By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Wearing a gown and hat that called to mind passengers from the Titanic and other scenes of the early 20th Century, Betty Goins of Bramwell pointed out yet another detail that told the story of the town’s people. The Carriage House’s owner insisted on having a real horse-drawn carriage, not one of those newfangled automobiles. She was sure those were a passing fad.
Goins and other town residents are welcoming visitors May 12 to the homes that once housed the millionaires of the southern West Virginia coalfields. While the town’s interesting architecture will speak for itself, Goins and other volunteers will speak for the people who brought the town to life.
Sitting down in a local shop, the Blue Moon, Goins recalled how the tours came into being. For her, Bramwell has always been home.
“My entire life,” she replied when asked how long she had lived in the town. “Native born. I graduated from Bramwell High School and married my high school sweetheart. I was a charter member of the Millionaire Garden Club. It was organized around 1982. Some of us felt that we needed to be more actively involved in beautifying the town; and so, some of us thought the best way to do this would be through a garden club and teach each other what we knew about gardening as well as bring in speakers to teach us about gardening and how we could beautify the town.”
As the idea took hold, the organizers decided to go beyond gardening.
“And we realized if we wanted to do any beautification projects in the community, we needed a fund to help our resources, and so we said since Pocahontas, Va., had been so much in the news about the celebration of their 100th anniversary, we thought maybe that’s an idea where we could possibly raise some funds,” Goins said.
The next step was deciding what this idea would be. Finally, the club’s members decided to offer tours of Bramwell’s unique homes.
“As the ladies were sitting around somebody’s living room talking about it, one lady said ‘well, who in the world would want to come and see our houses?’” Goins recalled. “No one will come. Who would want to see these houses?”
It turned out that plenty of people wanted to see the homes built by Bramwell’s coal millionaires. Now the tours are in their 29th year. The visitors helped the club’s members see their town’s homes with new eyes.
“You get used to seeing it. I think so,” Goins said. “You become complacent a bit about what you have around you, and looking through an outsider’s eyes sometimes is a little hard. They organized these homes tours and once they got one behind them, say said you know, let’s do them twice a year.”
The funds raised from the tours allowed the garden club to participate in projects throughout the Bramwell community.
“They purchased bleachers for the Little League in Cooper’s Field, so they were very actively involved in the community,” Goins stated.
Gradually, the time came to pass the tours on to new sponsors who would make sure the exhibitions continued.
“They tried to incorporate any beatification projects throughout the community. We just came down Brick Street, and all of those dogwood trees were planted by the garden club. So that continued for any number of years, I really can’t remember the exact number, maybe 20 years. And as the garden club ladies got older, they decided they didn’t want to do it any more. I personally heard a rumor that they were not going to do a spring tour.”
“I called the then president of the garden club and asked her was that rumor true, and she said yes, we’re just getting too elderly, we just can’t fool with it, and we’re all hoping you’ll do it. She said it with a little chuckle,” Goins said with a smile, “And I said, ‘yes, I’ll do it just to keep on the project. However, I didn’t want to do it for a personal reason. It’s a community event, and so I was also involved in the Bramwell Theater Corporation. I went to the theater corporation and asked them if they would be the sponsoring agent, and they agreed.”
The fact that Bramwell is such a small town means that any project or event started within its borders tends to touch most every resident. Many residents are participating in the upcoming tours.
“We’re a very small community, but we’re very close as a community,” Goins said. “Everything that we do affects everyone else, so what we tried to do in the garden club, and we try to continue this in the theater group, is include as many people in the community as we can in any activities that we are sponsoring. We have almost 50 people who will be working for the spring tour. All of them are community-minded volunteers such as the families who open up their homes — they are so generous to do that— and so we bring in volunteers to assist in the tours. It becomes a town project although the town doesn’t sponsor it. The Bramwell Theater Corporation sponsors it, but because we’re so small, every event affects everything else in the community.”
A mix of yearly visitors and newcomers converge on Bramwell when it is time for a home tour. For some, seeing so many stately homes in one community is a new experience.
“We have people who come every year regardless, and I jokingly tell them, ‘you can do the tour. I’ll just sit down here. You’ve been here so many times.’ Most people who come here are awestruck, particularly once they understand the history. They’ll drive into town and they’ll see the grand old houses that are here and not quite understand what they’ve touched upon; but if they’re lucky enough and we’re lucky enough to chat with them a little bit, and give them some background information, then they’re awestruck.”
After it was founded, Bramwell looked like a scene out of the Old West, Goins said. The main street had wooden sidewalks and horse hitches, and there was a dirt road. This image started to change on Jan. 7, 1910 when much of the town was destroyed by fire. The people who decided to stay, especially the millionaires, gradually built more and more elaborate homes.
Sometimes former residents come home during the tours and help add to the accounts of the town’s past.
“Learning the history of the community is so fascinating,” Goins said. “I’ve had an opportunity to talk to people visiting the town. They have these wonderful stories to tell. You learn a little bit more history from them coming in. For example, one lady came in and she was talking about one of the houses here, and she had actually lived in one of these houses. And it was interesting for me to learn, from her viewpoint, what it was like living here then, in her day. It’s just always a surprise when I see new people in town. I ask them where they’re from, why they’re here, and if they have a Bramwell connection.”
“What we try to do, we try to tell the stories as accurately as we can. Who would have ever thought a wheelbarrow would be put at the steps of the bank, filled with money, and pushed up the street to the train station? Who would have thought that? Who would have made that up? It actually happened. That’s how they made payroll. They put it on a train, put it on a special car — an armored car — and wind through the coalfields and make payroll for the day.”
Other stories speak of the money and influence the coal millionaires wielded.
“And then there’s the story of the wedding at one house. A train boxcar full of grapes arrive just to decorate the dining room,” Goins added.
The volunteers always work to make sure the stories they share with visitors are accurate, she said.
“We always want to put things on the positive. We’re talking about real people and that’s the story about Bramwell. It’s not necessarily the industry that surrounds this community, it’s about the people,” Goins emphasized. “The people who came here – many of them to have better lives. All of them experienced hardships and sadness, so we try to put everything in a positive view because these were real families, and our intent is to share the story of coal. The coal story is so great. It’s not about emissions, it’s about the people who came here to lived.”
The Annual Spring Tour of Historic Homes will be held on Saturday, May 12 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased the day of the tour at The Presbyterian Church in the middle of town. No reservations are necessary. For more information please call 304-248-8381 or 304-589-0246.