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Bramwell holiday tour focuses on town's rich history

BRAMWELL, W.Va. -- The Christmas season starts early when you have a 22,300-light outdoor display to set up and illuminate, and a three-story, antique-filled Victorian home to adorn with 24 decorated trees, assorted evergreen garlands and other festive holiday season trappings.

But Bramwell residents Robert Davis and Aaron Isbell, and Davis' daughters, Brooklyn and Raven, were up to the challenge.

"We started the last week of October and finished sometime after midnight last night," Isbell said on Wednesday.

Their 1903-vintage home, built by one of a number of millionaires who lived in this Mercer County town in the early 20th century, is among five residences to be featured in Saturday's Bramwell Christmas Tour of Homes, sponsored by the Bramwell Theater Corp.

Davis said he developed his enthusiasm for Christmas decorating while growing up in nearby Giles County, Va.

"I started this when I was a kid, doing my grandma's farmhouse, and now that I have a place of my own, I'm continuing it," he said.

The object of Davis and Isbell's Christmas decorating spirit is the home built by former state Sen. E.S. Baker, who came to Bramwell in 1895 to serve as principal of the town's new public grade school. Baker later became a cashier for, and officer of, the Bank of Bramwell, and earned his fortune through a series of shrewd investments in companies related to the coal and coke industries.

The Bakers' daughter, Mabel, became a lifelong friend of Mary Lee Eppling, the daughter of a Welch dentist, who went on to marry first Huntington Hartford II, the heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, and then actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The two friends, both buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in nearby Bluewell, "were close in both life and death," said Bramwell Mayor Louise Stoker.

Nestled in a narrow valley formed by a horseshoe bend of the Bluestone River, Bramwell, incorporated in 1888, soon became a tranquil residential haven for mine operators and owners doing business in the adjacent mineral-rich Pocahontas Coalfield.

Named after the town's first postmaster, Joseph H. Bramwell, the community flourished during the closing years of the 1800s and the opening decades of the 20th century. At that time, the Bank of Bramwell was the financial center for southern West Virginia, and 14 trains stopped daily at the town's Norfolk & Western depot.

The town became known for housing the nation's largest per capita population of millionaires. Some accounts hold that 12 to 14 millionaires lived in Bramwell at the same time. Stoker, a lifelong resident of the town, said her research indicates that 23 millionaires lived here during the span of two decades.

While the coal barons and captains of industry are long gone, thanks mainly to the Great Depression, many of their homes remain, and are well cared for. They remain a source of pride for the town of 364.

"The homes are beautiful, but the stories of the people who lived in them and around them are what makes this town special," said Stoker.

During the second Saturday in May, the town hosts its annual Spring Tour of Historic Bramwell Homes, followed on the second Saturday in December by its annual Christmas tour.

The Christmas tour, which starts at 5 p.m. on Saturday, is self-guided, but its route is marked with luminaries. Tickets for the event are available for $15 starting at 4 p.m. from the historic Bramwell Presbyterian Church, across the street from the Bank of Bramwell building, which will also be open during the Christmas tour.

Several historic downtown businesses will remain open beyond the 8:30 p.m. closing time for the tour, including the Bramwell Cafe, which offers buffet dinners with spaghetti and ham entrees, and the Corner Shop, where cinnamon rolls, chicken and dumplings and turkey stacks will be featured.

Last year's Christmas tour drew between 300 and 400 visitors.

"I suggest people come early, so they can find a parking place and look around and maybe shop a little before the tour begins," Stoker said. "This is a special time of the year, but we try to be warm and welcoming all year round."

For more information on the tour or the town, call Bramwell Town Hall at 304-248-7114.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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