WILLIAMSTOWN - If walls could talk, every nook and cranny of Henderson Hall Plantation would have a story to tell through an unbroken chain of seven generations, rivaling premiere tourist stops like Mount Vernon.
One of the few surviving intact historic homes in the U.S., Henderson Hall contains artifacts and historical treasures preserved through more than 200 years of the family that rubbed elbows with the likes of George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. From the Scottish family's arrival in the valley from Virginia, to its part in the West Virginia statehood movement, ties with pioneers and patriots to being a key witness in the Burr-Blennerhassett treason turmoil, the Henderson family played key roles in many of the historic events that shaped the Mid-Ohio Valley. A Victorian-era Italianate mansion, the hall contains treasures of a family line that was well-educated, trained in the arts and among the movers and shakers of their time.
"Now that the estate is settled and the hall is in reasonable condition as a tourist attraction, the challenge going forward is to develop a strategy for the future. The board of directors for the Oil & Gas Museum is planning to assemble a commission to be composed of individuals with the mission of reviewing the assets and liability, developing objectives, a strategic plan and exploring financial conservation and restoration," said Dave McKain of the Oil and Gas Museum. McKain's lifelong friend Michael Rolston, the last of the Henderson family to live in the home, bequeathed the hall to the museum hoping to assure its preservation.
Dave McKain, director of the Oil and Gas Museum, has spent hours inventorying, documenting and verifying documents, furnishings, artwork, at Henderson Hall Plantation. McKain’s lifelong friend Michael Rolston, the last of the Henderson family to live in the home, bequeathed the hall to the museum hoping to assure its preservation. (Photos by Pamela Brust)
McKain said plans for the plantation include development of an on-site museum, research and conservation center and continuing documentation of the hall through books and videos. There is an ongoing need for additional volunteers to assist with the hall, including tour guides. For more information call 304-375-2129. The hall is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. for public tours.
Clan progenitor Alexander Henderson Sr. arrived from Scotland in Virginia in the 1700s. He became a wealthy merchant and is recognized as the first chain store owner in the U.S. He served in the House of Burgesses and was a member of the committee appointed to decide the boundary lines that still are in existence today between Maryland and Virginia. Henderson was friends with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Mason and George Washington. It was on advice of Washington, that Henderson bought 25,000 acres in western Virginia, and the three brothers traveled to the Mid-Ohio Valley.
The 21-room brick River Road mansion, completed in 1859 by George Washington Henderson and known today as Henderson Hall Plantation is located off West Virginia 14 just south of Williamstown and once included about 2,000 acres that extended into Williamstown. The house was constructed of brick fired on the estate. In 1957, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated 65 acres, including the family cemetery, as Henderson Hall Historic District, and the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
G.W. Henderson married Elizabeth Ann Tomlinson. Educated at Ohio University, G.W. studied law at Marietta College and served in the Virginia Legislature when the state of West Virginia was formed.
"We have letters written to him from his father. He went to the 1861 Wheeling Convention. We also have Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia with his signature on them. G.W. remained loyal to the Union even though the family had slaves and the family in Virginia joined the Confederacy. He served in the reform legislature assisting with the birth of West Virginia. There are also letters from A.I. Boreman trying to convince him that he's doing the right thing," McKain noted.
"The president of the Wheeling Convention went into the Army at the end of the summer of 1861 and dropped out of the Legislature. Henderson was elected to take his place. The state didn't have him listed. We contacted the archives. They do have a record of his attendance, but didn't know the story behind why he was there. He was there through 1863. We even have his pass to Parkersburg so he could get through the guards because the city was under marshal law during much of the war. The military occupied the city during the Civil War. It was not officially declared, but the railhead here was so important, the guards were here, there were curfews, and you had to have a pass to get in and out," McKain said.
Following in the footsteps of his Scottish forebears whose clan motto was "Virtue alone ennobles," family member Archibald Henderson served as the 5th Commandant of the Marine Corps, one of the longest serving Marine Corps commandants and technically the first American-born commandant. He served a stint on the U.S.S. Constitution during the War of 1812. The U.S.S. Henderson was named for him as is Henderson Hall Barracks in Arlington, Va. His long tenure earned him the nickname "Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps." He commanded the military escort for the burial of William Henry Harrison and was a pallbearer at the funeral of longtime friend Dolly Madison.
Another family member, Thomas Henderson, was a well-known military doctor and minister in the Episcopal Church. He penned the first written manual on medicine for the Department of the Army in 1820-1830, and he, along with Francis Scott Key, started the first Episcopal Church in Georgetown.
The family also played a role in foiling the plot of Aaron Burr and Harman Blennerhassett to create a western empire. Alexander Henderson Jr. and John G. Henderson turned in Blennerhassett and Burr when Blennerhassett tried to recruit them to become part of Burr's plan. The Hendersons reported the plot to family friends President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison and alerted local militia.
"Even Michael (Rolston) did not know his ancestors testified at the treason trial. The only book referencing the testimony was one written by family friend Minnie Kendall Lowther on Blennerhassett Island," McKain said. "This is real living history we're talking about and we have the documentation to prove it all. The Henderson legacy is a national treasure. We have visitors coming here all the time who have been to many of the national well-known tourism sites and they are shocked by the number of original artifacts and furnishings we have right down to handmade linens, books dating back to the 1600s, documents signed by the likes of Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, dated 1785."
Among the papers are local ballots from the Lincoln-Douglas presidential election, diaries, a letter written by Robert E. Lee to Elizabeth Henderson. Some of the documents may literally rewrite history.
Family records describe a duel between one of the family members and another local pioneer, making it the only duel ever recorded north of the Ohio River. There is a letter dated 1861 from Burning Springs where Rolston's great-grandfather ran a riverboat store. The letter related details of the battle at Burning Springs. It was known there was a skirmish there, but not a battle.
"Now we have documented evidence there actually was a battle, which means it was the second battle of the Civil War in West Virginia, after Phillipi. We didn't know that before. It's like a timeline of American history. You can be reading the diaries and come across a casual reference to Lafayette passing through the area, and the next entry talks about planting corn," McKain said of the hundreds of pages of records, diaries, letters, perfectly preserved photos and furniture.
The house contains treasures like a German Symphonia, an 1875 rosewood grand piano; china handpainted by Rosalie Henderson, and handmade linens and embroidery items; a Hepplewhite desk; Jane Henderson's 1801 wedding dress; a shaving stand similar to one at Mount Vernon dating from 1798, and a cradle shared by many members of the Henderson clan.
Buildings on the grounds contain the first schoolhouse in Wood County, the oldest in the state; an 1826 carriage G.W. and his wife took to Niagara Falls when they go married. There's even a 100-year-old still on the property, which the Henderson brothers used to make homebrew.
The plantation was once a major horse boarding/breeding farm, breeding standard trotters sold throughout the country for racing, and the family was part of the oil and gas industry boom.
The 85- foot, stone-lined water well remains outside the home's 1836 kitchen. There are three Adena Indian mounds on the property. John James Audubon and John Chapman, the legendary frontier missionary/nurseryman known as "Johnny Appleseed," were among the many well-known visitors to the plantation.
Henderson Hall Plantation is about seven miles north of Parkersburg, two miles south of Marietta, Ohio. For more information, call 304-375-2129, or 304-485-5446. Public tours are available from noon to 5 p.m. daily; private and group tours can be scheduled by calling ahead.