Middlebourne Historic District
The Middlebourne Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Middlebourne Historic District is located within the eastern section of the county seat of Tyler County along several of the town's oldest and most important streets. The quiet neighborhood retains a sense of place and character within a community of about 1,000 inhabitants that has served since the early 19th century as the site of the Tyler County Courthouse with its commissioners, judges, and lawyers. Located on the north bank of Middle Island Creek, a stream famous in West Virginia for its great length, meandering course, and game fish, Middlebourne occupies a level bench near the central part of the county amid rolling hills approximately ten miles southeast of Sistersville, an Ohio River community that is Tyler County's only other significant population center.
Middlebourne's growth was steady but modest from the point of the town's founding around 1813. Through most of the 19th century, Main Street was little more than a muddy course of ruts waiting to trap horses and travelers. The town prospered, however, chiefly because hundreds of people came to the county seat to transact business with the county court. This, along with the discovery of oil and gas in the county in the late 19th century, assured the town a measure of prosperity and stability. While the rival city of Sistersville boomed during the oil rush of the 1890s and gained the lion's share of wealth, Middlebourne also witnessed growth in population. Aside from its service to surrounding farms, Middlebourne benefited from the discovery in 1894 of huge natural gas reserves east of town. From the 1890s well into the 20th century, commercial and residential construction expanded along Main Street, East Street, and Dodd Street.
Middlebourne Streets form a grid pattern of parallel lines running from north to south and east to west. Main Street and East Street run from north to south and Dodd Street from east to west. Within this concentration of the town's oldest buildings that is somewhat L-shaped, may be identified three principal sections: the courthouse-school complex; the Main Street commercial corridor (State Route #10): and the greater East Street residential neighborhood. All of these components present socially distinctive patterns of use; but because of their interdependence and close proximity the buildings provide a physical record of the community's experience. This sense of cohesiveness is the result of construction occurring particularly in the late 19th and early 29th century that shares a common scale, similar architectural details and ornamentation, and choice of wood and brick as the dominant medium of construction.
Most of the Middlebourne Historic District's buildings are two stories high. Attics and parapets create minor height variations. The greatest number of buildings by far are constructed of wood, reflecting the region's plentiful forest and lumber resources that produced milled products for local builders and superintendents. A variety of fanciful sawn, turned, incised, and openwork wooden ornamentation was applied around windows and doors, in cornices, and at the apex of gables. A brick making facility just east of East Street was producing by 1905 high quality bricks that were used in the construction of the high school, East Street Methodist Church, and bank. Out of the locally prosperous enterprise emerged the present Middlebourne streetscapes that despite inevitable modification retain much of their earlier appearance.
Anchoring the Middlebourne Historic District is the Neo-Classical and Baroque Tyler County Courthouse at the intersection of Main and Dodd Streets. The companion County Jail is probably the most significant county-owned example of 19th century penal architecture remaining in West Virginia. A short distance to the west stands the Neo-Classical Revival Tyler County High School, constructed in 1907. The Dodd Street landmark is the home of West Virginia's first county high school.
The commercial buildings along Main Street north of the courthouse range in style and quality of construction from the brick Romanesque Revival First National Bank (1902) to the Victorian Gothic Swan & Jemison Grocery (Smith's Drugstore), an unusual 2-story frame building with pointed arch windows. The cornice lines of many of the places of business remain even although front gabled offices and shops add variety to the street's rhythm. An example of the smaller scaled building is the Underwood-Moore Shop. Not surprisingly, many merchants lived in their shop buildings, or owned brick or frame 2-story houses on Main Street. Indeed, the earliest building's in Middlebourne are along the north end of Main Street. These early 19th century residences are the Quinif House and the Gorrell-Wetzel House.
The third portion of the Middlebourne Historic District, East Street, parallels Main Street. Here the residences, in addition to those along cross streets (Park, Broad, Court), date from the last years of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century. Their visual importance is enhanced by the uniform presence of broad porches and lawns which, with sidewalks, create a uniformity along the tree-shaped street. The pronounced Victorian grandeur of the street is the result of a number of over-sized houses bearing towers, turrets, and deep porches. Good examples of this house type are the Weekley House and Huth-Fletcher House.
