The City of Beckley has been — officially — presented with a rock.
At the regular meeting of Beckley Common Council Tuesday evening, Councilman Tom Sopher (Ward I) told fellow council members that the small boulder, called Ferguson's rock, is an engraved stone that pre-dates the founding of the city and points to early civilization in what is now Beckley.
"Early in my historical career, there's been this talk of Ferguson's rock," said Sopher, who has served as president of the Beckley Raleigh County Historical Society for the past decade. "It's a 500-pound rock. It's on Bero Street, and it's in the back of this yard."
As of Wednesday, the rock was fixed in the yard of Amy Kirk and James Bay at 112 Bero Ave. Sopher said Bay and Kirk have officially transferred custody of the rock to the city.
It will be moved to a new location at a future date, Sopher reported.
Although the past "migration" of the rock around Beckley is easy to trace, the engraving on its surface remains a mystery, leading local historians to two different theories on Ferguson's rock, Sopher said.
Ferguson's rock plopped into modern local lore when sewer plant workers were building at the current Piney Creek plant in 1988, Sopher said. They found a small boulder in their construction path at Piney Creek. Curiously, an unknown writer had whittled into the rock, "S. Ferguson, F. County 1814."
The "4" had been engraved backward.
The stone was nearly obscured in Piney Creek forever: Workers had planned to shove it into a convenient hole and to continue with their building, but Beckley Sanitary Board worker Ray Sutphin halted the strategy.
Fascinated by the engraved stone, Sutphin instead convinced plant workers to haul the heavy monument to the mysterious Ferguson to Sutphin's yard at 112 Bero Ave.
So began the legend of Ferguson's rock in Beckley.
Some believe that Ferguson was an "old pioneer" who was travelling from Virginia to the Kanawha Valley to "seek his fortune" in 1814. In this historical saga, Ferguson, age 35, was traversing the Piney Creek ford late in the evening when he stopped in midstream for his horse to drink.
"At the (future) treatment plant, when he was coming across, his horse got spooked," Sopher told council members and Mayor Rob Rappold. "He (Ferguson) broke his leg."
Stuck in the middle of the creek bed and surrounded by the Piney Creek wilderness, as the story goes, Ferguson helplessly watched his horse run.
"While he was in the middle of the creek, he gets his knife and scratches his tombstone," Sopher retold. "Later on, the horse runs back to Franklin County, Va.
"His family comes back and finds him dead at the creek. They bury him without a coffin."
The pioneer tradition holds that railroad workers on the Chesapeake and Ohio branch line moved the stone when they were building the railway from Prince to Raleigh in 1899. Forty years later in 1939, one of the rail workers, Anderson Warden, was working for Northeastern Construction Company to "move some dirt and rock at the sewage plant" when he came across the strange engroved stone again.
His fellow workers told him they'd located Ferguson's grave site while working earlier in the fall and that a Civil War nurse had marked it.
As this story is told, Warden moved the stone to the foot of Ferguson's grave on Nov. 11, 1939. He had to use the foot because the head "Is under the highway that separates two units of the sewage system," according to the "pioneer" theory.
At least one Raleigh County historian found the first oral history of Ferguson's rock to be far-fetched. He believed the stylishly carved stone symbolizes a business venture instead of a death.
The late local historian Jim Wood believed that Ferguson was a fur trapper who was dealing in the area. Ferguson likely used the stone to mark his camp, according to Wood.
Many places in Raleigh County earned their names during the fur-trapping era from 1750 to 1830, including Little Beaver and Big Beaver creeks, Trap Hill and possibly Surveyor, Wood said, and it was more likely that S. Ferguson was a member of the noted Ferguson fur-trapping family of Franklin County, Va.
"That makes more sense to me," Sopher agreed. "In the meantime, there's this rock sitting in the middle of this guy's backyard."
Since Sutphin, the house has passed ownership at least twice.
Kirk said Wednesday that when she and Bay first looked at 112 Bero Ave., they didn't notice the large rock immediately. When they purchased their home, they learned of Ferguson's rock during the buying process.
"The real estate lady or the people who owned it kind of let me know, this rock sits on your property. You can't move the rock or try to do anything to the rock," Kirk said. "I never questioned it.
"I just said, 'That's kind of neat.' I took it in stride. 'This doesn't belong to you. It just sits there.'
"I was like, 'OK. If you want to leave that giant rock there, it doesn't bother me.'"
After she'd bought the house, she and Bay went out to look at the rock, noting that some of the writing was backward. Later, the couple heard the story of Ferguson falling from his horse.
Kirk said a Google search turned up nothing more about the rock, and calls to the city turned up no date of when the rock had been moved from Piney Creek to her future front yard.
Kirk said an occasional passer-by stops to gaze at the stone. One man returned several times to her yard to look at Ferguson's rock. Once, he wondered aloud why a shrub near the stone wasn't better trimmed, said Kirk, 35, who is a mom with a full-time job.
When Sopher and other historians expressed a recent interest in moving the stone out of her yard, Kirk said she was happy to give permission.
"The people talking about it are very excited," she said. "They can put it on display somewhere, and it would be really nice there, rather than — you know — my front yard."
At Council on Tuesday, Sopher said Kirk and Bay had been given a certificate of appreciation for donating the rock.
"In my 18-plus years on city council, I have never known the city to take a rock," Councilman-at-large Tim Berry noted at one point in the discussion.
Beckley Board of Public Works Chairman Robert Robinson will be claiming the rock for the city soon, said Sopher.
"So we will have this rock," Sopher told council. "Now, where are we going to place it?"
Councilman Kevin Price jokingly suggested putting it at "the Hole," a burned-down lot on Neville and South Heber streets where the city has future plans to erect a yet-unidentified iconic sculpture to represent Beckley.
"Your yard," Berry quipped to Sopher.
At least for a little while, Ferguson's rock will be at Piney Gorge, closer to where it sat in 1814, years before Alfred Beckley's arrival in the 1830s.
Sopher said that until a committee is formed to find a permanent resting spot, Ferguson's rock will be on the trail going toward the Beckley mill ruin, a National Register of Historic Places site in the gorge where Piney Creek flows.
"It's worthy of a state cultural center sign," Sopher continued. "Think about it. 1814. This was before Alfred Beckley got here.
"This shows there was civilization," he said. "There were roads cutting through the place. It's probably our oldest piece of history available. Now it's going to be in the city's hands."
To Sopher the historian, Ferguson's rock is a local treasure — a founding rock, much like another rock in American history.
"You look at Plymouth Rock," Sopher told council. "It's not a very big rock. This rock is probably as big, or bigger, than Plymouth Rock."