broke his back, which made him a cripple for life.

This is a later photo, though you can still see the Byrnside Store still standing at center left. The structures being described now would have been everything behind the Gulf sign and thereabouts. The current building, the Caldwell Building I believe it’s called, is still standing, but was not there at the time of Mr. Francis’ 1894 description.

These apartments were formerly occupied by that industrious man, Jacob Zoll, who with his brother carried on one of the most important industries of the town manufacturing saddles and harnesses, working several apprentices and journeymen, some of whom I still remember as old man Henry Hines, James Prentice, William Camper, and W.H. Jennings. This house was also once occupied by J.W. Younger as a merchant, while the room on the south end about 1855 was occupied by Jim Bob Alexander as a clothing store – probably the first in town. It was there I bought my first coat, and laid aside the roundabout. Of course, I felt proud of that addition. A part of this house is used by Caleb Crawford who was a Union boy fifty years ago and who has returned after many wanderings to repair the soles of his neighbors.

At far left you catch a glimpse of a structure which sat about where the Kalico Restaurant now stands. This would have been one of these descried buildings. At right, Shanklin’s Union Hotel, about where Queen’s Restaurant is now.

We again move up the street to the residence of B.F. Steele, generally called Frank, who with wife and two sons Mike and William, made up the family. Mr. Steele was a good kind, neighbor and friend. He and his good wife are both gone and I find an old county name but a stranger to me living there – young Mr. McNeer. William Steele I find living on the old farm known to many old C.S.A. boys as “Camp Steele.” I had the pleasure of a hearty handshake from him on my recent visit. I kindly remember my old comrade and lieutenant. May he live long and prosper.

Looking north

From there a short walk brings us to Lewis Caperton’s – a kind, jovial, whole-souled man. Time has gathered him and his wife home, while his sons, Lewis and Hugh, remain. The latter an old comrade in Bryan’s Battery. Hugh’s head and beard, like my own, forcibly remind us that we are not chickens of last season. At this place I find Alexander McClearn, also an old and valued comrade.

Lewis Caperton (1808-1874) was one of the sons of Hugh Caperton and Jane Erskine Caperton, who built, and lived in, Elmwood. His slightly younger brother, Allan Caperton, lived at Elmwood and was a U.S. Senator for the State of Virginia, prior to the Civil War. I’m not sure where here Lewis Caperton’s family was living. The location as described sounds like the identical location of his father, Hugh Caperton’s law office, which is still standing, and which now serves as the museum for the Monroe County Historical Society. Possibly he had inherited the law office and was living in it?

Hugh Caperton’s law office, still standing on the west side of Main Street.
Hugh Caperton’s home, Elmwood.

A few steps southward brings us to the old residence of Gen. A.A. Chapman, who was Commonwealth’s Attorney, Legislator, and Congressman when the district comprised a part of Virginia and a large part of West Virginia. The general was the best of neighbors, kindhearted, always good to the poor, polite, pleasant, a good speaker and fine lawyer. The oldest son, Capt. Beirne Champan, a brave, talented boy, came home from school and raised a company of Artillery for the defense of his state. He was mortally wounded at Winchester, Va. Sept. 19, 1864. No vestige of the once happy family is left. Mrs. Isabel Hereford now lives there.

General Chapman’s house, still standing on Main Street at the four way stop.

At this point I had as well step down the Salt Sulphur pike a short distance and return via the public school building, built since I left there – a good house, but I doubt if the citizens are using it to the best advantage.

A short walk and we reach Dr. Charles Baldwin’s old home. The doctor and the old black horse are always associated together with me. The doctor was a good, kind, old man, a fine physician and had a nice family. I used to think the doctor was a beautiful reader when reading the Masonic burial services. He, too, has gone to that bourne from whence no traveller returns. I believe all the family that are living are in Texas. We find Mrs. Wilson Watts lives there.

I’m not sure where this was located.

We next visit the old Theater on the corner, or rather the present building on the old site. Very few towns the size of Union had a theater building, but Union had one before it was more than half as large as now. It was never used as such since my recollection. It was the property of old Mr. Henry Alexander, and was generally rented, it being one of the few houses for rent in the town. I learn that it is now occupied by Mr. McClaugherty, the County Clerk.

