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James C. McGrew’s Kingwood

By Susan M. Hardesty


James C. McGrew first built his house, known as “The Pines,” on what is now East Main Street in Kingwood in the 1840s and expanded it after the Civil War.
In this home, the McGrews raised their three children: William, “Mattie,” and George.

When James C. McGrew (1813-1910) first came to Kingwood as an 18-year-old farm-boy-turned-apprentice-clerk, little did he dream that he’d occupy a seat in Congress one day or have his portrait taken by celebrated photographer Mathew Brady. He was, after all, the son of a pioneer, skilled in blacksmithing and farming and schooled in only the three R’s. But, to his mentors, Harrison and Elisha Hagans, McGrew showed great promise. Though he had much to learn about the mercantile trade, he was an able and willing student. He soon developed a knack for acquiring and pricing goods and building a loyal customer base.

Within a decade, McGrew had fully embraced the Kingwood community as his own. In 1841, he built a home for his bride, Persis Hagans McGrew, the daughter of his mentor. The simple Federalist-style house met their family needs, including space for their three children—William, Sarah Martha “Mattie,” and George.

He was actively involved in the local Methodist Episcopal church, and, when it came time to venture out on his own, he built McGrew & Co. on land beside the Preston County Courthouse. From that time on, he was a part of the economic and political life of Kingwood until his death in 1910. A glance across Kingwood today reflects McGrew’s role as architect of structures and infrastructure.

In his own lifetime, McGrew acquired almost celebrity-like stature, taking part in the 1861 Virginia Secession Convention and in the subsequent West Virginia statehood movement, and serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. A loyal Unionist, he faced the challenge of his generation—the Civil War—and pursued peace and reconciliation. After his congressional career ended, he retired from the national spotlight and returned to Kingwood, where he resumed his more familiar and comfortable role as city father.

His political influence was first evident in 1853, when he served as one of three supervisors for Kingwood’s local election of officers. The town, chartered earlier that year, initially had a board-of-trustees-style government. In 1863, as a municipality in the new state of West Virginia, Kingwood residents elected James C. McGrew as their first mayor. He led the community through the difficult remaining years of the war, with his own safety always in danger. Due to his opposition to Virginia’s secession, Confederate troops carried warrants for his and other Unionists’ arrest. On at least two occasions, he was forced to escape hastily from nearby Rebel forces.  

No town records survive from those early years, but by the time McGrew was re-elected mayor in 1879, records were carefully documented. In March 1879, council appointed him a “committee of one” to prepare town bylaws and rules of order. Within two weeks, he’d produced the first ordinances for “the protection of property and preserving the peace.” Some were basic matters of civility, addressing physical assault, unlawful assembly, and cruelty to animals; others reflected local concerns unique to the time and place, such as a penalty for roaming livestock.

Mayor McGrew also functioned as the judge for local disputes, though no serious ones occurred. Most offenses related to peddling without a license, which could be settled by paying a fee. More often, he was the chief managing officer who authorized repairs to streets and crossings, and on more than one occasion, he paid for the services himself, seeking reimbursement later.

He was a popular leader. Even after he resigned from office in 1881 to travel overseas as a representative to the Methodist’s Ecumenical Council meeting in London, he was immediately re-elected mayor upon his return. People liked and trusted him.

He built up that trust over decades of faithful service, which often produced noticeable improvements. For example, in 1856, the county court asked him to supervise construction of a much-needed new courthouse in Kingwood. When all bids came in above the budgeted $8,000, McGrew took on the contract himself. He’d already built his home, his store, and the Preston Academy, so he had experience. The next year, he completed an impressive three-story structure, complete with oak staircases and belfry. That same year, he built a suspension bridge across the Cheat River, connecting the northern and central portions of the county. Unfortunately, both projects fell victim to violence: the bridge was destroyed by Confederate troops in 1863, and the courthouse was burned by an arsonist in 1869. McGrew supervised the reconstruction of both the bridge and courthouse.

Though neither his reconstructed bridge nor the 1870 courthouse survives today, three McGrew projects can still be seen in downtown Kingwood. After the Civil War, McGrew doubled the size of his home and added beautifully hand-carved bannisters and door frames. He also enclosed the well to provide for indoor water and a bathroom. He had a gorgeous fruit orchard and vegetable garden and imported a variety of exotic trees, many of which still stand: gingko and tiger tail spruce from Asia and European beech, larch, and bald cypress. The home and its surrounding landscape were his favorite pastimes until he was well into his 90s.

In 1878-79, he oversaw construction of the new Methodist Episcopal house of worship. He did much of the legwork, including traveling to Baltimore to purchase and ship the furnace, carpet, and an 800-pound bell, which still hangs in the belfry.

His final project was the Bank of Kingwood, which originally operated out of the McGrew Building. In 1908, McGrew sold his building to the county and bought land just across the street. He personally designed the bank’s imposing structure, featuring two massive pillars on the outside, and an interior built with marble, tile, and mahogany. Though he didn’t live to see it completed, he approved the final blueprint six months before his death in 1910 at age 97.

After his passing, James McGrew was heralded by national newspapers as a hero of his generation—one who’d staunchly held to his ideals during the secession crisis and Civil War. Friends and neighbors paid tribute to him with a two-hour moratorium for his funeral. All of Kingwood paused to remember and pay homage to the man who’d been so much a part of the town’s history.

SUSAN M. HARDESTY is a member of the McGrew Society, a nonprofit historical group devoted to preserving the McGrew home in Kingwood. She has extensively researched the McGrew-Hagans family and written the biography James Clark McGrew: Statesman and Servant. For more information about the family and preservation efforts, please visit www.mcgrewhouse.org. This is Susan’s first contribution to GOLDENSEAL.

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