Eighty years ago today, Mason County, and certainly West Virginia, was mourning the loss of one of our most popular historians.
Olivia Nye Simpson-Poffenbarger was born on March 1st, 1862 in Pomeroy, Ohio to George Perry Simpson and Phoebe Almeda Kennedy. Not long after, the family moved to Point Pleasant. Her father was a notable lawyer, in both Ohio and West Virginia, and this inevitably impacted Livia’s career choices.
She definitely led what I would call an interesting life. In 1888, at the age of 26, she bought the struggling “State Gazette” which quickly became the main competitor to the “Weekly Register.” For the next 25 years, she served as the manager of that newspaper, and she wasted no time on anything. One story says that the brick masons went on strike during the construction of her office building, at which point she loaded a wheelbarrow and began laying the bricks herself. After selling the newspaper, she attained a degree in law from West Virginia University and studied under her father. This was her main occupation until her death.
However, she wasn’t all work and no play. Mrs. Poffenbarger was the founder and 1st Regent of the Col. Charles Lewis Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and campaigned for the creation of Tu-Endie-Wei State Park to commemorate the “First Battle of the American Revolution.” This was accomplished in 1901, and the monument was finished in 1909. She was also a member of the Ohio Archeological Society, author of multiple books on the history of Mason County, and involved in numerous charities. One of these was the Red Cross, and she led local recovery efforts after the 1913 flood.
After all of those activities, she also found time for politics. She was an active Republican, acting as an advisor for the 1912 National Convention and serving as an elector in 1924. She also led three Liberty Loan drives during WWI, which were so successful that organizations nationwide adopted her practices. After the Great War, she gave the keynote address at the unveiling of Charleston’s WWI monument. Among other things, she also chaired a committee road bonds and served as the State Director of the Suffrage Movement. Though, according to personal writings, she did not actively support a woman’s right to vote.
In 1894, she married Judge George Poffenbarger, of Point Pleasant. They later moved to Charleston and had two sons, both of which became lawyers like their parents. For a time, George Poffenbarger was on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
On October 27th, 1937, Livia Poffenbarger died of chronic kidney disease in Charleston, and her funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church. Among the honorary pallbearers listed in her obituary are three Governors of West Virginia, three State Supreme Court judges, and multiple legislators, mayors, historians, and newspaper editors. Also listed is another well-known local, C.C. Lewis. Gov. Holt described her as having a “dynamic personality” and “effective and convincing.”
I can certainly agree with former Gov. Holt in saying that Mrs. Poffenbarger was probably the most effective historian in West Virginia at that time. She successfully convinced Congress to pay $10,000 for a monument to the “First Battle of the Revolution,” even though every other historian in the country was arguing against her, and while I don’t agree with her history, I can’t deny everything else that she did for Mason County and the state of West Virginia.
In the near future, I’ll be doing an article on Poffenbarger’s main rival, Virgil Anson Lewis.
Information from the West Virginia State Archives.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.