I’m not sure whether this photo shows the same theater. The writing on the back of this photograph identifies it as “Shanklin’s Theater.” Perhaps this was became a theater post-1894. It appears to have also acted as a post office. In any event, it’s a great photo of some colorful local characters. It looks to be straight out of a Wild West movie. And look at the homemade Virginia chairs. It looks like many of the ones I wrote about in a prior post.

A photo from between 1897 and 1915 at “Shanklin’s Theater.” From right to left, J.A. Campbell (owned the building), Cab Campbell, Col. Crosier, Shelton Clark (appointed postmaster), Charley Davidson, Tim Miller, Ed Lynch and Mr. Houston. The picture show poster at the door is for Jackie Coogan in “The Kid and Peck’s Bad Boy.”
Old handmade chairs found in the house at Willowbrook Plantation.

The houses further south on the Royal Oak Road have been built since I left the town and no memories cluster around them, though they are quite an acquisition to the place.

Now let us step across the street to Mr. Gaston Caperton’s and start back on Main Street. This house was built I should think about 1850 or perhaps a little later by a Mr. Eagle, who lived in the house where Mr. Lewis Spangler now resides.

Portrait of Gaston Caperton.

A circumstance connected with the building of that house is still fresh in my memory. A two inch auger was carelessly left in my reach so I tried my skill as a borer on a window sill in the basement in several places. Suspicion seemed to point to me, why I don’t know, for I supposed I was a good boy. When charged with being a bore I “sassed” Old Man Eagle, but when he started down the scaffold with a shingle in his hand, I thought it best to look to my lines of retreat, for I remember I was not disobedient to the injunction. The bear and calf may lie down together and the lion eat straw like an ox, but I don’t believe the time will ever come when the auger and the small boy can lay down together without the auger leading the boy into mischief. This is the second house in which I find the same occupant as when I left.

The brick home Gaston Caperton originally lived in, before building Wyndridge, just East of town. It sat where the Union Place Apartments now sit, at the four way stop on 219 and Willowbend Road.

We will continue north on Main Street, east side, and visit Mr. Henry Alexander, a large land and slave holder and one of the oldest inhabitants in the town. I was awfully afraid of him when a boy. He often passed us town boys with our little wagons on the old Red-line Road and wheen his spirited horse would shy he would say words that were in the Bible, but he arranged them differently. He put great confidence in his slaves and when the Yankees came through in 1862 he loaded his team up with all his valuables to run them away, but instead they took everything entrusted to them and themselves in the bargain off with the Yankees.

Here’s an original photograph I found at Willowbrook Plantation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it may be only the second known photograph of the Gaston Caperton house on the corner of Main Street and Willow Bend Road. It looks to show the beginnings of a parade. At left is the Methodist Church, then what is now Jeff Pritt’s law office, and then the Gaston Caperton house beyond that. Such a shame that was torn down to install apartments. This photo also shows part of the Methodist Church, and the property where the Alexander Home stood, which is where Jeff Pritt’s office is located.

I only remember the second Mrs. Alexander, who was very fleshy, a great church goer and good woman. Mr. Alexander was a very old man when he died. His son James resided with him and I believe died the day before his father. He was a bachelor and apparently a crusty one, but he had a good, kind heart, as I have good reason to know. The ladies of one of the churches were having an ice cream supper in the old Hutchinson store. There were two poor boys standing around the door without the wherewithal to buy, when James Alexander came out and took them by the hand, took them in and paid for a supper for them. I would have been his to command from that day on. Peace to his ashes!

Henry Alexander’s father, James Alexander, was the founder of Union, in that he donated 10 acres of land for a town, in order to convince the Commonwealth of Virginia, to authorize the creation of a new county of out of the southern end of Greenbrier County – so that its inhabitants would no longer be required to cross the Greenbrier River in order to get to the courthouse in Lewisburg. The original log cabin site of James Alexander, who first settled it in 1774, is so far a mystery. Some of theories about where it existed. But we do know that his son was living on this lot at the current location of the Jeff Pritt law office and the Methodist Church, along Main Street.

A few steps further and on a part of the old Alexander lot stands a neat new church of modern build, it being the third Methodist Church in the town in the last fifty years. It is much the neatest church in the town and no doubt owes its existence largely to that old Pacific Coast Methodist, the late Hon. Frank Hereford.

A photo I found in Willowbrook, showing the Methodist church at right, then the Union Hotel complex behind that, and the massive sugar maple which Mr. Francis discusses.

