Antebellum Romney, 1859

by Rob Wolford

In the period before the American Civil War, Romney was the scene of business and activity. Stages, wagons, and shays passed through steadily delivering their passengers and cargo to and from points north, east, west and south of the South Branch town. Most definitely, worries of the looming sectional crisis brewing in the federal capitol in Washington and the state capitols pervaded every aspect of daily life. Concerns about where and when the tensions would finally boil over were mostly abated, after all the momentous issue of civil war and disunion had been averted before and would likely be again; cooler heads seemed to always prevail.

The Author

Rob Wolford is a 7th generation Hampshire Countian who teaches West Virginia Studies at Romney Middle School; he was the 2007-08 Teacher of the Year. He is the Historian for the Town of Romney. He earned a Masters of History from California University of Pennsylvania. The Civil War is one of his main areas of interest.

The Assessor

In 1859, amidst the clouds of war, the county tax assessor made his rounds and assessed each property in Romney. He assessed and recorded the value of the land and any buildings present. He penned his findings on a large folio sheet that would be added to the others from the years before. In some manner, he likely knew that a future generation would find his work a useful blueprint for a historic structures analysis of Romney, Virginia/West Virginia. The work was recently completed for the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation, Inc. note#1 and is now in press by the foundation. It is an assessment of the available graphics depicting Romney, Virginia during the American Civil War and contains all available images known to the foundation, including one that was recently uncovered in Idaho. The text places the images into the context of Romney as it was in the mid 19th Century.

a study of how people lived and worked in Romney over one hundred forty years ago

Initially, the property data on the 1859 tax roll was plotted on the plat of Romney for the sole purpose of finding out who owned which structure in the Civil War images. Use of the 1850 and 1860 census made it possible to determine what activity likely took place on each site. Eventually the simple plotting exercise evolved into a Geographic Information System (GIS) study of how people lived and worked in Romney over one hundred forty years ago.

The Professionals and Craftsmen

It is evident from the study that Romney was a place of opportunity and a rest stop or wayside for travelers plying the Northwestern Turnpike to places west. Among the many jobs in 1859 were hotel keepers, tavern-keepers, blacksmiths, carriage-makers, saddlers, and wagon-makers. Hosting travelers and repairing their vehicles were enterprises that largely served the traveling public. These specific occupations were placed on the plat of Romney to illustrate their locations relative to the main thoroughfare through Romney; a clear and expected pattern emerged. Hotels and public accommodations were located near the center of Romney and along the Northwestern Turnpike (now US 50). The craftsmen who made and repaired wagons and carriages were also along the turnpike and congregated at the western edge of Romney. The saddler's shop was located at the eastern end of town in the brick buildings across from the American Legion note#2. The maxim of contemporary business "location, location, location," is not new. Clearly, these businesses located as close to their customers as possible.

On the other hand, tradesmen such as chair-makers, tailors, and cobblers tended to be located on back streets and did not seem to congregate in a neighborhood. It would seem that since Romney was only a pass through location for travelers en route to other destinations, it was likely that travelers would be inclined to purchase only necessities. The wares of these tradesmen were intended for the local market; therefore they produced goods in home shops and sold them through merchants located on the turnpike. An exception was a seamstress located on the lot directly across from the Hampshire County Courthouse, next to where Edward's Insurance is now located. Likely, her location was chosen to specifically showcase dresses in a venue frequented by the social elite and professionals.

The Main Highway

Save one, all merchants were located on the Northwestern Turnpike. Like the aforementioned seamstress, their businesses relied heavily on visible locations. They too congregated near the courthouse. A word here is necessary about the nature of the Hampshire County Courthouse. County CourthouseUnlike modern-times, the county courthouse was the scene of most of the social interactions that involved the community. In addition to trials held and instruments recorded, it was at the courthouse that political speeches were heard, candidates were met, militia muster days held, invocations given to departing soldiers, and holidays observed. Simply put, the courthouse was the hub of the community.

Professionals in Romney tended to practice on more quiet streets. The newspaper owner, attorney, county surveyor, local auctioneer and two physicians resided and likely had their offices on streets at least one-half block from the turnpike. Only the Commissioner of Chancery lived on main-street in what is now the American Legion building.

When the values of the parcels are compared it is clear and not surprising where the most substantial real estate is located. All buildings valued in excess of $2,500 ($53,800 in today's dollars) were located adjacent the Northwestern Turnpike and near the center of Romney. What is somewhat surprising is that some of the undeveloped lots are unsold. These are located at the intersection of Birch and Bolton Street. It is possible that these lots were sold and then forfeit, set aside for another use, owned by a non-taxable agency or left off the record.

