Perhaps the most distinguished historian to ever grace the halls of West Virginia’s State Capitol, Virgil Anson Lewis came from humble beginnings. He was born on July 6, 1848, in a small log cabin near what is commonly called Gibbstown to George Washington Lewis Jr. and Lucy Edwards. He was the first of five children, the others being Rinaldo, Delilah, Riley, and Cassandra.
From his earliest days, Virgil had a love of learning. He attended school near his home, likely a class taught by a traveling teacher, until the third grade. That year, his father died, leaving 12-year-old Virgil as the eldest son and now the man of the house. To support his mother and siblings, he went to work on a farm. Quickly realizing that it wasn’t the job for him, he went to work in West Columbia as a druggist’s assistant. This was most likely Dr. A.L. Knight. He later worked as a printer’s assistant at the “West Virginia Monitor,” a newspaper in West Columbia, and as a shipping clerk in Clifton.
Beginning in 1865, seven years after the death of his father, Virgil went back to school, attending Locust Grove School through 1867. According to his daughters, it was during this time that Virgil learned to love history from a Civil War veteran. One of his classmates at Locust Grove was future congressman Charles E. Hogg. Incidentally, this school was built on the land of Virgil’s uncle, Thomas Lewis.
In 1867, Virgil sought a higher education, but finding none nearby, turned to teaching. He taught locally for a number of years, but eventually, moved to Buffalo, where he served as principal of Buffalo Academy in 1878-79. That same year, he began studying law, and was soon admitted to the West Virginia Bar Association. While living in Buffalo, he studied under Judge James Hoge of Winfield.
Dissatisfied with law, he returned to Mason County and resumed teaching. From approx. 1880 to 1892, he served in multiple educational positions at Mason City and Hartford. He began as a teacher, rose to become principal, and served on the Board of Education. During this time, he met Elizabeth Stone, another teacher in Mason. They quickly hit it off and were married on Oct. 31, 1886. She would become one of his greatest supporters and assistants when it came to his numerous publications.
While working as a teacher, he also served as the mayor of Mason from 1891-92 and organized the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society, the predecessor to the West Virginia State Archives.
In 1892, he was approached by the Democratic party to run for State Superintendent of Schools. He was nominated at the convention in Parkersburg, and the party said of Mr. Lewis, “As a writer and scholar, he is the peer of any man in the state, and as a historian, he has a national reputation. In addition, he is a practical teachers of many years experience, and no one in the state is more familiar with our education system than he. He will be triumphantly elected.” This held true, as he won the election by 4,000 votes. He served in this position until 1897.
While in office, he stayed active in Mason County. In 1893, he and his wife purchased a house in Mason, which was recently demolished. That same year, he was also awarded with an honorary Master of Arts degree from WVU in history. In 1896, he helped organize Union College at Mason. While short-lived, the college served as a training school for local teachers. In 1899, it was moved to Ravenswood with Virgil Lewis retained as president.
After his term as State Superintendent was over, he returned to writing and teaching in Mason County until 1905. It was then that he became the first State Historian and Archivist under Gov. William Dawson. Surely, it is Virgil Anson Lewis that we must thank for the modern West Virginia State Archives. He served in this position until his death in 1912, constantly working to improve the collection.
Lewis died at his home in Mason on Dec. 5, 1912, and his funeral was held at the Methodist Church in the same town. All of the fraternal organizations to which he belonged, along with many state officials, took part in the funeral. Mildred Gibbs wrote, “The crowd was so great that most of them were standing on the outside, due to a lack of seating room.” He was laid to rest at Lone Oak Cemetery in Point Pleasant, with a headstone that seems to mimic the Battle Monument at Tu-Endie-Wei.
Information from Lewis’ own writings, that of his daughters, the West Virginia Encyclopedia, the West Virginia School Journal, the Congressional Biography of Charles E. Hogg, and Mildred Gibbs’ “History of Mason City, WV.”
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Wednesday, Dec. 20, at the Mason County Public Library at 6:30 p.m.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.