Northward we go and seek entertainment in the “Upper Tavern,” as it used to be called. We find the row of cabins have been very well taken care of, while the old hotel does not look as large or important since the long porch and bell are gone. During my time it has had many proprietors. Among them, I remember Snead, McDaniel, Clark, Zoll, Shanklin, Reynolds, Smith, and others. I remember one occasion when Gen. Chapman, John McCreery, James and William Shanklin and a few other old men came in to show the youngsters how to dance the Virginia Reel, and dance it they did in great style, too. Large crowds came to town on court day then and the taverns were thronged. It was a great day for us boys, riding the horses to water and stable. I am glad to see the old sugar tree looks as though it could stand the storms of another century. There I met Mr. Jacob Zoll, now one of the oldest men of the town, having been born there 82 years ago and has maintained almost continuously his residence there. It is now under the proprietorship of Mr. McKenzie, one of the big men of the town, a new comer to me but who has a Union lady for a wife.

Jacob Zoll was born in 1812. He was a saddler, and was the son of Jane Erskine Smith and William Zoll. He would die just after this encounter. He died on December 2, 1894, and is buried in Greenhill Cemetery in Union.

Union Hotel when owned by Shanklin, according to the sign. About where Queen’s restaurant is now.
Union Hotel when owned by Shanklin, according to the sign. About where Queen’s restaurant is now.
Union Hotel when owned by Shanklin, according to the sign. About where Queen’s restaurant is now.
It’s interesting how much the old Union Hotel looks like Willowbrook

Across the street (the street between the current Sonoco gas station and Queen’s restaurant) on the corner we come to the old Col. Andrew Beirne residence, of my youth. After the death of his wife he moved to the Lewis place, where he lived for many years. The col. was a wild man in his day, a hard rider. Old people used to tell of his riding to Staunton to Union in one day. He was fond of raising fine horses. The colonel owned more good land than any man in the county. He used to own nearly all the land on both sides of the turnpike from Second Creek to Keenan’s, a distance of four miles, while a great deal was owned by him between Union and Salt Sulphur. Many a fat steer went to market from his lands every fall. This property was rented for several years and I think T.F. Parke owned it some of the time. It is now owned by Wm. Early, a Union raised boy and son of Mr. D.J. Early, commonly called by his friends Jack. The store-house adjoining and known as the old Andrew Beirne store is also owned and used by Mr. W. Early as a family grocery. In my time Thomas Johnson was a merchant there forty years ago, while later Campbell, Parke and Campbell, Eggleston and Mason, Andrew Johnston and others conducted mercantile establishments there. The north end and upstairs was once used by S. J. Warren as a printing office, and just after the War by Wm. Smith as a bar room.

The described Andrew Beirne residence was where the Sonoco gas station is now, and possibly where the building just north of it also stands. You can see the building in the below photo. I believe this Col. Andrew Beirne is the son of the original Col. Andrew Beirne, known as the “young colonel.” He lived in the town of Union, and later moved to the old “Lewis Place,” which I take to mean as Sweet Springs.

The house with the large brick chimney, behind the people posing for the photo, must have been the Andrew Beirne house and store property. This is where the current gas station is in town, across from the Kalico Kitchen restaurant.

We go down to look at the old stone jail and see agin the large stone under the window that Rittenhouse picked out and thus made his escape. That too, has gone…..

To be continued.

13 thoughts on “An old man walking through his hometown – Union, West Virginia – in 1894 – Part 1

  1. Thanks, please feel free to give me corrections/additions, by the way. This is merely a starting point. There’s so much information which probably exists nowhere but it oral tradition.

  2. This is absolutely wonderful!!!! I was born in 1942. Live here all my life except my time in the Navy. I remember some of the old buildings. When I was 16 and got my drivers license the State Police was located up stairs in the old bank building. That was before paroral parking in Union.

  3. Awesome ! John , that is so much History on the Great historic town of Union. Betty and Arbie would really enjoy this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Loved this and am looking forward to the next part. As a Trekkie, it blew me away to see Mr. Francis wish his old comrade in arms to Live Long and Prosper! Love the site, keep it up!

  5. Having only learned of my family connection to Union via a DNA test, I’m soaking up all the history I can. This is a wealth of knowledge. I’ve visited Union twice so far for an annual family reunion so I recognize many of the buildings. Looking forward to our next visit in September!

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