The Historic George Pinkney Morgan House
The only freestanding early Morgan home left in the Monongahela River valley came within inches of demolition in the 1980s—and it has the cracked front steps to prove it.
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford
When David and Sarah Morgan moved their family west in the early 1770s from the Upper Potomac to the Monongahela River valley, they staked out a rise in a broad, squarish loop in the river. It was raw, untamed wilderness. But David and his younger brother Zackquill, two of the earliest settlers in the valley, could handle wilderness—they were sons of Morgan and Catherine Morgan, the very first Europeans to homestead permanently in western Virginia.
David cut trees and built his family’s cabin smack in the middle of that loop in the Mon, with the river less than a mile to the northeast, southeast, and southwest. Then, a mile straight south, across the river, he and Jacob Prickett built Prickett’s Fort in 1774 as protection from natives. Once during a period of hostilities, David left the fort suddenly on a premonition and ended up killing two natives to protect his children—earning the 60-year-old the admiring nickname “Indian Fighter.” Natives burned their cabin in retaliation. David and Sarah moved a few miles upriver to land he owned at present-day Fairmont and, when Sarah died in 1799, David floated downriver with her body on a raft. He took her to the site of their earlier cabin, carved a headstone for her, and, with that, started the family cemetery.
Those early settlers were real frontierfolk. The 1768 treaty that pushed the Iroquois across the Ohio River didn’t make the Mon safe right away, but eager pioneers started planting their lives beside the wide, shallow river anyway. David and Zackquill among them are local legend today—David in Marion County and Zackquill in Monongalia. Many of the stories are hard to confirm, but the men’s clear hand in the region’s future seems to justify them.
The brothers fought under George Washington in the 1755 and 1758 expeditions to take Fort Duquesne, at today’s Pittsburgh, from the French. Washington was probably a family friend: He’d surveyed earlier in the sparsely populated region where the boys grew up, and he owned land there.
David and his family planted crops and orchards at their farm on the Mon, and the Morgans contributed energetically to civic life. David surveyed the town of Pleasantville—today’s Rivesville—and Zackquill laid out Morgan’s Town 20 miles downriver. Cousin Daniel Boone rode through from time to time. Come 1777, the brothers fought as patriots, as did four of David’s boys. And when they weren’t fighting natives, or the French, or the British, Morgans served in critical peacemaking roles like sheriff. Their descendants include William S. Morgan, a botanist and Virginia congressman who carved out Marion County, and Francis H. Pierpont— the Father of West Virginia.
So in 1987, when locals challenged a bulldozer at the threshold of the only freestanding early Morgan home left in the Mon valley, they took that personal risk in remembrance of a proud legacy. Childhood neighbor Jim Rote has since returned home to West Virginia and bought and restored the home as a private residence.
History Worth a Risk
The house is thought to date to the 1850s. George Pinkney Morgan built his family’s two-story, ell-shaped, red brick home on the piece of land that came down to him from his grandfather David, a hundred yards from the little family cemetery. George first paid property taxes on the home in 1857, but the construction methods come from an earlier time. “The beams in this house either have the adze marks, kind of like an axe, or the straight up-and-down saw cuts like if they were cut in a saw pit,” Rote says. “The bricks are also all handmade.”
George is said to have been a good farmer. And when the B&O rail line came through Fairmont in 1852, he assembled investors in the Marion Cannel Coal Company to mine coal on the property and constructed a spur line to connect with the B&O. Maybe it was coal income that built his home, which was large and fancy for that place and time.
George was a Confederate like many of his relatives. But as was true for so many, the family was deeply divided. He was captured in a skirmish at the October 1861 Battle of Greenbrier River, even as his cousin Francis Pierpont had come to head up the pro-Union Restored Government of Virginia. George died a Union prisoner, not yet 40 years old. His widow, Catherine, and their children lived together and farmed the land for the rest of their lives. They took a foster child, Walter Curnutte, into the family in the early 1900s; he eventually inherited the place and farmed it on his own and then arranged for it to be strip mined. When he died in 1975, the house had been occupied essentially by one family for more than a century, with little modification.
But by the mid-1980s, abandonment and strip mining threatened the home. Hunters sometimes sat on a second-story porch to wait for deer to cross the property, Rote says. Mining had created a sheer 40-foot drop-off just yards from the house. Locals aware of the historical significance of the property came to its defense. “Dave Elkinton was director of Prickett’s Fort,” Rote relates. “He and my neighbor Jack Starn, they stood on the front steps when the bulldozer came to knock the house down. The first two steps are broken—that’s how close the bulldozer came to them—but they wouldn’t move.” A citizens’ group got an injunction to protect the house.
