I am not the first historian to try and preserve the history of our wonderful county. We have been blessed to have a historian in almost every generation, from the founding of our state to the present day.
Of course, the highest of praises goes to Virgil Anson Lewis. Lewis was born in West Columbia, and attended a local one-room school. Early in his life, he had to leave school to support his family, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the greatest historians known to our state. He began his career as a teacher and lawyer in Mason County, until 1890, when he organized the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society. He spent the next 15 years as editor of the Southern Historical Magazine and State Superintendent of Schools. Then, in 1905, he was appointed to be the first director of the Bureau of Archives and History, essentially the first State Historian. This was a fitting final chapter for the most renowned historian to grace the halls of our capitol.
Only one other local author reached the national prominence of Virgil Lewis. Her name was Livia Simpson-Poffenbarger. Early in her career, she saved Point Pleasant’s State Gazette from failure and operated as the editor for 25 years. In 1913, she directed the flood relief efforts of our local Red Cross chapter, of which she was the founder. She also founded the Col. Charles Lewis Chapter of the DAR, and led the efforts to commemorate the Battle of Point Pleasant. The direct result of her work was the creation of Tu-Endie-Wei State Park and the Battle Monument. Poffenbarger was also a major political activist, chairing the state movement for women’s suffrage and organizing three Liberty Loan drives during WWI which influenced later drives across the entire nation.
Next came Anna Lederer, an educator in the Bend Area. Near the end of her life, she wrote “The 19th Century Coal and Salt Drama of the Pomeroy Bend.” It is important to stress that without this book, we would not have a written history for the Bend Area. This was the first book written specifically about Mason County’s side of the Bend, and it has been the basis for nearly all historical research on the region since the 1940s.
Finally, there came a time when history was truly important to the nation. During the National Bicentennial, every town across this country was seeking its place in the national story. In our area, there are two particular names that stand out: Mildred Chapman Gibbs and Harold L. Bumgarner. Mildred was an educator, following in the footsteps of Anna Lederer. Her name can be found in numerous books, including the “History of Mason County” (1987) and each of the books on the Bend Area. Harold, a WWII veteran and a prolific artist, set his talents to work by supplying historical maps for the book on New Haven. He also painted many local homes and historic structures, and many of his paintings are passed down by families. More important was his work throughout the community, where he was an active trustee of the Union Campground Association among other things.
To say that these historians have served as role models for my career is a major understatement. Every historian, and every person, should aspire to be as precise as Virgil Lewis, as passionate as Livia Poffenbarger, and as invested in the community as Lederer, Gibbs, and Bumgarner. Those are the traits that give strength to speeches and gather support from the community. Without them, a historian has little chance at success.
Now, there is one local historian who I have yet to mention. Out of respect for her, I won’t mention her name. However, I can’t write an article on local historians without at least mentioning how thankful I am for her support and guidance. It is one thing to write about history, but she encouraged me to get out, find it, and ensure that it is preserved for future generations.
Chris Rizer directs the Mason County Historic Preservation Society which can be found on Facebook.