The Middlebourne Historic District derives significance for its long-term association with the events and traditional business of a county seat and for significant contributions to education as the location of West Virginia's first county high school; and for a large variety of commercial and residential buildings significant for their architectural styles and local vernacular design. The Middlebourne Historic District's period of significance begins with the first building activity in what is now Middlebourne, county seat of Tyler County, about 1805 and extends to about 1925, the point at which the last building activity of consequence (within the Middlebourne Historic District) occurred. Many of the latest buildings are Craftsman Bungalow style residences.
See also: Town of Middlebourne: Beginnings.
Tyler County was created from Ohio County in 1814 and named in honor of John Tyler, eighth governor of Virginia and father of John Tyler, tenth President of the United States. In the realm of small rural county politics the county seat, Middlebourne, held its own through the decades, managing to retain the Tyler County Courthouse despite the growth and increasing wealth of rival Ohio River city, Sistersville. The central location of the county seat and the hundreds of people who came each month from every section and from other counties to transact legal business, gave the town stability. Nowhere was this factor more pronounced than in the welter of business that whirled about the courthouse as the result of the discovery of oil and gas in the county in the 1890s. The world's greatest gas well, "Big Moses," producing 100 million cubic feet of gas per day, was drilled in eastern Tyler County in 1894. Resulting land speculations and real estate transactions of every magnitude kept clerks and lawyers busy in the county seat. Offices for lawyers, magistrates, and clerks could be found at several locations along Main Street. Indeed, the town's most famous lawyer, Arthur I. Boreman (1823-1896), who would become West Virginia's first governor and one of its earliest U.S. Senators, was reared in Middlebourne, studied law with his older brother, and in 1845 was admitted to the bar while residing in the town. (Boreman later moved to Parkersburg).
Another significant development in the townscape of Middlebourne occurred in 1906 when citizens of Tyler County passed a levy to create West Virginia's first county high school. With the purchase of land on Dodd Street for a new building, a large red brick Neo-Classical Revival style building was soon under construction; it was completed in time for the first classes in 1908. With the opening of the new high school, a new system of secondary education was introduced in West Virginia. The system helped students to prepare to enter colleges and universities; it promoted social and cultural relationships and cooperation throughout the county; and it established a model for other rural counties that sought to provide more widely available educational opportunities. Teachers and board of education officials were to acquire and build houses along many of the streets within what is now defined as the Middlebourne Historic District.
Population fluctuations in the town were never sizeable. Growth was slow and steady ranging from about 350 residents in 1883, to 403 by 1904. The population rose to 769 by 1940. The greatest building activity, however, occurred between 1890 and 1925. Much of this was supervised or performed by local carpenters and contractors who produced handsome vernacular frame houses, offices, and stores. A dominant theme of well-carpentered construction in Middlebourne is the 2-story (also a number of 1-story) gable-front-and-wing house. This building type was frequently clad in drop or German siding. Window frames, cornice heads, and gables were embellished with sawn, turned, or incised wood ornaments, and many early 20th century houses received gable and porch apron claddings in wooden shingles of various shapes and colors. It is the survival of these buildings in large numbers with their similar materials, textures, details, roof forms, and scale that distinguish the town's oldest important streetscapes. Significantly, the building stock is characterized by the visual importance of porches, providing a uniformity and relationship with streets. In some cases the yard is an important regular, rhythmic space between the house and sidewalk.
The architecture of the Middlebourne Historic District is that of small town America. The buildings of the closely knit neighborhoods possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and association. Their relative simplicity, utilitarian qualities, and sense of time and place are important to the history of the community.
Gioulis, Michael. Historic Resource Survey Report. Middlebourne, WV summer, 1988. (State Historic preservation Office, Division of Culture and History, Charleston).
Hardesty's West Virginia Counties, Vol. 1. Richwood, WV: Jim Comstock (1883) 1973, pp.186-189.
History of Tyler County West Virginia to 1984. Marceline, Mo.: Wadsworth Publishing Co. for Tyler County Heritage and Historical Society, 1984, pp.28-34.