By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Southern West Virginia is home to some amazing firsts and record-holders, such as the first municipally owned parking garage, the largest alluvial diamond found to date and one of the oldest churches this side of the Allegheny Mountains.
The 150-year history of the state and other records found in the West Virginia Division of Culture’s archives might surprise many. As West Virginia was established as the result of a war, it should come as no surprise that many firsts in the region involve veterans. World War I was particularly remembered throughout the region, especially since the state’s oldest Veterans Day parade was established in Welch in 1919.
The city of Welch also dedicated the country’s first World War I memorial on May 30, 1923. The memorial has since burned down but the lot where it once stood by the county courthouse is still marked with a placard.
Not to be outdone, the first memorial to African-American soldiers who fought in World War I was established in Kimball in 1928 and became home to the first American Legion Post for African-American veterans as well. The historic building now serves as the war memorial for the entire county.
African-American residents in southern West Virginia have set their fair share of records. In 1896, Christopher Harrison Payne became the first African-American to serve in the West Virginia Legislature. Payne was born in what is now Monroe County in 1845 to free black parents.
A veteran of both the Civil War and Spanish-American War, Payne became one of the first black lawyers admitted to the West Virginia bar in 1889 and was one of the first black teachers in the state. He also helped establish the West Virginia Colored Institute — now known as West Virginia State University — and his loyalty to the Republican Party prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to appoint him as consul general to the Danish West Indies in 1903.
In 1968, Welch-based attorney Leon P. Miller became the first African-American judge elected to office in the state.
Women have also made history in southern West Virginia. In 1928, Minnie Buckingham Harper of Keystone became the first African-American woman to serve as a member of a legislative body in the U.S. when she was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Another famed West Virginia woman was Ann Royall, a native of Maryland who moved to Sweet Springs in Monroe County at the age of 16 as an indentured servant. By many accounts, Royall was the first widely recognized female journalist in America and championed pensions for widows of veterans, particularly in her West Virginia-based newspaper “Paul Pry.” Royall is widely considered to have established the standard for how newspaper columns are still written in modern editorial pages.
In 1952, Elizabeth Kee became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress from West Virginia. Born as Maude Elizabeth Simpkins, the Bluefield-based politician served as secretary to her husband and Bluefield-based lawyer U.S. Rep. John Kee from 1932 until his death in 1951. Elizabeth Kee served out the rest of her husband’s term and then was re-elected six times, finally retiring from the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964.
Southern West Virginia hasn’t been a stranger to opulence in the past. The first bank in Mercer County was established in Princeton in 1851 as the Princeton Savings Bank, one of the first buildings in the city. During the Civil War, the bank was one of few between Bristol, Tenn. and Charleston, making it rather wealthy.
When it was incorporated in 1889, the town of Bramwell boasted the most millionaires per capita of any town in the U.S. thanks to the coal barons who occupied the area during the height of mining in the Pocahontas coalfields.
The wealth of the coal barons was not just reserved to Bramwell. It helped build many neighboring towns, like the city of Bluefield. This wealth possibly lead to the first automobile being driven in Bluefield in 1907 as well as the construction of the West Virginia Hotel. Now known as West Virginia Manor, the hotel was constructed in downtown Bluefield in 1923 and at 12 stories was the tallest building in the state when it was completed.
The largest alluvial diamond found in the U.S. to date was discovered in Peterstown in 1928 by William P. “Punch” Jones and his father Grover C. Jones, Sr. during a friendly match of horseshoes. The diamond weighed 24.48 carats, the largest ever found in America.
Other notable records from the region include:
• The first Mercer County resident: Mitchell Clay and his family settled in the area that is now the Lake Bottom area in 1775. However, eight years later Indians attacked the Clay homestead, killing two of the family’s children and capturing another.
• Oldest church west of the Alleghenies: The Rehoboth Church in Monroe County was dedicated in 1786 by Bishop Francis Asbury. To discourage Indians from raiding worship services, the first parishioners brought rifles along with the Bible to Sunday meetings.
• The first post office in Mercer County: The first post office in Mercer County was established in what is now Princeton in 1838 and served residents from across southern West Virginia.
• The first 4-H Club: The first “Corn Club” was established in Pickaway in 1908 when groups of school children tested seeds and held a corn show in 1908, sponsored by the local school superintendent and WVU Extension Office. The “Corn Club” was the precursor to what is now known as the “4-H Club.”
• The first federal women’s correctional center: The first tenants of the country’s first federal criminal institution for women arrived in 1927 though the doors to the facility in Alderson didn’t open officially until 1928.
• The first municipally owned parking garage: Dedicated as part of Labor Day celebrations in 1941, the first municipally owned parking garage in the country was built and opened in Welch. The city renovated the parking garage in 2005, but a fire in a nearby building prompted the demolition of the garage in 2012.
• The first messenger in the Spanish-American War: A native of Gap Mills in Monroe County, Andrew S. Rowan was detailed as a U.S. Army lieutenant to deliver a “message to Garcia” in Cuba just prior to the Spanish-American War in 1898. He succeeded in a perilous journey to find the Cuban insurgent and provide him with a message from U.S. President William McKinley. Rowan’s exploits were made famous in a tribute published the next year and were turned into a movie in 1936 titled “A Message to Garcia.”
— Contact Kate Coil at email@example.com