Tour the rich history of the “Home of Millionaires”April 25, 2016
Drop into the small town of Bramwell, and you’ll probably get the impression it’s a community with a rich history. But few people realize just how deep this history goes.
Nestled among the steep hills and the scenic Bluestone River are brick-lined streets, beautifully manicured landscaping and historic buildings. And at one time, this was the undisputed financial and cultural center of a mining boom.
Dozens of towns across Southern West Virginia sat atop the Pocahontas Coal Seam, the single largest deposit of bituminous coal in the world. Hundreds of thousands of miners tunneled into the rich mountain earth.
Bramwell has been called the “Home of Millionaires.” Mine owners, managers and financiers lived here, kept their money here and entertained their guests here. At the turn of the century, the small town claimed 17 millionaires, the highest per capita population of rich folks in the nation at the time. 14 trains a day stopped here along the Norfolk and Western railway line. Legend has it that a janitor even hauled bags of money by wheelbarrow from the train depot to Bramwell bank, which controlled finances in southern West Virginia and even issued the largest liberty bond in the nation during WWI.
Compared to the rigors of the coal fields surrounding it, the luxury and comfort of this town was astounding. As visitors drive into its quaint historic district, they still get a sense of the power and culture that Bramwell once had.
Perhaps nothing in the town better exemplifies its stateliness than its dozens of beautifully preserved turn-of-the-century mansions, which have put the town on the National Historic Register.
Pack, Perry, Cooper, Hewitt, Mann– all these houses retain the names of the original coal barons who built them. Their architecture even today exudes dignified luxury– Victorian or Tudor styles established European-styled culture in the Appalachian hollows, while towers, turrets and huge front facades clearly advertised their owners’ power and mastery over the coal seams beneath them.
They’re all unique, each with their own lavish eccentricities. They’ve got all the stained glass, crystal chandeliers and grand staircases you would expect of Victorian-era mansions. Some also go further, with copper roofs, 3rd-floor ballrooms, miniature mansion playhouses for the kids, even leather walls!
Contrary to our assumptions about the quaint simplicity of the past, these mansions were also on the cutting edge of technology back at the turn of the century. Some of them even had indoor swimming pools, central vacuum systems, dumbwaiters and electric elevators.
Twice a year, in December and June, the town of Bramwell has a special tour of these homes.
The idea of a historic house tour began in 1983, when the “Millionaire Garden Club,” a local civic women’s organization, was brainstorming new fundraising ideas. Betty Goins, the current organizer of the home tour, said that many of these high society ladies of the 1980s were sceptical about the idea of a tour, asking themselves, “Who in the world would want to come look at our houses?”
As it turns out, thousands of people have been interested in the home tour over the years, and these days a single tour can attract about 300 people– doubling the size of the town for a day!
This summer’s tour is Saturday, June 4. Visitors will show up that morning at the Bramwell Presbyterian Church, get their tickets ($15 per adult, children under 12 are free) and take in an interpretive presentation there.
From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. the homes of Bramwell will be open, and you can walk about on a self-guided tour at your own pace.
A couple of the Bramwell mansions– the Hewitt House and the Perry House– are now Bed & Breakfasts. But the rest are private residences, including 2 that are still in the families of their original early-1900s owners. So you will be stepping into these homes as guests, a very special privilege.
As you explore these lavish homes, guides dressed in historical costume will share their histories with you, and musicians will serenade you with different types of Appalachian music from the era.
The homes are not the only historic structures in town, though. After a devastating fire in 1910, Bramwell’s entire downtown was rebuilt, and most of its stately buildings still stand in their original form.
This year, the tour will also stop at the local Masonic Temple, which was built by the town’s millionaire class. The much-loved Bramwell “Corner Shop” pharmacy will also be open. Stop in and get a soda from their original 1910 marble soda fountain bar.
If you have not gotten your fill of classic coal country history after all of this, stop by the restored Bramwell railroad depot, which is the interpretive center and museum for West Virginia’s Coal Heritage Trail, a National Coal Heritage area. You’ll be able to see pictures and artifacts from the lives of the barons whose mansions you just visited, as well as the less glamorous lives of the workers who dug the coal that gave the barons their fantastic wealth.
Bramwell should be a mandatory stop if you’re looking for the full Coal Heritage Trail experience in Southern West Virginia, especially for the stark contrast it has with stops like the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley. There is no better time to walk about and take in the beauty and culture of an earlier era than during the June tour of homes, when the lawns are green, the shrubberies blooming and the sun shining down into the Bluestone River Valley.
Don’t miss this very special visit to the “Home of Millionaires!”