It is also noteworthy that many of the property owners listed were women

When assessing property the assessor sometimes reduced the values because of decay or destruction of property. For example from Lot Number 15, belonging to Susan Elliot, was "stricken off" $200.00 ($4,304 in today's dollars) for the value of a home that burned in the previous year. The census record for 1850 does not contain her name. She could have either married after 1850 and become an Elliot or she may have lived elsewhere and simply owned the property. The 1860 census also lacks her name. Taken together, the records indicate that she likely lived elsewhere and rented or leased the property out. It is also noteworthy that many of the property owners listed were women; however, the census records that the men owned the property. It is likely that the women were the persons appearing at the tax office to pay the taxes and were recorded as the owner. Further research is needed on this subject before an assertion about ownership can be made.

On the whole people in Romney worked at a variety of jobs and seemed to try their hand at about anything. Excluding those already mentioned, the list of occupations performed in the town include confectioner, cashier, postmaster, deputy, jailor, clerk, silversmith, druggist, house painter, tinner, iron founder, moulder, washerwoman, hostler, tailoress, plasterer, minister, sheriff, stage driver, printer, barber, sportsman, and teacher. While these vocations and professions were practiced, a much more in depth study of where in Romney individuals were employed is needed. One other finding was surprising. Despite the notion that people rarely changed jobs in the "old days" people in this study seemed perfectly content to try their hand at other occupations if the opportunity presented itself. One such person was Joseph Poling. A cabinetmaker by trade, he took over the position of jailor sometime between 1850 and 1860. Another example was Richard Marshall who in 1850 was working as a tailor and living in the Virginia House Hotel at the corner of Marsham Street and the Northwestern Turnpike. By 1860 he apparently had won the confidence of the owner and was running the business. The previous operator, William Samuel, left the establishment, apparently leaving his mother and sister in Marshall's care.

A Small Town

Relative to the present-day, Romney in 1859 was sparsely developed. Houses were spaced further apart and trees tended to be grown as closely to homes as possible. This was due in large part to the nature of technological development in the period. Deciduous trees would shade and cool the homes in the summer and allow the sun's warming rays to pass to the homes in the winter months. Space between the buildings allowed air to circulate better so that dampness and mildew were reduced. In addition space allowed odors, smoke and fumes to dissipate more rapidly while the threat of fire spreading from one building to another was also reduced. Another reason for less congested development was that privies accompanied every building and sanitation issues demanded that space be given for each outside. Often alien to our contemporary experience but critical to survival then, home gardening was a necessity. In 1859, large agricultural production was in its infancy. Locally grown food was shipped to Romney; but little was shipped more than ten miles over land. To augment their pantry, townsfolk planted gardens. Practically every yard and lot that could be used for growing was. Those parcels that were unsuitable were sometimes used as feedlots. A common sight in this period and well into the early 1900's was a barn filled with hay and livestock. Milk cows, chickens, and horses were all necessary for town life. The moving of cattle to and from their pasturing was a daily chore for some.

Though only a snapshot of Romney through the lens of history, the tax roll of 1859 does give us some insight to the happenings of average people just prior to the Civil War. Tragedies as well as triumphs can be seen in the lives of people. Most lived to prosper, others lived to get by, all seemed to toil at what they could do and continued to better themselves by dedicated investment in their lives. We come away from this study with a clearer image that life in the good old days was by no means always good. Property was expensive, jobs needed done, and life was never as convenient as folks would have liked. What is important is that our forbearers did their jobs, improved their property, and invested in their lives. As Adam Smith explained in Wealth of Nations, people working toward their own betterment ensure that a nation's economy is efficient and responsive to their needs. Ben Franklin may have said it best when he quipped in Poor Richard's Almanac, "mind thy shop and thy shop will mind you."

1 The Fort Mill Foundation can be reached at 91 S. High St., Romney, WV 26757
2 This building is currently occupied by Century 21 Realty



Northwestern Turnpike  The Northwesten Turnpike closely followed the path we know as Route 50 today. It was a major artery in Virginia, perhaps the mose important east-west road in the state. The construction for it began in the early nineteenth century and by 1830 it reached Romney; it continued on to the western part of the state and by 1838 it reached Parkersburg. It was a dirt road until early in the twentieth century.

Commissioner of Chancery  Commissioners in chancery are officers of the court who are appointed for a particular purpose, and their powers and duties are limited and defined by the statute by virtue of which they are appointed. Usually they gather facts and conduct depositions in a case and then prepare a report stating their findings.

  • 1830 1st stage line from Winchester to Capon Bridge established
  • by 1834 the Northwestern Pike reached Romney; by 1838 it reached Parkersburg on the western edge of the state.
  • 1842 Capon and North Branch Turnpike completed
  • May 24, 1845 Land deeded for Romney Classical Institute
  • 1850 Dr. Foote establishes Potomac Seminary
  • 1860 Presbyterian Church built on corner of Marsham and Rosemary Lane
  • April 1861 Committee of Safety meets in Romney and begins to prepare for the coming war.
  • May 18, 1861 the Hampshire Guards and the Frontier Riflemen leave Romney to join other Virginia regiments at Harpers Ferry