Monday, May 22, 2017

Touring History: The Dransfield Store

The Monroe County (WV) Historic Homes Tour on May 6 was a delight. After our first two stops at St. John's Chapel and Old Sweet Springs, my sister and I headed back toward Union. About 12 miles before we got there was our third stop on the tour: The Beirne Dransfield General Store.




This Depression-era store sits unassumingly near the road miles from any other business. Decades ago it was a place to buy groceries, farm products, machinery, fertilizers, feed, and gasoline. The store was established by Beirne Dransfield and the building was built in 1933. For years prior to that, however, he had been supplementing his farm income through dealerships with V. C. Fertilizer Company, International Harvester (farm equipment), Wayne Feeds, and Amoco gasoline. Once all these enterprises were operated out of the building, it made sense to stock other supplies needed by the locals.


Beirne Dransfield had seven sons, three daughters, and several grandsons. I went to school with some of those grandsons and one granddaughter (also named Nancy). One grandson is the same age as me and we've been friends since seventh grade. I remember asking him what that white building was in front of his house and he told me it was "an old store." Now, after some 50 years or more, it's a store once again. Not in the usual sense, though. It's open only for special occasions to share a slice of life long-ago for free.




Another of Beirne's grandsons has spearheaded the effort to restore this old family business. Since he was a child, he's been collecting antique and vintage items that were once sold new in the store. He's also obtained vintage signs for the various dealerships and even an old gas pump.



Because the day was so chilly, the door was closed, but I'm sure it stood open in bygone days whenever the weather allowed.




Inside was an old wood cook stove that now serves as a display counter. On this day it held a guest book. The walls were filled with old photos and advertisements, helping folks to imagine what life was like for their grandparents and great-grandparents.






Like many merchants then and now, Beirne Dransfield gave away calendars to promote his business. There was a beautiful one from 1939, framed and hanging behind the counter.




There were shelves lined with a variety of vintage items as well. Some would have been sold here. Others were typical of the era.










Back in the day, I'm pretty sure the store sold snacks of some sort. On this day, however, one of Beirne's grandsons was behind the counter, serving up barbecues as a fundraiser for the local 4-H program.



To go with the hot sandwiches, there was pop (we call it "pop" around here, rather than soda), in a vintage cooler complete with ice and a bottle opener on the side.



If you would rather have water, that was on ice as well, in an old cream separator.



There was a display of old farm equipment manuals,




some of which might have told me how to start one of the old tractors parked in the yard.





And, if you had time to sit a spell, there was a checkerboard ready for a game. If you were able and so inclined, there was also an old family fiddle that could provide a lively tune.




In the storage room, there were horse harnesses, a potato sorter (I think), and other tools of the day.







As I wandered around the tiny store, it was easy to envision it in its heyday, with farmers and families stopping in for supplies, gas, or maybe even a bottle of pop - an extra special treat during the Depression. What a delight to take a little step back in time! It does my soul good to venture into days gone by now and then.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

Touring History: Old Sweet Springs

My sister and I had a great time on the Monroe County (WV) Historic Homes Tour last weekend. After our first stop at St. John's Chapel, we drove south, maybe a mile, to Old Sweet Springs. This grand old place is probably the crown jewel of Monroe County's historic sites. The first hotel on this property was built in 1792, with the main draw being the sweet water that flowed from underground springs. Author Stan Cohen describes this magical water in his book Historic Springs of the Virginias:

"It has been described as the best acidulous water in the United States. It contains quite a lot of carbonic acid (fixed air) which gives it a peculiar briskness. For many years the spring water was credited with remarkable cures of the sub-acute rheumatism and neuralgia. Immersions in the water were also recommended to relieve nephritic complaints. The springs are thermal and are similar to the famous springs of Bristol, England."

Edward Beyer included a rendering of Sweet Springs in his 1857 Album of Virginia, which shows just how much of a resort it had become by the mid-1800s.


Most of the buildings in Beyer's painting are long gone, but enough remain to spur the imagination to conjure up what this sweet spot in the mountains must have been like in its heyday. Old postcards show the main building that still stands today.

This is what that stately old hotel looked like when Connie and I arrived. It's rather like an old suit: still dignified and proper, but a bit worn around the edges.


