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Historic Bramwell West Virginia


Though Bramwell, almost hidden in a valley with the Bluestone River, is extremely well preserved for a town over a century old in West Virginia, the extreme drop in population over the last several decades left many buildings empty.  This meant that they did not have the simple, regular maintenance that old buildings require to stop them from their natural rate of decay.  In 1983, five streets in downtown Bramwell were named to the National Register of Historic Places and in two subsequent additions, other areas in the town limits were added to the National Register.  Since there is such an interest in historic preservation and especially tourism in Bramwell, the founding fathers of The Bramwell Foundation believed it prudent to establish a nonprofit organization that would contribute to the preservation of the Historic District's buildings throughout the town.


So what exactly is it about Bramwell that makes its preservation so important?  The extant reason is simple – the desire by the town’s citizens to preserve what has naturally been preserved for almost 100 years.  Despite other small towns in the United States being devoured by new planning and development and the incursion of bigger businesses driving out the small grocers, cafés, and soda shops, Bramwell’s relative isolation has protected it from changes in the outside world.  Over the years a few buildings have been lost, but there has only been one house built in downtown Bramwell since 1914.  The impression one gets when walking through Bramwell is that of an entire town that has been encased in a snow globe for a century – whatever the conditions may be on the outside of that globe, the atmosphere and environment on the inside remain the same.  The appearance and ambiance of the town have not changed since its heyday.  That is the source of its continuous appeal and for the people who currently reside in Bramwell; it is the most important reason to keep it preserved. 


The historical significance of this small town in southern West Virginia lies in its position as a center of business and social standing in the Pocahontas coal fields.  Because so many owners, operators, bankers, engineers and other professionals settled in Bramwell, it became known as the town of millionaires.  Local stories mention that anywhere from 14 to 28 millionaires lived in the community at the height of its wealth.  At the very least, it was home to more millionaires per capita than any other town in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century.  The actual wealth and stability of the Bank of Bramwell resulted in the phrase, "solid as the Bank of Bramwell," throughout the southern coal fields (Stoker, 1984).  During the years that Bramwell School operated, its teams were always called the "Millionaires," thus reinforcing the reputation of the community throughout the state.  Bramwell is unique among coal field communities, however, because the owners and operators lived alongside their employees and other non-company workers throughout the community.  The population of the town was egalitarian and consisted of people across economic classes, races and ethnicities.  In fact, European immigrants "from 15 different countries" came to the southern coal fields, and many of those countries were represented in Bramwell (Stoker and Cochran, 2005).  The children of both the employers and employees attended the same school.  Moreover, the millionaires in Bramwell became millionaires from the profits of coal mining - they did not come to West Virginia rich.  Some of them, such as John Cooper, had worked in the coal mines when they were youngsters in their native lands (Stoker, 1984).  So while other coal companies were run by men who did not live where their mines were and did not have to ever see either the conditions of their work sites or their workers, such as the man who owned the Berwind Coal Mine in McDowell County but resided in Winber, Pennsylvania, the Bramwell mine owners had intimate and personal knowledge of both.



The original Bramwell Historic District was approved in 1983 by the National Park Service, the agency that oversees the National Register of Historic Places (National Register).  The five downtown streets that were designated at that time form the core of the Bramwell Historic District. Two other additions, in 1995 and 2005, expanded Bramwell's Historic District throughout the rest of the community (National Register).  The 1983 designation paralleled the observation of the Pocahontas Coalfield Centennial, celebrating the first coal shipped from nearby Pocahontas, Virginia in March, 1883 (Stoker, 1984).  The year-long observation and activities scheduled for the Centennial, plus Bramwell's designation as a historic district, created an atmosphere of renewed interest in the history of southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia.  The Bramwell Millionaire Garden Club began sponsoring tours of the beautiful houses in Bramwell as a local fundraiser, and tourism as a business officially began in Bramwell.  By Bramwell's centennial year of incorporation, 1988, the home tours in May and December were already a popular attraction.  The Garden Club donated proceeds from the tours to projects around town, such as planting dogwood trees, buying Christmas ornaments and sponsoring a highway plot for wildflowers.  


------Amanda Cochran 2010