Whether you agree with her version of history or not, the following story is one about perhaps the most influential woman to ever live in Mason County.
Olivia Nye Simpson was born on March 1st, 1862, the midst of the Civil War, to George Perry Simpson and Phoebe Almeda Kennedy of Pomeroy, Ohio. 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 her future career.
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. In 1894, she married George Poffenbarger, a successful lawyer who, for 22 years, sat on the West Virginia Supreme Court. It was after this marriage that she began to focus less on work and more on social and civic activities.
Her first undertaking, and perhaps her most successful, was the creation of Tu-Endie-Wei State Park. In 1901, she founded the Col. Charles Lewis Chapter of the D.A.R. and, with the support of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, campaigned to have the Battle of Point Pleasant recognized as the first battle of the Revolution. At first, she was less than successful, though her efforts convinced the state to protect the land and create a committee to oversee the creation of a monument. Four years later, due to the lobbying of Poffenbarger and Virgil Lewis, among others, the state set aside $5,000 for a monument. Three years after that, in 1908, Congress provided the final $10,000 needed to “erect a monument to commemorate the Battle of the Revolution fought at that point”, and in 1909, the Battle Monument was dedicated. It’s interesting to note, however, that there is no reference to the American Revolution on that monument.
Her next major project came about more by chance. 1913 was, of course, the year of our worst flood to date, and Livia led the Red Cross efforts in the aftermath. She’s credited with much of the activity that returned Mason County to normal. Returning to the national stage in 1914, she organized three Liberty Loan drives in West Virginia. These were so successful that other groups across the country followed her example. Following the end of the Great War, she gave the keynote at the WWI monument in Charleston and urged her fellow Daughters of the Revolution to unveil one in Pt. Pleasant, which currently sits in front of the county courthouse.
Besides the projects already mentioned, Poffenbarger also supported numerous charities, served as an elector at the 1924 Republican National Convention, chaired a state committee to improve public roads and pass a roads bond, and led West Virginia’s campaign for women’s suffrage. Though, according to her personal writings, she did not support the right of women to vote.
Late in life, she and her husband moved to Charleston, where he opened up a law practice with their two sons.
Livia Poffenbarger passed away on October 27th, 1937 of chronic kidney disease, and her services were held at the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston. 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 were two other well-known locals, Mr. C.C. Lewis and C.C. Lewis, Jr.
In a tribute paid to her by then Governor Holt, he wrote that she had a “dynamic personality” and stated outright that “perhaps no person contributed more to the appreciation of West Virginia history.” I don’t agree with Mrs. Poffenbarger’s interpretation of history, but Holt wasn’t wrong. She was what we could now call a public historian, someone who shuns academic history and works to bring history to the public through other means. Historians today are rapidly embracing this version of our profession, but Mrs. Poffenbarger did so over a century ago.
Information from the West Virginia State Archives.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be in May, with a date and location to be announced soon.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.