The Community of Buffalo
(Putnam County)

Charleston Gazette
September 21, 1998

Shopping hub? George Washington?

Buffalo residents don't want town's claims to fame lost in the Toyota tide

By Tara Tuckwiller
Putnam County Reporter

Buffalo - With a polite smile, Dick Howard patiently answers out-of-towners' questions about his historic general store. Yes, it used to be the biggest general store east of the Mississippi. Yes, it made Buffalo a shopping hub. Really.

The smile stays, but Howard doesn't drop his guard until he's sure he's not dealing with another pesky reporter, come to ask him - again - what he thinks about the boom in Buffalo.

"I've had three or four down here," Howard said, relaxing into his normal friendliness. "I don't even like to give interviews. I avoid them as much as possible."

It's not as if Buffalo was completely boring until two years ago. The town has spent more than 160 years developing its own history, and that's just since it was incorporated.

That's not counting its thousands of years as an American Indian village, or the half-century when George Washington and his family owned the whole area.

Reporters never cared about any of that, townspeople point out. They never bothered dragging their cameras in from Charleston or Huntington before that big, beige engine plant came sprawling in where Jason Board's farm used to be.

Not that Toyota isn't appreciate, most residents will quickly add. Most welcome the 800 jobs the plant has brought and the thousands of dollars the company has donated to the town.

But the whole state is glued to Toyota's every move now, and hardly anyone can deny that changes are coming to the little town of 1,200.

Some townspeople say they want to make sure old Buffalo isn't lost in all the excitement.

Toyotalike coverage

Shawnee Indians once ruled Buffalo's fertile bottom land, wide and flat between the Kanawha River and some gentle, wooded hills. According to archaeologists that studied Buffalo in the 1960s, ancient tribes farmed and built walled villages at Buffalo for almost 4,000 years before the Shawnee.

White settlers couldn't leave such a good location alone. By 1770, George Washington had surveyors scoping the area. Legend has it that Washington shot a buffalo at a nearby spring during that trip, and that's how the town got its name.

The land filtered down through Washington's descendants. One of them, Benjamin Kennerly Craig, laid out the town in 1833. It was incorporated four years later.

"They say it's the oldest town between Malden and Point Pleasant," said Reba Sheets, Howard's sister-in-law.

Sheets' father, Guy L. Hulbert, moved the family from Mason County to Buffalo in 1927 when he started his general store.

"I probably never heard of Buffalo till we moved there," said Sheets, a retired teacher. "But he must have seen the possibility of a good bit of trade."

Hulbert's idea was a good one. All the farmers and riverboat workers from miles around came to the store. Before, they had to ride the river to Huntington, Charleston or Gallipolis, Ohio, to shop.

Charleston newspapers gave Hulbert Toyotalike coverage when he moved into his massive three-story brick store in 1941.

"We unloaded 255 boxcars a year," said Reba's husband, Warner Sheets, who worked at the store. "Mr. Hulbert would buy two carloads of sugar at a time. Vinegar by the carload. A tractor-trailer load of lard."

Shoppers came from Ripley and Point Pleasant, in cars, wagons and on horseback. They bought dry goods, appliances, groceries and farm machinery. Hulbert's general store was the second biggest in the country.

"People would wait half a day to be waited on. It was part of their social life to come to the store," Reba Sheets said. "Why, it was just like homecoming."

"I think the biggest things in Buffalo, in our lifetime, have been the Hulbert store and the Toyota plant."

The end of the ferryboat

The people in Buffalo can't be accused of forgetting their history. Ask anyone in town about Buffalo's claims to fame, and they'll likely say something about native William Hope "Coin" Harvey, a silver mine owner who helped switched the United States to silver currency and once ran for president on the Liberty ticket.

Ask a history buff, and they might mention Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, who stayed for a while in Buffalo during the Mexican War on his father's apple plantation.

With river travel at its peak, local historians say Buffalo was quite the cultural center in the mid-1800s. Two French brothers from Gallipolis, the Pitrat brothers, formed a string ensemble in Buffalo that would give performances in Charleston. They also helped start the Buffalo Academy, which was considered better than Marshall College at the time.

Natives, like Daisy Thornton, have written up Buffalo's complete history in countless pamphlets and articles.

"It really was what they say - a peaceful little town," said Thornton, 70, whose family has been in Buffalo since its earliest days.

Well, Thornton said, somebody did hold up the Buffalo Bank once. And there was a problem with the ferry boat.

"The man that run it was murdered," Thornton said. "That was the end of the ferryboat."

Some people in Buffalo think Byrd Hill, who couldn't swim, may have just fallen out of the ferry. Most others think he was killed for his day's fares.

His death in 1946 was never solved. It stopped the ferry that had run between Buffalo and Pliny for years, taking shoppers to Buffalo and Buffalo residents to jobs on the other side of the river.

The farmers on Putnam County's northern ridges still depended on Buffalo.

"All the farmers out in the country would save their cream, and bring it over to the creamery to make butter and cheese," Thornton remembered. "We had a cannery where the town hall is now, and you'd can your vegetables in tin cans like you get in the store. In the fall, they'd butcher hogs there."

The land around Buffalo still looks as peaceful and pastoral as ever, except for the new subdivision- style houses cropping up along the river and creeks. Signs announce that land outside of town, now occupied by horses and hay bales, is "for Sale - Commercial."

"[Buffalo] was full of beautiful, prosperous farms. Just beautiful country," Reba Sheets said. "You wouldn't know it now. Toyota's kind of taken over."

Before Toyota decided to locate in Buffalo two years ago, the town was settling into obscurity. School board members had talked about shutting down the high school, and townspeople had all but given up on ever getting a bridge across the Kanawha.

Now, the bridge is almost complete and the school board is talking about building a state-of-the-art high school at Buffalo. News crews show up in town every time Toyota makes another announcement.

"We talk about it, amongst ourselves," Howard said of the sudden media attention. "We resent it a little bit, but it usually doesn't show."

Howard kept the general store running after his father-in-law died in 1963. A fire gutted the big store in 1980, and Howard had to move to an old lumber warehouse in the back.

The burned-out shell still hides the new Buffalo Shopping Center from the road. Howard does a steady business, but nothing like the old store used to bring in.

"We didn't have Kmart and Hills and Kroger within 15 minutes of us then," Howard said.

Howard's store is still a general store. Downstairs are the groceries, hardware and appliances. The upstairs houses everything else, from living room suites to camouflage overalls.

Locals often shop for a candy bar or a bolt or to get a spare key made. A few people travel from Hometown, Poca and Point Pleasant for the furniture and appliances.

"I used to advertise. I don't do much of that anymore,"Howard said. "My wife wants me to get out of the business. I don't know how."


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