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Phelps-Tavenner House
The Phelps-Tavenner Research Center

The Wood County Historical and Preservation Society purchased the oldest house in Wood County, West Virginia, in June 2015. Built by Col. Hugh Phelps circa 1800, the Phelps-Tavenner House is the most historic property in Wood County, relating specifically to the pioneers of the area.

The Phelps-Tavenner Research Center is located at
2401 Camden Avenue
. [MAP]

WONDERFUL WEST VIRGINIA — NOVEMBER 2022

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West Virginia Magazine page 17 Phelps-Tavenner House is the oldest brick home in Wood County.

Second row, first picture: The kitchen garden lies between the summer kitchen and the house.

Second picture:
A stone basin carved by James Corbitt circa 1850 and used on his farm in Spring Creek, one of many items the community donated to the Phelps-Tavenner House.

Just off a busy road in Parkersburg sits a quiet stucco house. Surrounded by gardens and shaded by stately trees, the home is old—in fact, it’s the oldest brick home in Wood County.

Known as the Phelps—Tavenner House, the building has played important roles in the area’s rich history and stands today as a nod to the events, families, and traditions of its time.

Built sometime between 1790 and 1803 by Colonel Hugh Phelps, the dwelling has become known as “the house that Hugh built,” and, after changing hands several times over the centuries, it’s now in the care of the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society. The group purchased the house in 2015 when it was discovered that the most historic home in Wood County was for sale, according to Diana Boso Hill, historian and secretary of the society. The realization was fortuitous, as the house sits in a busy part of town and would otherwise likely have been torn down.

A History of Characters

Phelps came from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, to the present-day Parkersburg area in 1787 with his new bride and his father-in-law, Captain Iames Neal, to settle at Neal’s Station. Neal was a Revolutionary War veteran who had begun construction of Neal’s Station, also later known as Fort Neal, along the Little Kanawha River in 1785. Phelps and Hannah Neal married in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on March 15, 1787. “They must have come here the next day or two on the flatboats with a whole bunch of their neighbors from Pennsylvania,” Hill says. “Mr. Phelps and his bride probably had a house in the fort. He was quite the entrepreneur. He was a political gentleman, a successful businessman, and he started buying lots of land.”

Phelps built his brick home — a two-story structure with a one-story extension — on 1,000 acres, all of which was wooded. The family cleared land, planted an orchard, and grew crops. While the society doesn’t know the exact year the house was built, they do know it was complete before 1803. West Virginia was still a part of Virginia, and Harrison County covered territory all the way to the Ohio River. As the population of the Ohio valley grew, however, so did the desire for a county seat closer to home.

“There were many people here, and it was hard going to Clarksburg for everything legal. They wanted a new county,” Hill says. “So Phelps and a few other men who were representatives of this area went to the Virginia capital, Richmond.” The group appealed to the state legislature and to governor James Wood, who permitted the creation of Wood County with the condition that county organizational meetings be held in the Phelps home. Thus, it became Wood County’s first courthouse.

Phelps was reportedly a tall, charming man with a kind heart, a keen intellect, and a benevolent nature. He was a busy man with diverse interests: Over the years, he owned a ferry on the Little Kanawha, established a branch of the Methodist Church, and started a school. He also served as Wood County’s delegate to Virginia’s legislature and as its second sheriff.

Evidence points to the home also serving as an inn and tavern, according to Hill. “Mr. Phelps, we know, had an ordinary, which is another word for a tavern,” she says. “People would come to eat as they passed through, and then they could stay the night. We know he had an ordinary because we have records of his obtaining a license for it in 1789 and again in 1799.” Ordinaries were usually run by men of prominence and located near the county courthouse.

After approximately 25 years in the house, Phelps died in 1823, and his wife died soon thereafter. A year later, Colonel Thomas Tavenner purchased the home and 100 acres of land surrounding it for his wife and their five children. Like Phelps before him, Tavenner had been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and he’d served as a deputy sheriff under Phelps and, later, as High Sheriff.

Also like Phelps, Tavenner had a good deal of land throughout Wood and Wirt counties. Upon his death, the home passed to his son, Thomas, who in turn passed it to his daughters. Members of the Tavenner family lived in the house for over a century, until 1942.

The Secret Life Brick and Mortar

Both the Phelpses and the Tavenners owned slaves, and Hill says those slaves likely constructed the dwelling, which is made of brick and consists of a two-story main house and a one-and-a-half story extension. But beyond that, the historical society’s dedicated workers and craftsmen have unearthed much about the home’s history.

A large wooden staircase was added in the living room in 1951. But recently, workers found evidence of the original staircase beside the fireplace. “We knew from articles that had been written about the house that it had a tiny spiral staircase,” Hill says, crediting historical society volunteers with the discovery. “They are just amazing artisans, the volunteers we have.”

Other discoveries relate to the kitchens. The extension likely housed the kitchen, and an outdoor summer kitchen was used during the warm months to keep the temperature in the home manageable. It was known that, around 1860, a fire burned the home’s extension. During a renovation, historical society volunteers discovered evidence of the incident in the doorway between the two sections of the home. The charred portion remains on display.

