With all-original artifacts, Henderson Hall Plantation north of Parkersburg is a one-of-a-kind historical treasure.
When it comes to illustrious West Virginia families, we all know the infamy of the Blennerhassetts. Irish aristocrats Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett built a mansion on the Ohio River in 1798, where they hosted the most extravagant parties west of the Alleghenies. But within a decade, Harman Blennerhasset was arrested with former Vice President Aaron Burr under suspicion of treason.
A story less often told is that another illustrious West Virginia family was among those who reported the Blennerhassetts’ alleged crimes. Brothers John and Alexander Henderson came west around 1800 to settle lands their father bought in western Virginia on the advice of his friend George Washington. When Blennerhasset tried in 1806 to recruit the brothers to Burr’s cause, they reported the sedition to family friends in federal government.
The Blennerhassetts were ruined, even though the case was dropped, and their elegant mansion burned in 1811. But the Hendersons went on to operate a wealthy plantation, develop oil fields, and assist in the formation of West Virginia—less flashy than the Blennerhassetts’ demise, but a far prouder legacy.
The fruits of the Henderson family’s labors may be seen at Henderson Hall Plantation just north of Parkersburg. Note that these are the real fruits. While sites like the recreated Blennerhassett mansion evoke places and times, the Henderson estate holds the genuine accumulations of five generations.
“This is not a ‘collection,’” Henderson Hall Director Randy Modesitt emphasizes. “This property has 200 years of artifacts, some dating back to the original family that came here from Dumfries, Virginia: the guns they shot, the trunks they used. Even at Mount Vernon or Monticello, most of the artifacts were bought or are reproductions. This site has been called a one-of-a-kind historical treasure.”
The Hendersons lived up the Ohio River from Parkersburg, then known as Newport, during the Blennerhassett debacle. But after Alexander’s son G.W. married Elizabeth Ann Tomlinson in 1826, they bought 1,100 acres of her father’s property closer to the renamed Parkersburg and began homesteading. Their homes over time reflected the family’s steady thrift and industry: first, log cabins, then a four-room structure of handmade red brick, and finally, in the 1850s, the handsome 29-room Italianate mansion that stands today. “The brick, the stone, almost all of the wood actually came from Henderson Hall property,” Modesitt says.
The early Hendersons kept slaves—possibly as many as 30. “G.W. Henderson sued David Putnam, Jr. for encouraging and helping their slaves to escape,” Modesitt says. That was in 1849. Yet Henderson served as a delegate to the May 1861 First Wheeling Convention that led to western Virginia’s standing with the anti-slavery Union.
The family farmed, before and after the Civil War. “Longhorn and shorthorn cattle, Berkshire pigs—at one time there were over 200 peacocks. We have their still, and we know they made their own whiskey and sold that, too,” Modesitt says. In the late 1800s, the family also ran a renowned horse-breeding operation. “They trained trotting horses, and people would ship their horses here from all over the East Coast to be bred with Henderson horses.” And they did some entertaining of their own: among their guests, John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, and renowned wildlife artist John James Audubon.
All of this is known because remaining in place with original furnishings, paintings, photographs, and personal memorabilia are volumes of records. “We have more than 4,000 documents connected with the Hendersons, beginning in the early 1800s,” Modesitt says. “Detailed—they would write the grocery list on the back of a receipt and save that. There are diaries and personal letters that explain where they came from and what their interests were.” It’s thought that some of it may rewrite history.
Restored and on View
By the 1980s, the mansion had become too much for the last Henderson family daughter, Lorna. When she died in 1984, her cousin, New York graphic designer Michael Rolston, moved into the house and restored it enough for weekend and Christmas tours—a departure from longtime family custom. “G.W., Jr. decorated the ballroom for Christmas in 1862 to have a party with his friends and family,” Modesitt recounts. “After he died several weeks later of typhoid his mother, Elizabeth Ann, wrote in her journal that the hall would never again be decorated for Christmas. From 1863 until Michael started his Christmas tours in about 1987, the house was not decorated for Christmas.”
Rolston got the plantation listed as a 10-building, 65-acre historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. He worked with friend and local historian David McKain, co-founder of the Oil & Gas Museum in downtown Parkersburg, to document property and family history. And when he died in 2007, he left the plantation to the Oil & Gas Historical Association to be further developed as a museum.
Henderson Hall Plantation is open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday afternoons, March through December. The complex includes the oldest schoolhouse in the state, the family cemetery, and three Adena Indian mounds. Events planned so far for 2016 include an antique car show in May, a Civil War re-enactment in June, and a December candlelight tour. 517 River Road, Williamstown; hendersonhallplantation.com