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Hall past: Fascinating history in Wood County

WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. -- It is said that when Jock Henderson died in 1942, the family called the plumber before calling the coroner.

The stately Henderson Hall had no indoor bathrooms. The patriarch of the family didn't approve of such modern conveniences.

Open for daily tours, the Wood County mansion is a fascinating place to visit -- and revisit.

From the basement to the attic, Henderson Hall overflows with rusty castoffs and priceless antiques. Apparently five generations of Hendersons never threw anything away.

"It's an incredible treasure," said Dave McKain, a childhood friend of the last family member to live in the house. Michael Rolston died five years ago, leaving the estate to the West Virginia Oil and Gas Museum, of which McKain is executive director.

"We're still finding things," said McKain, who oversaw the inventory and appraisal of thousands of household items. "What you didn't see is a whole room of clothes dating back to the 1830s."

Even more important, he believes, is the Henderson family's role in West Virginia history and the personal relationships they had with historical figures.

"George Washington and Alexander Henderson were personal friends. George Washington attended Alexander Henderson's wedding," McKain said.

And it's likely that Washington recommended Henderson purchase land along the Ohio River. Henderson bought several properties along the river in the 1780s, about a decade after Washington traveled down the Ohio to view his extensive holdings.

In 1798, two of Henderson's sons, Alexander Jr. and John, left their home in Dumfries, Va., and settled in the Ohio Valley, first in Burning Springs, in what is now Wirt County. The land grant -- signed by Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry -- giving the Hendersons property in western Virginia is framed and hanging in the study of the house.

About the same time, Harmon Blennerhassett built his grand mansion on an island in the middle of the Ohio River. He visited Alexander and John Henderson and tried to persuade them to join him and former Vice President Aaron Burr to build an empire west of the Ohio River.

Alarmed, the Hendersons alerted the head of the regional militia and informed their father, who in turn notified his friends, President Thomas Jefferson and Vice President James Madison, about the conspiracy. On Jefferson's order, Burr was arrested and charged with treason. The brothers were called as witnesses in Burr's trial. Among the volumes of documents preserved at Henderson Hall are the handwritten notes they made in preparing for the 1806 trial. (Burr was acquitted.)

Two decades later, a grandson of Alexander Henderson Sr., G.W. Henderson, married 16-year-old Elizabeth Tomlinson, whose family had used tomahawks in 1771 to mark their claim to land that is now Williamstown.

"They were the original pioneers of the Ohio Valley," McKain said of the Tomlinsons. "It was absolute wilderness then."

He suggested the estate should be called Henderson-Tomlinson Hall because the marriage was a merger of land that created a 2,600-acre plantation on the eastern banks of the Ohio River.

G.W. Henderson played a part in the formation of West Virginia 150 years ago. He attended the first Wheeling Convention in 1861 and served in the reformed Virginia Legislature. Although he supported the Union, he owned 30 slaves and once had sued an abolitionist in nearby Marietta, Ohio, for helping slaves escape.

In 1859, G.W. Henderson built an imposing addition to the small brick house that dates to 1836. Skilled craftsmen, probably from Marietta, built the Italianate brick mansion topped with a white cupola.

All the rooms contain original furnishings that span 200 years of the Henderson and Tomlinson families. The oldest pieces are two decorative plates hanging in the dining room. They were made in China in 1750. The last acquisition may have been the black dial telephone that sits on a table outside the only bathroom, installed in the middle of the 20th century.

There are grandfather clocks dating to the early 1800s, an 1820 walnut bookcase made in Marietta, a 1775 mirror and stand used by Alexander Henderson and the traveling writing table G.W. Henderson took with him to Wheeling in 1861.

Later 19th-century pieces include an 1873 square grand piano, an 1890s symphonia (which still plays the perforated tin disc) and jousting poles from the 1870s when there were teams in Williamstown and Marietta.

In the study, which was used as a family room, is a long bench on rockers called a mammy's bench. A baby doll is lying on one end, protected from falling off by a side rail, to illustrate how a baby sitter could sit and rock on the other end.

The 12-foot-long dining room table is set with the family's white, gold-trimmed china. McKain wanted to use the original silverware but couldn't find it. Eventually, he uncovered hundreds of pieces in a plastic bag in the attic, where Rolston had stored it. He also rescued a piece dating to 1795 that Rolston had used to stir paint.

Unused or broken household goods were relegated to a 30-foot-long room on the third floor. Stored there are at least five bed frames, chairs, an antique typewriter, wall maps dating to 1848, a spinning wheel, trunks and much more.

Likewise, the basement is filled with mainly rusted kitchen implements, such as a butter churn, cheese press, book press, cottage cheese maker, link sausage press, corn husk huller, egg/chicken brooder, milk cans and bottles and crockery.

McKain believes the Hendersons kept their possessions because they had the space and also because they sensed their legacy as pioneers in the Ohio Valley.

The first schoolhouse in West Virginia was built at Henderson Hall in 1836 and is still open to visit on the tour.

Henderson Hall entertained such guests as Stephen Foster (a relative), John James Audubon and Johnny Appleseed. Some of the nation's premier trotting horses were bred in its stables. In 1900, one of the largest oilfields in the country was discovered there.

By the turn of the 20th century, Rosalie Henderson began to preserve the estate's paperwork and possessions. She stayed at home to care for her father, Jock, who forbade her from marrying her longtime boyfriend, and to help raise her nephew. His mother, Lorna, left for Hollywood to pursue an acting career like cousin Marjorie Main (born Marjorie Tomlinson), a silent-film actress who later played Ma Kettle in the "Ma and Pa Kettle" movie series.

And in what could be the last chapter in a Southern gothic novel, Lorna ended up living her final years as an invalid in Henderson Hall, which was also deteriorating.

On her death, Rolston, the great-great-grandson of G.W. Henderson, gave up his career as a graphic designer in New York and devoted the next 20 years to restoring the mansion.

The restoration he started is still in progress. Through grants, fundraisers, admission fees and other support, McKain has been able to have the roof replaced and the soffits repaired and repainted.

"We're working on the shutters," he said. Some shutters are missing or hanging askew. A glass pane is out in an upstairs window.

Inside, cracks traverse the ceilings of some rooms; wallpaper is peeling in others.

On McKain's to-do list are repairing, cleaning and organizing the clothing collection.

It's an expensive, never-ending endeavor, but one that is a treasure chest to historians. Henderson Hall is unique, McKain said, because the property stayed in the same family, who saved its possessions and documents.

"It's all there and all in one place," he said.

Want to go?

WHAT: Henderson Hall Plantation

HOURS: 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. daily

WHERE: 517 River Road, Williamstown, off W.Va. 14, seven miles north of Parkersburg and two miles south of Marietta, Ohio

ADMISSION: Adults, $5; groups and private tours by appointment

CONTACT: 304-375-2129

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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