The original summer kitchen was taken down in 1979, Hill says, and it was reconstructed in 2019. “We had pictures of the summer kitchen from the ’40s and ’50s,” she says. “We have no pictures of the inside of the original. But our volunteers looked at the pictures we had and looked where they thought it would be, and they found the four corners of its foundation. And they built it back to look much like it was.” The small building is divided into two ro0ms—a kitchen and a porch. Each has access to a central well.

In “The History of the Phelps—Tavenner House,” a keepsake pamphlet sold to visitors at the house, Hill wrote that the original roof was probably wood shingles. In a second tragedy, it caught fire just after Colonel Tavenner’s grandson, Guy Tavenner, died in the home in 1891. The obituary, discovered by Wood County historians, records that, “Shortly after the death occurred this morning the roof of the house was discovered to be in a blaze and it required quite a hard fight to subdue the flames, the neighbors lending all the assistance possible. Had there not been a bountiful supply of water handy, the building would in all probability have been consumed.”

Stories from the Tavenners’ tenure in the home also recall a former slave named Uncle Lewis who chose to remain with the family after he was freed. He reportedly died in the doorway of the summer kitchen and was buried in the family cemetery a short distance away.

“Uncle Lewis,” Former Slave, Died in the Doorway of the Summer Kitchen

Lewis was a former slave of Colonel Thomas Tavenner, who freed Lewis upon his death in 1857. Though Lewis was free, he chose to live with Tavenners’ older son, Franklin. Upon Franklin’s death in 1865, Lewis came to live with Franklin’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Tavenner.

In the 1870 census, Lewis Clifton is noted as being 90 years old and living with Thomas Jefferson Tavenner. Lewis was beloved by the family and known to them as Old Uncle Lewis. He lived here in the old summer kitchen and was tenderly cared for in his declining years by Mrs. Thomas Tavenner.

One morning the family noticed Uncle Lewis resting in the doorway in the sun with his feet on the very same stone that you see here. He sat so still that they investigated and found he had died. He was 94. Lewis Clifton was buriedein the Tavenner cemetery.

The Modern Era

Between 1942 and 2015, the house was owned by three more families: the Nolfs, the Villers, and the Lifes. The Nolfs covered the home’s exterior with stucco for protection from the elements — a measure that prevented its total deterioration. The Villers made renovations and improvements including structural support, new flooring, and a new staircase. Since acquiring the house, the historical society has restored the kitchen to reflect the 1950s remodeled look the Villers chose.

The grounds, too, reflect both the home’s history and the work of local volunteers. Members of the Lulu Mae Creel Nolf Garden Society tend the extensive flower, herb, and vegetable gardens on the grounds, and the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society has erected a research library adjacent to the house.

For over 200 years, the Phelps-Tavenner House has influenced generations of owners, visitors, and neighbors. Mrs. Lulu Mae Creel Nolf, who bought the home in 1942, penned a love letter to her new residence

“You began as the ‘Thousand Acre’ plantation, however, you are still the ‘Tavenner Manor,’ though your great acres have dwindled to only two. You will laugh and be your happy self again, as you have always had a way of making everyone happy that came near you.”

In accordance with the “Fair Use” provisions of 17USC107, this article is reproduced here without the permission of the author only for the purpose of education. If you are the copyright holder and want this article removed, contact us and we will immediately remove it.

On Wednesday, April 19, 2023, Bob and Rick were given a personal guided tour by Diana Boso Hill, historian and secretary of the society. Rick was delighted to learn that he and Diana are not-too-distant cousins, and that there are several books in their research library that speak of his ancestors, who were among the earliest settlers of Wood and Jackson Counties.

They also graciously permitted us to take these additional photos.

Plaque on Phelps-Tavenner House“National Register of Historic Places” Plaque on
Phelps-Tavenner House
Phelps-Tavenner House Front ViewPhelps-Tavenner House
Front View
(The front of the house overlooks the Little Kanawha River)
Sign in front of Phelps-Tavenner HouseSign in front of
Phelps-Tavenner House
Resource BarnResource Barn Summer KitchenSummer Kitchen Gardening Shed (New Structure)Gardening Shed (New Structure)
Model of Original HouseModel of Original House Interior Room with Life-Size Picture of Mr PhelpsInterior Room with Life-Size Picture of Mr Phelps Model of Original Fort (Planned to be  built on the property)Model of Original Fort
(Planned to be built on the property)
     
Painting of Blenneerhassett Mansion Burning Painting of
Blennerhassett House Burning
by Local Artist Marj Teague,
a descendant of Hugh Phelps
One of the Brautifully Restored RoomsOne of the
Bautifully Restored Rooms
Painting of River Boat Mississippi QueenPainting of
River Boat Mississippi Queen
by Local Artist Marj Teague,
a descendant of Hugh Phelps
  Curio Cabinet with Items from Thomas’ RoomCurio Cabinet with Items From
Thomas’s Room  
 

 

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