Rote had grown up across the street in the 1950s and ’60s. “Walter had ponds on the property. I always liked his house,” he says. “I remember herds of cattle, big fields of corn, and all the fruit, and down along the driveway there was probably a 200-yard-long truck garden.” But when he went inside the house after the injunction, it looked terrible. “It took about a day to cut all the briars just so we could get in. It sat unlocked with the window sashes lying on the floor, and there was probably a foot and a half of trash on the floors,” he says. Someone had dismantled the curved banister—to remove a mattress, by one account, and possibly burned by intruders for warmth—and the parlor mantelpiece lay on the floor, detached from the wall but apparently too heavy for plunderers to carry off.
Rote bought the house in 2000. Built solid, the 150-year-old structure had survived maltreatment and near-demolition in remarkable shape. Rote once worked at the Colonial Williamsburg living history museum and has a fondness for old properties, and he began a thoughtful restoration.
Original Materials, Historical Details
A visitor crossing the cracked front steps of the restored George Pinkney Morgan house to enter through the front door—at the “top” of the ell—feels the authenticity, both in the rich, natural materials that have aged in place and in their textured unevenness. “It’s got all the original southern heart pine floors, all the original mantels, all the original window sashes, all the original doors, and probably 80 percent of the original plaster,” Rote says. “The lower level is four layers of brick thick and the upper level is two layers—it tapers off as it gets higher.”
To the right, “there’s a beautiful stairway,” he says. “It goes up to a landing and curves back around, and it’s a semi-flying staircase—there’s no wall underneath to support it.” Rote found a banister at a colonial salvage shop in Richmond, Virginia, that perfectly replaces the original. Details add lightness and grace. “Features of note in the hall are the scroll-sawn wooden appliqué edging on the stair treads,” reads the 2003 National Register of Historic Places nomination.
In the parlor, to the left of the entry, that heavy mantelpiece took four people to put back in place. It’s an attention-getter. “Strong, squat columns support a very large, simply carved mantel that resembles an open book,” reads the National Register nomination. The Morgans must have loved hosting: A three-hinged-door-wide opening made it easy to connect the parlor with the already immense dining room beyond for large gatherings. “The dining room is 30 feet long, which was probably the length of most houses in that time period,” Rote says. To the left, the “foot” of the ell holds the servant’s prep room, and a pass-through in a built-in cabinet between the two rooms kept servants efficient and unobtrusive. Upstairs, six bedrooms surround the open side porch that hunters used to use. Bedrooms still have their original millwork, and two have fireplaces.
Telling details reward an inquiring mind. In the adjacent kitchen and dining room, for example, identical side-by-side doors connect with the backyard. “In the South, if there was a slave workroom, there was a separate door for the master—exact same door,” Rote explains, passing on information he learned from a history of American architecture. “But you can tell the difference on the outside because the master’s door has a stone lintel across the top and the servants’ door has a thick wooden beam. These doors are still like that.” And in the attic, “there’s a 4-footwide, 4-foot-tall, 12-foot-long cherry ‘house’ sitting on the rafters,” he says. “They had carrier pigeons, and they’d go up to get their messages. In part of it, they kept doves. I think they were for meat.”
While renovating, Rote and fiancée Mary Kaufman stripped as many as 15 layers of wallpaper. “She was able in some rooms to find the very first layers, and those were hand blockprinted wallpapers,” Rote says. “She laminated one set so we can show them to people, and we preserved another set in archival paper.” Rote’s period furnishings and window and door hardware, along with decorative and functional ironwork, complete the 19th-century feel.
Christmas at Morgan House
Rote brings a historical sensibility to his holiday decorations. “A lot of candles, pine, magnolia branches,” he says. Bittersweet wreaths, too. “They grew apples and pears here and they kept them in the root cellar, so they used a lot of fruit, and if they could get oranges they would decorate them with cloves and get a nice accent smell. If you were lucky enough to have pineapples, that was a really big deal.”
Rote receives visitors by appointment. Also to be seen on the property are the family cemetery of 20-some family graves and, nearby, a 14-foot stone monument erected to David Morgan in 1899 “directly upon the ground of his famous encounter with two Indians.”
“We always think the interesting history happens somewhere else,” Rote says. “But from the mid-1700s, there was a lot going on here.” firstname.lastname@example.org