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Restoring Bramwell inspires the future

SHARON and John Houston have spent the last eight years restoring the Isaac T. Mann mansion in Bramwell in Mercer County to its original glory.

"We re-plumbed, rewired, and put on a new roof," she told Charlotte Ferrell Smith of the Daily Mail. "It took two years to put the porch together."

This was no small feat as at 8,000 square feet, the mansion is the size of four modern houses. It is more than a century old. The home is one of several restored mansions included in Saturday's 30th annual Christmas Homes Tour in historic Bramwell.

"At the turn of the century, when 4,000 people lived here, at least 14 millionaires called Bramwell home, making it the richest town per capita in the United States," Appalachian historian David Tabler wrote.

That's no more. The latest Census showed only 364 residents, with a median age of 49.7 - well above the nation average of 36.8. The poverty rate is 30 percent above the national average, quite a comedown from the days when Bramwell High called its teams the Millionaires. Bramwell High closed in 2004.

But the restoration of Bramwell's historic homes is encouraging because these meticulous efforts show not only what Bramwell was, but what it can be again. The town of millionaires employed 100,000 men and boys in the Pocahontas coalfield, where they mined coal in seams as large as 10 feet. The money ran almost as deep.

"The Historic Bank of Bramwell was the financial center of southern West Virginia. It was thought to be the wealthiest bank per capita in the country. The bank's janitor regularly transported leather bags filled with money by wheelbarrow down the brick paved streets to the nearby train depot," the town's official history states. "The depression of 1933 brought an end to the Bramwell Bank."

The town never recovered. Where once 14 trains a day stopped at the depot, the last train rolled into Bramwell in 1996 to drop off an old dining car for Heritage Park.

But people who can restore with love and care old mansions also have the ability to revive an economy. The new age won't be based on coal, but making conditions hospitable to investors can lift the economy not only in Bramwell but the entire state.

Meanwhile, that seems to be one heckuva tour.



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