Byrnside’s Fort / “Willowbrook” Plantation

We recently acquired the “Burnside-Bierne-Johnson House” near Union, West Virginia.

Willowbrook in 2019, and at bottom, 1870s-1880’s. The gable roof on the second story porch was under in the late 1800s, early 1900.

All we knew about it when we started was the 1993 National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Click the link to see it…. This is the narrative:

Standing high and proud on the edge of a bluff, overlooking a ravine in which flows Byrnside Branch of Indian Creek on its way to join New River, is the Byrnside-Beirne- Johnson House. The Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House is also called Willowbrook….

The Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House is an evolved house covering just over 222 years of transformation. It is the largest house covered with board and batten siding in Monroe County (only six examples are known: 5 dwelling houses and 1 church). Like many ofthe larger houses in Monroe County, i t consists of log structures of varying ages that were combined into stylish large houses in the mid to late nineteenth century. Mid 19th century Monroe County had grown and prospered and the influx of resort visitors had brought in a feeling and need for stylish homes. The subdued Gothic Revival with board and batten siding seemed to be a favorite style during the mid 1850’s. Withinthe walls of the Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House is a pioneer log fort built by six families in 1770. This house has witnessed all of the history of Monroe and Greenbrier Counties. This area was a part of Botetourt County, Virginia until 1777 when it became Greenbrier County and 1799 when it became Monroe County.

James Byrnside came to this spot about 1759 and built a cabin and established a “corn right”. His son, John, was born here (by his own statement) April 15, 1763. There is a family tradition that James Byrnside, while working in his corn patch and taking a rest, fell asleep and dreamed his cabin was on fire and waking to find the dream correct, fled to his former home on the Jackson River near present Covington, VA. At
all events his home was marked for destruction in the Pontiac War of 1763. It was in June of that year at the Great Levels in what is now Greenbrier County and only a mere twenty miles away there occurred a massacre of the Muddy Creek Mountain and Clendenin Settlements. Only a very few escaped the Shawnee Indian Attack. It is said that James Byrnside fled without hat, shoes or gun.

He found to his astonishment his horse tied to a sappling and untying the horse made his escape. Byrnside remained at the Jackson River Settlement about six years and succeeded in forming a colony of six families to locate in what is now Monroe County, WV about the year 1769-70. 

The families were as follows: James and John Byrnside, Edward Keenan as well as his father, Patrick Keenan and his mother, Eleanor, Samuel Black (a brother-in-law to Edward Keenan), John Blanton (also a brother-in-law), a Mc Mullin and a Flather. The six families came to James Byrnside’s former settlement and they first built a log fort (a blockhouse or 2 story fortified house). They then separated and made their claims in this area. James Byrnside whoresided at the fort is said to have found his hat, shoes and gun in his old corn patch.

These six families had to seek safety in this fort many times and were there in 1773, when Donnally Fort, in what is now Greenbrier County, was attacked. [ETA: it was 1778] John Blanton,who built his log house in 1770 and is part of Wyndridge just east of Union, Samuel Black whose house is still standing just north of Union and Flather soon left this settlement and moved farther west as this country was becoming too populous. McMullin also did not remain very long and went to what is now Smyth County in south-west Virginia.

The only ones of the six to remain were the Byrnsides and the Keenans. Keenan resided about two miles east of the fort and established one of the first stores in the area. Edward Keenan was the first converted Methodist west of the Allegheny Mountains and was instrumental in building Rehoboth Church in 1786. He gave a part of his land for the construction of this church. The men who constructed the Rehoboth Church were: Edward Keenan, Samuel Clark, John Blanton and John Wiseman. Honaker, the blacksmith, made the nails used in building Rehoboth Church and there always was a Honaker the blacksmith in the area for over 150 years.

Rehoboth Church still stands as a museum 2 miles east of Union. The Byrnside family was instrumental with others in the founding of another settlenent-period church, the Good Hope Meeting House. This, along with Rehoboth, helped establish Christian worship west of the Allegheny Mountains.

