A castle, commissioner & cemetery

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year (2016) I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.

Wheeling’s castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.

Author’s note: This blog was originally published in March 2016; it has been re-published as part of the site’s redesign in 2020.

My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.

The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.

Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers’ home.

The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.

Read more about them at the website.

I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:

Garter snakes enjoying the spring warmth.

Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)

It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).

From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.


Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.

They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.

Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.

After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.

Old cemetery on a hilll in Wheeling, WV
The “rural” Mount Wood Cemetery overlooks the city of Wheeling, W.Va.


Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.

Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.

Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.

The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.

I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.

The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.

The view from Mount Wood

It is dusk and haze hangs over the Ohio River as the wide serpent slithers into its den between distant mountains. I have an amazing view of the legend and its urban child, Wheeling, from Section A of Mount Woods Cemetery. The view makes me particularly grateful to still be on this side of the grass.

Adjacent to the Mount Wood Hebrew and Jewish Orthodox Cemetery, the rural cemetery is entrenched on Wheeling Hill, where Ebenezer Zane paused long enough to survey the landscape and declare that this place would become a land of promise. The valley, yes, but the hill was reserved for those whose promised land is just beyond the sunset.

To enter this place you pass by a sign warning “Restricted Area Authorized Personnel Only.” I assume, by virtue of being a mortal, I am authorized to enter, and so I make my way up the patched road of sorrow toward the summit, past crumbling, fractured headstones, the stumps of oak trees and mausoleums inserted into the hillside. And I ponder the odd sign, wondering just what it means.

Mount Wood is an example of what was a national movement in the mid-19th century, the rural cemetery. Replacing the crowded, urban-church graveyard, rural cemeteries featured carefully planned lots interacting with the natural beauty of the setting. The rural cemetery thus became both a place to mourn and find comfort, to listen to both the sermons in stone and songbirds in the boughs.

“The flowers are beginning to bloom beautifully and the shrubbery is showing forth its sweetest livery of green,” stated a Wheeling Intelligencer article written in 1866. “In the evening, when the sun has gone down, and when the air is cool and pleasant, you can wander amid the tombs of Mt.  Wood Cemetery and examine the monuments which mark the spot where different bodies are interred, or you can stand in the grounds and obtain a most excellent landscape view.”

Little has changed in the ensuing 150 years, but Mount Wood has a tired and battered look this March evening. For all the planning and planting, everything feels crowded, stilted and exhausted. Around the lower perimeter are the graves of the Jewish interments—the Finegolds, Katzes, Friedmans, Weissmans and Malts. The concrete rectangles that mark their graves lean toward the distant serpent, as if pulled by the river’s supreme authority over this land and all who would live and die upon it. Graves are packed together so tightly one suspects the entire cemetery would slide into the river should just one corpse be raised at the final trump.

Above the Hebrews’ graves rise the gaunt oaks, no doubt some of them among the 110 that were planted in 1933 in collaboration with Oglebay Park. It is unreasonable to expect even the mighty oak to withstand the buffeting winds, lightning and erosion of this exposed face. The living deciduous cell, no matter how noble, cannot survive in a place where stone erodes and concrete gives way to the forces of gravity, ice and time.

On the summit, however, the sense security is stronger amid the towering obelisks, “white bronze” markers, marble stones and mausoleums. The trees are more numerous here, so too the graves of the affluent, the famous, the celebrated Wheeling citizens of the 19th century.

Such distinguished company in which I stand: Eliza Hughes, the first female doctor to practice medicine in the new state of West Virginia; Col. Joseph Thoburn, a member of the First West Virginia Infantry and mortally wounded at the Battle of Kernstown; Noah Linsly, founder of Linsly Military Institute; Edward Norton, early city leader.

The most intriguing burial, by virtue of his epitaph, is Dr. Simon Hullihen. Rare is the man who lives in such a way that the citizens of his city raise the marble obelisk to his memory and thereupon declare his death “a public calamity.”

“Eminent as a Surgeon the wide fame of his bold original genius was everywhere blended with gratitude for his benefactions,” states an inscription on one of the four base panels.

The stone, however, goes into no detail of what great deeds Hullihen (Dec. 10, 1810-March 27, 1857) performed. The answer lay not in a grave on this knoll, but in the Wheeling Hall of Fame, where Hullihen’s brief life is summarized as one of both “prejudice, scorn and skepticism” as well as “bold, creative, inventive work and his tremendous contributions to mankind.”

Dentistry, in the days when Hullihen became a doctor, was not considered a profession and specialization was “tantamount to quackery.” Yet, in Hullihen’s time, he saw the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery open, and in 1843, he received an honorary doctor of dentistry degree from the school.

His fame as an oral surgeon drew patients to Wheeling to seek his surgical intervention for defects of the mouth and head. He has been called the “Father of Oral Surgery,” and rightly so. Hullihen performed more than 1,100 operations in an era when “neither anesthesia nor asepsis were in use.” Patients with cleft palate, crossed eyes and damaged lips and noses were given new leases on life through his pioneering surgical methods. Because he was developing the specialty as he went along, Hullihen invented many of his own instruments, and the designs of some remain in use today.

The growth of industry in the riverfront city brought with it many horrendous industrial accidents that required advanced medical care, but community leaders did not Hullihen’s demands for a hosptial. It was only after combining forces with the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Wheeling Diocese that Hullihen was able to see the city’s first hospital chartered in 1850.

Worthy, indeed, is this man of the obelisk, the accolades and a city’s appreciation for his “Tremendous contributions to mankind.”

The haze becomes dusk, the veil falls upon the city and creates the illusion of down-river lights burning more brightly than before. The air at the lower elevation chills my skin and teeth as if death itself exhaled it. My old tooth tingles in the chill; I must remember to see the dentist soon.

Maple syrup and snakes

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.

Wheeling's castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

Wheeling’s castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.

My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.

The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.

Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers' home.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers’ home.

The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.

Read more about them at the website.

I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:

Lodge (1 of 1)Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)

It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).

From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:

 

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.

Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.

They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.

Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.

After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.

Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.

Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.

The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.

I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.

The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.