By Mannix Porterfield
Under a canopy of a blue sky punctuated with an occasional cloud, and long-awaited warmer temperature, Beckleyans turned out Sunday to honor the city’s founding in 1838 by Alfred Beckley.
Townspeople sat on folding chairs and enjoyed picnic fare after taking a tour of Wildwood, the home that bears the founder’s name.
“This is a hidden jewel, if you will,” Beckley’s current mayor, Emmett Pugh, told the audience at the outdoor gathering.
Before diving into remarks about the historic structure, Pugh took notice of Memorial Day to applaud the men and women who have served in the military.
“We reflect on those who have given their lives, their service, for our country, and reflecting on members of family and friends we have come to know who impacted our lives,” Pugh said.
Pugh acknowledged that his personal sense of history wasn’t all that sharp in his younger days.
Some years back, he quipped, a friend told him he never met a building that he didn’t think would make a great parking lot.
“Back then, you’re young, you don’t have that sense of history,” the mayor said. “You’re worried about trying to expand businesses and provide services to the city — police, fire and public works.”
Working with the Ralsten family, he noted, the city managed to acquire Wildwood and turn it into a historic site for generations to come, partnering with the Raleigh County Historical Society and the Piney Creek Watershed Association.
“So, we’re in this for the long haul,” Pugh said. “It’s just a great historical piece that really just attracts your attention, holds your interest. This property grounds us as a city and as citizens of this community back to our past.”
After a tour of the structure, attendees walked across South Kanawha Street for a wreath-laying ceremony by the American Legion honor guard at Alfred Beckley’s gravesite.
Among those at the function were Gerald Godfrey of Shady Spring, a member of West Virginia Re-Enactors, and his 5-year-old grandson, Jeremiah.
Godfrey wore a business suit of the period, and could have passed himself off as Beckley himself — same height, 5-foot-10, fair-complexioned, and blue eyes. The only discernible difference is that Godfrey effects a mustache.
He isn’t related to the city’s founder but, reflecting on his 19th-century suit, said, “I look like any gentleman would have done in that period, not a soldier, or a farmer.”
His grandson was taken with the home’s history, saying, “It’s amazing.”
Inside a log cabin, not a part of the original estate, longtime Beckley historian David Sibray pointed out that the Beckley historical holdings don’t end on South Kanawha Street.
Instead, Sibray said, a move is afoot to restore an old grist mill about two miles away on Piney Creek, working in tandem with the watershed association.
“The grist mill bears witness to Alfred Beckley’s struggle to establish the town of ‘Beckleyville,’” he said.
“And this house bears witness to his success. Beckley knew he was going to have to have a mill to run this town. If people were going to move here at all in this wilderness, they were going to have to have a reliable way to grind grain. So, he established the mill in Piney Creek.”
Sibray said the U.S. Park Service and the state would be asked to come in and offer recommendations for restoring the mill.
“We don’t even know what it looked like,” Sibray said, noting that only the foundation has survived all these years. “There is no record. We just know the Beckleys had it.”