A family’s mission to restore oldest house in Cass

The oldest house in Cass, built by Allen Craig Burner in 1885.  Burner’s great-granddaughter, Louise Burner, and her daughter, Alison Flegel are pursuing funds to restore the house and make it a museum. S. Stewart photo
The oldest house in Cass, built by Allen Craig Burner in 1885. Burner’s great-granddaughter, Louise Burner, and her daughter, Alison Flegel are pursuing funds to restore the house and make it a museum. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

In the mid-1880s, Allen Craig Burner – a farmer and carpenter – left his childhood home in Green Bank to find a place to build his new house. He found a clearing of land by the Greenbrier River in Cass – land that had been timbered.

Burner’s home, built in 1885, still stands today, and his great-granddaughter, Louise Burner, and her daughter, Alison Flegel, are now working to raise funds to restore the house and make it a museum.

The house pre-dates the town of Cass by 16 years and was one of the first homesteads in the area.

“There was at least one other house down here,” Burner said. “The town of Cass didn’t really exist but there were two or three settlers in this area. They [Burners] lived here – he died in 1905 – and his wife [Virginia Clark] lived here until about 1922 or maybe 1920. She moved to Durbin to live with my grandfather, her son [Dr. Allen Eugene Burner].”

The house has had several different renters from the 1920s to 2012 as ownership of the property passed from generation-to-generation.

It is now owned by Louise Burner. At first, she thought about selling the house, but she and Flegel decided to keep the family history alive and restore the building.

Flegel began doing research and has started applying for grants. She has also started a Go Fund Me campaign online to raise funds to match the grant funding.

“Through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, there is a state development grant that basically, if you’re in a historic district or you have a historic site – which we are in a historic district – there’s money to basically save historic sites,” Flegel said. “With that, we have to match the grant. We have some personal funds, and then we thought, ‘let’s reach out to the community. Let’s reach out to the Burner-Blackhurst families and see what happens.’”

After only fours days online, the Go Fund Me site received more than $700 in donations.

Along with donations, Flegel has been contacted by several family members and people whose families lived in the house.
“What’s really neat, is a lot of my relatives are contacting me, saying ‘what a great idea,’” Flegel said. “A lot of people I don’t even know. This one guy donated money in honor of his dad who was born in this house in the 1940s.”

Burner added her enthusiasm and said she was excited to see people supporting the project which is dear to her family and her heart.

“It’s really exciting that so many people have voiced support for it,” she said. “The neat thing about it is finding people who have lived here. Since 1920, that’s a lot of people. It wasn’t the same family renting it. I’ve never really thought about that aspect of it.”

The Go Fund Me site has also led other preservationist in West Virginia to reach out to Flegel and offer assistance. Danielle LaPresta Parker, of Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, provided Flegel with information to assist with the project.

“She contacted me and there’s an Endangered Properties application to make it an endangered property,” Flegel said. “With that, they have someone that works for them who will come and show us how to restore the windows and be technical assistant for other things. He will be our consultant for keeping it as close to the historical aspects as possible.”

Despite its age, the house is in really good condition. It has only had minor maintenance done, like adding electricity and gas heating. The foundation and original materials have held up these past 130 years.

“It was built by hand,” Burner said. “I knew that the timbers of the foundation of this house were hewn by hand. We think they’re chestnut. We also thought that part of the house was an add-on, but it looks like the whole house is one foundation, so it’s original. It flooded in 1985 – exactly one hundred years after it was built.”

The house had only five-to-six inches of water in it during the flood and has not flooded since. Flegel contacted a company which will raise the house out of the floodplain as the first phase of restoration.

With a house full of history, it was clear to Burner and Flegel that it should be made into a museum to celebrate the Burner-Blackhurst family, as well as the lives and lifestyles of Pocahontas County settlers in the late 19th century.

Along with a collection of family photos and records and equipment from Dr. Burner’s office, Burner said they have many sentimental pieces to display in the museum.

“We have a basket and a chair that the man who built the house made,” Burner said. “We have a lot of personal correspondence. My great-grandmother [Virginia] who lived here wrote letters almost every day to family members. People obviously wrote letters back to her because she would refer to a lot of those letters.”

Burner said the letters have been an integral part of research into the family’s history. They also act as a living history of a near-dying art – writing correspondence.

“We’ve learned a lot of our family history from that, but the amazing thing about it is, we don’t do that anymore,” she said. “I call you up. I might text you, but all of that communication and all of that every day life is gone. I think that’s a piece of history that is just amazing, and I’m so thankful that we have it.”

The letters also act as a history lesson about the growth of the town of Cass.

“That might be a big piece of the museum, the communication in the 1900s,” Burner said. “This is the way people communicated and it was every day. In a letter she would say, ‘I’ve got to finish up because [so-and-so] is leaving to go to Green Bank,’ because they took the mail up there. I don’t know when the first post office came to Cass. They started building [the town] about 1900, 1901, so it could be they put a post office in then. Some of her letters talk about the railroad coming in.”

Knowing what they know now about the booming logging towns of Spruce and Cass, it’s hard for the mother/daughter duo to envision what it was like for Allen Craig Burner to come into a clearing and pick the spot for his house.

“I’m trying to picture it,” Burner said. “They lived in Green Bank, and they lived in Arbovale, but they moved way out here. This road wasn’t here. They had to cross the mountain. There was no bridge there. There was a ford. This is in the middle of nowhere.”

At the time, the road came across the mountain from Green Bank into what was later referred to as “Dirty Street” – the road parallel to the railroad tracks.

Fifteen years after the house was built, Sam Slaymaker and Emory Shaffer, of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company began to build the town of Cass. By the end of 1902, the town was incorporated and the big double bandsaw mill was in operation.
Flegel said she will continue to post updates about the campaign to social media, using a modern form of communication to restore a house from simpler times.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “What I think has been amazing with this so far is just the support from the community. It’s had seven hundred shares on Facebook. It’s crazy. We just want to get moving on this.”

Anyone interested in donating to the project, may donate through Go Fund Me at www.gofundme.com/BurnerHouse or contact Alison Flegel at aliflegel@hot mail.com to get a mailing address.

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