WVUP Foundation marks West Virginia’s birthday

Sturm discusses James McNeil Stephenson

Photo by Evan Bevins Phil Sturm, local historian and professor emeritus at Ohio Valley University, displays the certificate he received Thursday after speaking about the life of James McNeil Stephenson at the Oakland mansion during the West Virginia University at Parkersburg Foundation’s celebration of West Virginia Day.

PARKERSBURG — West Virginia University at Parkersburg, its foundation and guests marked the state’s 156th birthday Thursday at the Oakland Mansion on Seventh Street.

This was the second year the school has commemorated the anniversary of West Virginia’s admission to the Union at the mansion, donated four years ago by the descendants of local attorney, politician and banker James McNeil Stephenson, who had the home built around 1832.

It’s a fitting location, said out-going WVUP Foundation board Chairman Dave Roberts, given the contributions to local and state history by the family that called the mansion home.

“West Virginia might not have been the only state born out of the Civil War had it not been for this family and the things that they did,” he said.

Stephenson’s life was discussed by Phil Sturm, a local historian and professor emeritus at Ohio Valley University who was recognized earlier this year by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History as a History Hero.

Stephenson went into business with Henry Logan, another notable historical figure, in 1821, opening a tannery at what is today Fourth and Market streets in downtown Parkersburg. Eventually, he sold his interest in the business and became an attorney. He served as a legal mentor to his brother-in-law, Arthur Boreman, a future state governor and U.S. senator.

“James McNeil Stephenson helped prepare the man who would become the first governor of West Virginia,” Sturm said.

While representing the area in the Virginia Legislature from 1839 to 1848, Stephenson focused on improving transportation in the area, resulting in Parkersburg being the endpoint for two turnpikes and a rail line, Sturm said.

“This system of transportation made Parkersburg what it is today,” he said.

Although Stephenson allowed Union forces to stay on the Oakland grounds, he remained neutral during the Civil War, Sturm said. Challenged on his loyalty to the Union when working on a court case in Wheeling after the war, he said Stephenson explained that his eldest son was an officer in the Confederate Army and he managed his money and sent it to him when he needed it. The judge did not prevent Stephenson from practicing in the court, which Sturm said likely had as much to do with the fact that he was “one of the best-known, finest lawyers” in the state.

Sturm said he is thankful the foundation accepted the mansion and was impressed with what they have done to restore it.

“Parkersburg has a history of tearing down some of its historic buildings,” he said. “Thank God, Oakland has been saved.”

After thanking Sturm for his presentation, Keith Gaskin, vice president of institutional advancement and president/CEO of the WVUP Foundation, thanked Roberts and former Foundation director Senta Goudy for their service and efforts to preserve the mansion.