“There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here or there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.” -Richard Moe, former President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
I love this quote because it sums up what I find myself having to explain at least once a week. It’s true that historic preservation was once all about old, important buildings. It was the stereotypical rich older people saving Mount Vernon, Monticello, and other American icons. The focus was purely on saving places important to our nation’s history. Nobody paid any attention to average homes and businesses, and definitely not farmhouses and barns.
That was then, before urban renewal wiped out downtowns in the 1950s and ‘60s. The complete loss of communities, severed by development projects and beltways, spawned the National Historic Preservation Act and the preservation movement that we know today. Small towns like Point Pleasant, farmhouses and barns and sheds, and industry are the history of America. Yes, Mount Vernon is a large part of our history, too, but what would Washington have been without the Continental Army? In the same way, what would America have been like without small towns like Point Pleasant? Without the farmers, and coal miners, and auto workers?
Our history, the history of our community, is the backbone of our nation’s history. It is why we are the way that we are. Have you ever wondered why communities in West Virginia are so strong and tight knit? Why we come together like no other town, county, or state to face tragedies and help our neighbors?
It’s in our blood. Think about the constant threat of Native American attack, the cholera and smallpox epidemics, the floods that nearly destroyed our towns time and time again, the fires that wiped out entire blocks, and tragedies like the Silver Bridge Collapse. Communities have to come together to survive that, and each time we rebuild and carry on. After a time, we no longer feel that pain. None of us remember the 1895 fire that destroyed a good chunk of downtown, but the buildings remember. Look closely, and you’ll notice that the buildings around Bordman Furniture are slightly different than their neighbors across the street. The plainness of some houses around the Marietta Shipyard tells of hardship during the Depression.
Our buildings tell us more about our history than most people realize, but it’s there if you know where to look. If we lose that physical reminder, we’re bound to forget where we came from and lose what makes our community special. Most of the country used to be like West Virginia, and you’ve seen the difference in the news today. For us, preservation is about keeping those things that make our community a home.
Many of you likely read in recent articles that the Mitchell-Nease-Hartley Building, formerly the Point Pleasant River Museum (building), was purchased at auction by Dr. Kyle McCausland. Kyle is a member of our Board of Directors, and he agreed to hold onto the building until our 501(c)(3) nonprofit paperwork is finished. We will then buy it back from him at cost, so that he doesn’t lose anything by helping us, and the building will be rehabilitated as the home of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.
The exact details still need ironed out, but a basic idea is coming together. Almost the entire building will be exhibit space, to display the full history of our community. The exceptions will be a fireproof vault for our archive on the first floor of the back addition, and a library and small office above that. Another potential option is the addition of a conference room, to provide space for meetings, workshops, and special lectures.
From this headquarters, we will continue to promote historic preservation and heritage tourism in Mason County and the surrounding region. We will continue to document, clean, and restore our cemeteries. We will always be open to researchers, genealogists, and anyone looking to learn. And of course, we will always be glad to work with Main Street, Tu-Endie-Wei, the River Museum, the Mothman Museum, and any other organization or business to help make our community stronger.
Now, this won’t all happen overnight. We are still a relatively new organization, and don’t have the resources to do this quickly. If all goes according to plan, the museum will be fully rehabilitated and ready for a grand opening by the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Point Pleasant in 2024. I’m confident, and colleagues across the National Park Service and the entire field of historic preservation with much more experience than me are confident, that we can hit that target.
In the meantime, we will continue to do what we can with the resources we have. Some losses can’t be prevented, like the recent Casto house fire and Langston School demolition. Some buildings are simply too far gone. Others can most certainly be prevented, and we will continue to fight for those and help owners find the resources to save their pieces of history.
(Editor’s note: As previously reported by the Register, the new home of the river museum is yet to be announced by Jack Fowler, executive director of the river museum, but he commented the new home of the newly built structure will be on Main Street in Point Pleasant.)
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.