West Middletown Historic District
The West Middletown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Records indicate that West Middletown began to develop as a commercial community in the mid-1790s. Its location — along a high ridge, surrounded by rich farmlands, a day's journey by horse and buggy from Washington, Pennsylvania and a similar distance from Wellsburg, West Virginia on the Ohio River — made it a logical location for tradesmen and professional people. Today, even though the West Middletown Historic District is residential, its physical size, the number and style of the buildings, and its population have remained surprisingly unchanged.
State Route 844 slices the West Middletown Historic District in a clean, east-west direction and leaves the buildings snugged against the sidewalk along the north and south sides of the highway. On the north side of the District the land drops abruptly into a valley then extends into rolling farmlands and forests that stretch to the horizon. To the west, south and east farmlands surround the community.
There are 49 buildings in the District: 41 are residential; 8 are non-residential. The oldest known building dates to 1798: 31 buildings are circa 1800-1850; 16 are circa 1851-1900. One structure, the; firehall, was built after 1900.
Twenty-one of the buildings are brick; 21 are frame; the remainder are a combination of log and frame, or log with clapboard or contemporary siding. Although some of the homes/structures have had some modification or alteration (a porch removed or added, windows replaced, etc.) most of the buildings are in good-excellent, contributing significant condition. One structure, the firehall, is an intrusion.
Most of the homes/structures in the West Middletown Historic District are classic vernacular interpretations. They are sparse, plain, conservative, devoid of elaborate decoration, with only a few simple-details that hint at a specific style. Only one, a handsome, asymmetrical, Italianate home, stands apart in a bold, slightly florid, declaration of style.
Most of the buildings in the West Middletown Historic District are detached structures; however, there are four clusters of row house/business configurations. Occasionally, adjacent buildings share a common chimney, even though the buildings were erected many years apart.
In most instances homes hug the sidewalk, seldom more than a few feet from the curbline. Front yards are rare. Lots are generally long and narrow, often no wider than the width of the house or building. Occasionally, a lot will feed into a larger, irregularly shaped, several acre plot.
The majority of the buildings in the West Middletown Historic District were built as a combination home and business, shop, or inn. Home and business were so well integrated, and the architectural style was so accommodating, that few homes have obvious storefront architectural detail. On notable clue is the presence of two "front" doors or entrances on many of the homes: one door originally led to the business, the second to private quarters.
A few of the buildings in the West Middletown Historic District were built, and still exist, as purely business structures. A general store, tin shop, blacksmith/wagonshop, and a stable, all stand looking just as they did in the nineteenth century. None is being used for its original purpose.
One of the elements that helps unify the West Middletown Historic District and contributes to its special appeal is the abundance of non-structural, nineteenth century detail: wrought iron fences; sandstone curbs; flagstone sidewalks; hand cut stone rain gutters; and stone upping-blocks. These details, like the buildings, are sometimes neglected, but they exist — not for effect — naturally, unselfconsciously ...the warp in the fabric of the town.
West Middletown is perhaps the most well-preserved example of a nineteenth century rural commercial community in western Pennsylvania. The tiny (population 190) community and cluster of plain, sturdy, vernacular buildings still echoes what it once was: a stopover and supply point midway between Washington, Pennsylvania and the Ohio River town of Wellsburg, West Virginia. The town's unified appearance, its tempo, texture, and architectural integrity are exceptional. Even the farmlands and forests that surround the community are essentially as they were over 100 years ago.
Remnants are everywhere of a time when home and business shared a common structure; when transportation meant horse and buggy; when self-sufficiency ruled; and all of life's necessities, and a few frivolities, were a stroll away.
Two factors, modest prosperity and a conservative Scots-Irish heritage, have contributed to the preservation of the town's beauty and homogeneous nature. With the exception of the firehall, no building has been erected within the West Middletown Historic District since 1900. "Modernization" has been scant because most did not/do not have the funds, nor the inclination, to "fix what don't need fixin'." Even where insulbrick or aluminum siding covers an old log or frame building the basic form remains and the siding becomes an honest attempt at caring for, rather than remodeling, the structure.
At its peak, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, West Middletown was a linear cluster of homes and businesses strung compactly along a well-travelled road. Today, in several instances, homes and commercial structures stand side-by-side in almost continuous-architecture fashion: hotel/shop/home/general store. Only 10 homes or structures have been lost since the turn of the century; its physical format and flavor have remained essentially the same for over 80 years.
Because so much of the original home/business architecture was "generic," buildings were used interchangeably for a variety of purposes. Thus, the business end of a home could have a metamorphoses from a tin shop, to a mercantile establishment, to a post office, to a shoemaker's shop. When a business failed a home could absorb the business section in almost undetectable transformation.
Building property lines are long and narrow to accommodate the gardens and outbuildings that were necessary for a business community: stables, spring houses, wagon shops, out-houses, blacksmith shops, etc. Representative examples of all these buildings still exist, and many are still in use. With a few minor exceptions, current property lines are identical to those in the 1876 edition of Caldwell's Atlas — that map with corrections, is the one used for this survey.
West Middletown's contribution to history has always been within the context of the community's texture and character. For example: the Ralston Thrasher was invented nearby and manufactured here until a disastrous frost in June 1859 which left large shipments unused, and which caused bankruptcy for the company. Henry Ford visited West Middletown in 1932 and purchased the last known Ralston Thrasher (left abandoned in a pasture) for his museums in Deerfield Village.
William McKeever, and his sons, Matthew and Thomas, were major forces behind the abolitionist movement in Western Pennsylvania, and were instrumental in helping to establish West Middletown as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The earliest known documented evidence of this involvement is from minutes of a two day "Anti-Slavery Meeting" which concluded on October 20, 1834. After a heated debate by the "Colonizationists" and the "Abolitionists" it was, "Resolved: That the Chairman appoint a committee of five persons to draught a Constitution and appoint a meeting for the purpose of forming an Anti-Slavery Society in this place (West Middletown)." Thomas McKeever was selected as one of the original five members chosen for this Committee. Several sources — letters, reminiscences, and news articles link John Brown and Matthew McKeever. John Brown, described in one account as "a tall, thoughtful gentleman, of pleasing address and considerable personal magnetism," is reported to have visited West Middletown several times "in his capacity as wool buyer." How much direct influence John Brown had on the Underground Railroad here is unknown.
Also unknown is whether the Underground Railroad had any direct relationship in the development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church which was formed here shortly after the Civil War. An A.M.E. congregation has been active here since the late 1860s.