James Byrnside was an alert land prospector, active in business, and his name often occurs in the record books of Augusta County, VA and Greenbrier County, VA (now WV). His later years appear to have been clouded in reverses. He died at Union in 1812. John Byrnside lived on the large plantation immediately south of Union which was deeded him by his father (in 1788). He became deputy surveyor in 1785 and was the first surveyor of Monroe County. For his time, he was a very wealthy citizen, his estate including seven slaves and personalty to the amount of $5,037.19. John Byrnside died in 1816. James, his son, inherited the plantation and fort building and it is probably he who enlarged the house. [ETA: that’s not quite true. New research shows that he divided the plantation between his three sons, Isaac, James and John, and left his wife Elizabeth a life estate in the plantation house. Isaac is the one who got the half of the plantation with the house itself, who sold all of his interest in it in 1827 to wealthy entrepreneur and plantation conglomerate, George Beirne.]

He added another log house the same size as the log fort building to the west making it a double log house. (Dayton’s Greenbrier Pioneers and Their Homes, page 161.)

The old Union to Christiansburg Turnpike that lies alongside was important to the area, It was an important business connection as well as a means of bringing tourist to the area to visit the springs resorts such as Salt Sulphur Springs and Sweet Springs. Theestablishment of a railway depot at Christiansburg provided much interchange; financial, tourist and otherwise, between Union and Christiansburg.

In 1855 Christopher Beirne bought the Byrnside Plantation and House and it is he who reworked the house to the appearance: we see today. Christopher Beirne was a member of the weal thy and prominent Beirne Family centered at Walnut Grove just to the north of Union. The Beirne Family came to the Union Area before 1800 and became wealthy as mer- chants. They expanded their holdings nationwide and practically controlled the sugar market in the United States before the Civil War. [ETA: I know now that George Beirne had purchased the plantation land in 1827, but Elizabeth Byrnside had the right to live in the plantation house until her death. George predeceased her, dying in 1832. So when Elizabeth died in 1855, George’s children/heirs inherited the full interest in the plantation. The wealthiest of the sons, Christopher J. Beirne, bought out each of his siblings’ 1/7 interest in the plantation, and became the 100% owner.]

One of the first companies to go to the front during the Civil War was the Monroe Sharpshooters, who were attached to the Virginia Infantry, of the brigade that was first commanded by General McCausland and afzerward by Col . Thomas Smith and constituted a part of the division under Breckenridge. When the Sharpshooters left Union, they were presented, by the ladies of that town, with a silk flag. Beirne Chapman made the pre-sentation address in a speech of inspiring eloauence. Christopher Beirne was the Captain of the Monroe (sometimes called Beirne) Sharpshooters.

Christopher Beirne, a bachelor, was a very sharp businessman and owned parts of many businesses in the townof Union. From 1846 to 1853 he represented Monroe County in the VA Assmbly in Richmond. In the early 1850’s he formed a company along with John Echols, Allen Caperton and Oliver Beirne for the purchase and operation of the Old Sweet Springs Resort Hotel located in Monroe County. Many improvements were accompl i shed during their ownership. Oliver Beirne finally bought out the other partners. Christopher Beirne, after the Civil War, left the Union Area and moved to Saint Louis.

A few houses in the 7850’s were covered with board and batten-style siding. The Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House that Christopher Beirne reworked is the largest of this style in Monroe County. Board and batten was a very short-lived style in Monroe County and was in fashion here only from 1854-60 and any examples can be dated to this narrow period. The most common type of vertical siding used in Victorian-Era homes is board and batten. Sheets of vertical wood boards are nailed to the house studs and the joints where the sheets meet are covered with battens which are narrow strips of vertical molding about one-half to one inch. Board and batten work is rhythmical and capable of casting shadows and it is often tactile as well because it is made from rough cut boards. Board and batten is often combined with fancy cut work and can present a very elegant appearance.

In 1869, Caleb Lon Johnson purchased the full plantation and house from Christopher Beirne. [ETA: I know now that it wasn’t Caleb L. Johnson who bought it just yet. It was actually his uncle – also named Caleb Johnson, except his middle initial was “E.” Caleb then sold the plantation in the mid 1880’s to James M. Johnson, the brother of Caleb Lon Johnson. But he died shortly thereafter. It must have been on his “death bed,” that he then sold the entire plantation to his brother, Caleb Leonidas Johnson, in 1889, who moved his large family into the home (pictured in the old photo above) and who’s descendants lived there until we got the property.]

