Thursday, October 6, 2011

Historical time capsule

Blennerhassett -- the West Virginia island and opulent home where Aaron Burr supposedly planned treason with island owner Harman Blennerhassett -- wasn’t open.  Jim said the Victorian-era funeral being presented at Marietta’s premier mansion, The Castle, was “too creepy.”    So we went to Henderson Hall, a 29-room Italianata style mansion in Williamstown, West Virginia.  A great third choice.
The home was built in 1836 by George Washington Henderson and his wife Elizabeth Tomlinson Henderson.  GW, as he was called, was named for the first US president, a Henderson family friend.
From the time it was built until 2007, seven generations of Hendersons lived in the home near the Ohio River.  The furniture, clothing, documents and everything else in the home belonged to the Hendersons, who over those generations were involved in West Virginia’s statehood, the oil and gas boom, the Civil War and more.   As our tour guide said, the Hendersons did not throw out anything -- not a document, diary, dish or chair. Fortunately, it was a big house.  Today it looks like a beautiful but worn, well-lived-in home.
Some of the things we saw included the the carriage that took GW and  Elizabeth on a honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls; a document signed by Patrick Henry; a 1801 wedding dress; and diary after diary outlining everything from the mundane (today we planted corn) to the historically significant (General Lafayette docked nearby).  The most touching was a brooch Elizabeth created of hair from four of her 12 children who all died the same year.  Can you imagine?  Three other children died before they turned one and another died at age 21.  The 21-year-old took ill with typhoid while decorating the house for Christmas in 1863; two wreaths he hung that holiday are still on display.  
One Henderson who lived there a long time was Rosalie Henderson; she was born in the home in 1883 and died there in 1966.  She never married, honoring her father’s request that she take care of him -- but the guide pointed out a photo of a “beau” on her bedside table.  She became the historian who started to organize her family’s belongings.  
The last Henderson relative to live there was Mike Rolston. The guide told us Rolston was born in in the house but moved to New York City where he was a successful graphic designer.  The house was willed to him in 1984, so he came back to West Virginia, did a structural restoration, and opened the home to the public the next year.  He was known for  extravagantly and meticulously decorating the house for the holidays, as his relatives had done for 150 years. Rolston died in 2007 and left the home to the Parkersburg Oil and Gas Museum, which has kept it open.
Henderson Hall was built in 1836; an addition was finished in 1859.  Although the Hendersons supported the Union during the Civil War, at one time Henderson Hall was a plantation of 2600 acres run by as many as 100 slaves. 

Our tour guide, Pat, took this photo of us.  In the background are photos of Elizabeth and GW.

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