Sweet Springs functioned as a resort until the early twentieth century. In 1945 it was sold to the state of West Virginia and was first used as a tuberculosis sanatorium. Sometime later it was converted to the Andrew S. Rowan Memorial Home for the Aged, which is how I remember it. I was there many times with church choirs and 4-H groups, giving vocal concerts or caroling the halls during the holidays to cheer the old folks who called it home. When I was in college, I worked there during the summers, assisting the activities director with picnics, shopping trips, and playing many a card game with those who were able to help them pass the time.

My grandmother, who lived alone until she was in her early nineties, always said that if the day ever came when she could no
My grandmother,
Edith Baker Martin, in 1990.
longer live at home, she wanted to go to "the Old Sweet." And that is exactly what she did, sometime in the late 1980s. Her maiden name was Baker, and her father and grandfather had both worked there as bakers: one making breads and the other making cakes. She  most probably spent a good bit of time around the resort while she was growing up, so spending her final years there was, for her, a given. Unfortunately, around 1990, the old folks home was closed by the state and my grandmother spent her final months in another facility. And the resort? Well, it has been sitting there for almost thirty years, abandoned for the most part, and waiting for someone to restore its former glory.

Connie and I climbed the front steps to the massive porch, which spans the entire length of the building. Below the porch is an open breezeway, accessed by huge arches.




When we stepped inside the once-beautiful lobby, our hearts sank. The further we walked into the depths of the building, the more we were saddened by its current state of disrepair. The years of neglect have definitely taken their toll.

Lobby Fireplace

Lobby
This was an office during the days of Andrew S. Rowan Memorial Home for the Aged.
Another office.

The dining room during resort days.

The dining room now.

Inside the chapel.


The fairly modern kitchen for the old folks home was in a wing that was added, I'm guessing in the 1970s, maybe. Nevertheless, it's ghostly, and easy to imagine the sound of voices, running water, and the clatter of pots and pans.



Pantry

A beautiful door to walk-in refrigeration, one of three or four.
Along with the kitchen addition, a dormitory was built to house the elderly residents. Wandering these halls made my heart hurt as I thought of the days when they were filled with people, both those who needed care and those who gave it.



In the basement of the original building were remnants of the glory days.



This arched opening still had faded green construction paper shamrocks pinned to the temporary covering.
I'm guessing that at one time long ago, it must have been a place to get drinks and snacks.
As we wandered around, looking at all the peeling paint, water damage, broken windows, and dirt, Connie and I kept wondering aloud, "Where would you even begin to fix up this place?" It's so big, and literally every inch needs to be redone. It would take much more than a small fortune to even make a dent. From the outside, the Old Sweet still stands tall and stately, but on the inside, she's a lot more than worn around the edges. She's worn out.

Besides the main building, there were originally five brick cottages - more like houses - built in a row not far away. Only three remain now, and the middle one has been remodeled. What a breath of fresh air it was to see a tiny bit of the decaying resort saved from an ugly death! This remodeled middle cottage currently houses the office of Ashby Berkley, the man who has taken on the monumental task of restoring the Old Sweet. To read about his vision in detail, check out this excellent article in WV Living magazine: Springs Eternal.

The three remaining cottages; the one nearest the person has been remodeled.



The last thing we explored was the pool and bath house. It wasn't so very long ago that these were usable. Many of my friends and schoolmates who grew up in the area swam there as children and teens. Originally, the sweet spring pool and bath house looked like this:


And now it looks like this:


The corner towers have crumbled since I worked there in the early 1980s. I don't know when the pool was last used, but from the look of things, it's been decades.




The pool is basically square, and the surrounding bath house is (was) as well. These photos were taken of all four sides, from various angles inside the enclosure.









Although the water is green with islands of algae in the corners, the spring is still running constantly through the pool, as evidenced by this drain and the sound of rushing water.





Inside the bath house there are two dressing rooms (one for women and one for men) and more of the same ruin and decay.








As our tour of Old Sweet Springs came to an end, we were sad indeed to see it so neglected. The gloomy weather didn't help lift our spirits, but the prospect of restoration via the vision and effort of Ashby Berkley and a bevy of other dedicated folks is encouraging. I'm eager to see what they can accomplish!

Watch for the next stop on our tour: the Beirne Dransfield store...