Robert Johnson was an early settler in the Johnson Cross Roads Area of Monroe County and the ancestor of Caleb Lon Johnson. The present owners are Margaret and Morgan Clark, sister and brother and grandchildren of Caleb Lon Johnson. Their father, Sam Clark is descended from the early pioneer Samuel Clark who settled near Union in 1783 and helped to build Rehoboth Church. He was a veteran of the Revolution, later an officer in the militia and carried a somewhat prominent part in the public affairs of Monroe County. The Johnson Family were very interested in education and for sometime conducted a school in their home for their children and young ladies from Union. (See Historical Photo A) Caleb E. Johnson (another Caleb of the same family) was one of the principal shareholders of West Virginia Female Seminary established in Union in 1872. [ETA: so actually he was the owner from 1869 through the mid 1880’s.]

The property had been Union College established in 1860 and Union Academy established in 1820. Caleb E. Johnson became sole owner in 1876 and renaned the school the Johnson Female College. This school attracted boarders from all parts of the United States and provided a fine education in all areas. The Johnsons were all well educated and became some of the area’s finest teachers. Some in turn, helped to establish other private schools. The present owner, Margaret Clark, is a retired teacher and Morgan Clark operates the property as a farm operation as it has always been.

The interior of the Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House is an important indicator of the life style of a prominent affluent farmer class in Monroe County in the late nineteenth century. Several of the more important pieces of antique furniture were crafted by a Johnson family member whose occupation was that of cabinet maker,

The Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House is significant in that it is a good example of early building methods and styles. It represents patterns of culture during two and one quarter centuries in the trans-Alleghany Region of what is now Monroe County, WV. It is significant in that it represents the settlement of this area and the house as it looks today is a rare style of architecture in Monroe County.

The Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House Property qual ifies under criterion A in that the establ ishment of a fort allowed the growth of a new settlement in what is now Monroe County in thelater eighteenth century. The pioneer families that built the fort also established churches, towns, schools, roads and business interprises locally as well as nationally.

I t qualifies under criterion B with its association with James and John Byrnside, Christopher Beirne, and Caleb Lon Johnson; men whose influence was felt throughout the whole region. It qualifies under Criterion C in that it is a good example of a double-log house with its associated stone construction and it demonstrates early building methods. The board and batten siding is a somewhat rare architectural style in Monroe County.

The venerable pioneer site on which the Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House sits has witnessed all of the history of the local area and much of the history of the state and nation.

On day one of ownership, started tearing into the plaster of the old fort section of the home, because you never really know what’s under there until you look. And nobody’s removed the plaster since installation in the 1850’s.

Some of the basic things we’ve learned since opening it up, is that the above narrative is incorrect on one thing: there was no dog trot. There was only a large blockhouse with a later log addition built onto the wall of the blockhouse. So it was solid log; no dog trot. Also, we were able to date the plaster installation to 1858 from newspapers laid under the plaster on the log addition. We also now believe that improvements were made to the home well before the plaster was added, which probably puts many of the improvements during the ownership of the Byrnside family – not just Christopher Bierne.

Regarding the fort, we have confirmed that a stockade wall attached to both the North and the South walls of the blockhouse, making the blockhouse itself part of the stockade perimeter; essentially a large bastion. This makes sense because stockades were created by stacking logs vertically, with no space in between. So it takes a lot of logs. For instance, the Boonsborough stockade in Kentucky enclosed an acre and a half, if I recall correctly, which required 1,000 trees! It would have made sense for a small frontier fort to incorporate the large log structure they built as part of the perimeter. We also know that Donnally’s Fort in present-day Greenbrier County, was constructed the same way.

The interior of the old fort, after plaster removal.
Byrnside’s Fort from the air.

Video of current restoration progress:

9 thoughts on “Byrnside’s Fort / “Willowbrook” Plantation

  1. Very cool! James Burnside is my 5th great grandfather. It has been fun digging up information on him and this find is awesome!

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