Lately I’ve been stuck on historic buildings. With Valentine’s Day coming up on Monday, it seems fitting to write about a couple of our historic and older buildings that have their own love stories. In Mason County, it’s a story as old as time, one that goes back to our oldest surviving home.
Walter Newman was born in either 1758 or 1761 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1777, he enlisted in the Continental Army and served as a prisoner guard in Lancaster and Lebanon, and briefly as a teamster in the same region, until his discharge in 1781. He returned home, married Catherine Zimmerman in 1785, and soon after moved his family to Shenandoah County, Virginia. There he was likely acquainted with the Roush, Bumgarner, Lewis, Hogg, Robinson, Clendinen, and other First Families of Mason County.
In 1795 or ‘96, the Newman family moved to Point Pleasant, on one condition. To get Catherine to leave civilization and move to what was then the literal middle of nowhere and the border of a hostile nation, her husband had to agree to build her a mansion. He did just that. The Newman home was the largest in Point Pleasant at the time, double the size of most other frontier log cabins. With two full stories, a basement, an attic, many fine furnishings from “back east”, and even an orchard on the property, it is no wonder that the home was known to many of the settlers as the “Mansion House.”
Sadly, after Catherine’s passing around 1807, Walter couldn’t bear to live in the home he had built for her. He deeded the home to his sons, Isaac and Walter Jr., and moved to Gallia County. After his second wife’ early death, he moved to Newark, Ohio, where he is buried in an unmarked grave. The location of Catherine’s grave here in Mason County isn’t known.
This story, aside from the tragedy and death, isn’t that unusual. Most homes that were custom built, which means virtually every home built before 1970, have so many little details that owe their existence to the original owners. He wanted this, she wanted that, this thing had to be a certain way or they just would not live there. The design of the entire house was informed and guided by their relationship, needs, and desires.
Sometimes it was something as simple as building their home on a spot that had a significance to their relationship. Maybe the home was built in their golden years, and maybe he was still getting around fine but she was having a harder time with stairs, so he either made sure the home was one-story, had the stairs custom built with extra-wide treads and lower risers to make them easier, or put the master bedroom on the first floor. Even the location of rooms can have meaning. Perhaps the master bedroom has the best view or is in the quietest spot, or perhaps the layout of the house is designed for (or even to avoid) having guests. All of these little modifications, done to make the home perfect for both partners, tell a story about their relationship.
If any of those examples seem oddly specific, it’s because they are. I’ve come across each of those in homes that I have lived in, visited, documented, or helped restore.
Even my own great-grandparents’ home, built by Grandpa and his brothers after they came home from World War II, has little quirks that made it unique to them. Grandpa Rizer was tall (it runs in the family), so all of the doors are high enough that he wouldn’t hit his head, except for that one annoying pipe above the basement stairs that we all walked into at least once. And though they both used the kitchen quite a bit, Grandpa liked to bake and Grandma Rizer was a great cook, all of the cabinets and countertops are a few inches lower than usual. Yeah, it was a bit awkward for someone tall like Grandpa, but it was perfect for my 5’2” Grandma.
Whether 200 years ago or 70, these little tweaks turned houses into homes and leave a lasting story of love, partnership, and family etched into the lumber and stone if you know where to look.
Information from the 1987 “History of Mason County” and my own work and experience.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]