“Antiquity! I like its ruins better than its reconstructions.” -French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert.
Personally, I enjoy ruins! Some people see them as dangerous accidents waiting to happen or unpleasant scars on the landscape. I see honesty, as nothing about a burned-out ruin is fake or contrived like some house museums. I see mystery, awaiting some curious soul, and I see history, a story waiting to be told. There’s just something about ruins that captures the imagination.
Artists and photographers are drawn to them, as in Thomas Cole’s “Romantic Landscape with a Ruined Tower,” J.M.W. Turner’s “Modern Rome,” or the ruin photography of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They show us that ruins have value, that they can be aesthetically pleasing.
Hikers who come across them in the woods inevitably pause and wonder. What was this place? Who built it? What happened here that turned it into a ruin? With questions like that, the imagination can run wild! Perhaps it was a frontier homestead, and the likes of Ann Bailey once told stories in front of the fireplace. Perhaps it was a plantation, with all of its untold human suffering. Perhaps it was an industrial site, where Americans scratched a living from the earth.
As a matter of fact, we have all three right here in Mason County. Some stand proudly overlooking our towns and valleys, like an American Parthenon. Several hide in plain sight, unrecognized for what they truly are. Others stand forlorn and forgotten, far back in the woods and hollers where only the most diligent hikers and hunters see them.
Ruins of frontier cabins and early homesteads dot the landscape, if you’re looking for the right clues. No logs or piles of bricks mark these sites, not even sandstone foundation stones in many cases. Sometimes you get lucky, and the large cut stones are still there, but more often than not, they’ve been buried by time or hauled off. Yet, traces remain. Typically located on rises overlooking waterways or old roads, odd clearings remain free of trees or dense growth. This by itself could be a dozen different possibilities, but one factor almost always gives it away.
Daylilies and Easter lilies are sure signs of a past home. Brought to America around 1790, which is right around the time Mason County was permanently settled, lilies were found in practically every garden for the next hundred years. They’re almost impossible to kill, and even a century later, they still bloom in the spring and outline the long-gone home and pathways. On a bit of a side note, they’re also great for locating unmarked cemeteries!
Now, on the other end of the spectrum, there are the ruins of the plantation houses and grand estates. Like the Acropolis overlooking Athens, they stand as sentinels overlooking the vast Ohio and Kanawha bottomlands. Fires may have gutted the interior, and half the walls may have tumbled, yet they stand as proud as the day they were built. A testament not only to the wealth of the planters, but to the craftsmanship and skill of the enslaved masons and carpenters who built them, the surviving walls of these houses will likely outlast even my youngest readers. Of these ruins, Mason County has three that I know of and possibly several others.
Poplar Grove (pictured above) was the plantation of General Peter Higgins Steenbergen, though many of my readers will know it better as the Sandy Lewis farm. Built around 1825, it burned in 2017.
The second is of course our most famous plantation ruin, once the most popular spot in the county for parties. The Mai Moore Mansion was built by George Moore, foster father to Judge C.P.T. Moore, in the 1830s and burned in 1968.
As for the third, I didn’t even know it existed until recently, and it is still a bit of a mystery. Known as Stoutland, it was the Neale plantation, notably occupied by Dr. William Presley Lewis Neale, whose office is next to the home. I cannot find a date for when it burned or was abandoned, but it was clearly sometime between the 1987 county history book and my entrance into local history around 2010.
To wrap this up, because I’m nearly out of space, let me just say that under no circumstances should any of my readers attempt to visit these ruins without permission and someone that knows the property. All of them are on private land, and they are surrounded by unstable underground cisterns that could potentially be fatal. Perhaps in the future, one or two could be made safely accessible as centerpieces of parks or historic sites.
Next week, I’ll be writing about the industrial ruins that I couldn’t fit into this article.
Information from my own documentation of these sites and the 1987 History of Mason County.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.