The town of Durbin has a rich history, dating back to the end of the Revolutionary War. There was the timber industry boom, which brought the trains, hotels, restaurants and people. In 1916, the town reached its peak population of 530 due to the town being a hub for export and import, as well as travelers going from town to town.
As a way to celebrate the town’s history, the Upper Pocahontas Community Cooperative founded and installed the Durbin Historic Walking Tour, which consists of 12 signs going east to west through the town.
The signs were dedicated during the Durbin Days Heritage Festival in July. The walking tour begins at the entrance to the East Fork Trail which leads to the Widney Park and the former Frank Tannery.
The two signs at this location are titled “A Valuable Connection” and “That’s a Lot of Sole!”
The first refers to the Greenbrier Division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which was built in 1902; and the Coal and Iron Railroad – later known as the Western Maryland Railway – which was built in 1903. The railroad brought people to Durbin and the surrounding communities including Frank, Bartow, Thornwood and Winterburn.
The town grew so much that, at one time, it had 13 hotels and 12 restaurants to accommodate all the visitors.
One of the largest businesses in the area was in adjacent Frank – Howe’s Leather Tannery – where the tannic acid from tree bark was used to treat animals skins in the leather making process. Howe’s was one of the largest producers of sole leather until the facility closed in 1994.
The second sign at the trailhead includes a quote from David Burner, who worked at the tannery for 23 years.
“It was hard work, but I enjoyed it,” he said. “You didn’t make any money, everyone got along. It raised a lot of families.”
Next stop on the walking tour is at the entrance to the Durbin Rocket, near the Depot. Here under the shade trees is a cluster of four signs.
“144 Steps to School!” is about the Durbin School, built in 1921. The school was built on a hill at the entrance of Durbin and boasted 144 steps from the road to the main entrance. Needless to say, walking to and from school was arduous for students and staff.
Because of its location, the school buses had to park on the main street and let off students to traverse the stairs each morning. The students did so until 1977, when the school was closed and students were moved to Green Bank School.
The schoolhouse was torn down in 2005, but many of the bricks from the building live on at the other side of town in a welcome sign at the Durbin Library.
More than 100 years before the school was built on that hill, John Slaven, a Revolutionary War veteran, built a cabin on the 30-acre plot of land he owned in what was called the Narrows.
The sign, “Settling the Narrows” tells how John and his wife, Elizabeth, raised seven children in the cabin and through the years, the family went on to acquire a total of 4,004 acres of land.
Returning to the impact of the railroad, the next two signs, “Trains Chang-ed Everything” and “More than a Water Stop” provide information regarding the C&O and C&I. The trains were used to import goods for families and businesses, export goods, including livestock, and as a means of transportation before automobiles became the mode of choice.
At the Depot, where trains stopped on a daily basis, there was a water tank, which held 50,000 gallons of water. The water supply came from the Durbin Cave, located one mile west of the Depot. When an engine needed a refill, it would be positioned under the tank to be replenished. Depending on the size of the engine, it could travel up to 100 miles before its next water stop.
Moving deeper into town, the next stop on the walking tour is across the street, diagonally, from the former Kinder’s Market, at a small landing by the railroad tracks.
These two signs are all about Main Street during the town’s boom. “Wilmoth & Kerr Store” highlights one of the many company stores found in historic Durbin. Founded in 1897 by R.B. Kerr, the store was the first of its kind in town.
By 1902, the store had 90 vendors, thanks to the railroad. Townsfolk got to experience new groceries like apricots, coconuts, lemons and oysters.
Four years after Kerr founded the store, Jefferson Davis Wilmoth and Kerr’s brother bought the store. Wilmoth ran the store and Kerr farmed and sold produce. Wilmoth worked with his customers and accepted barters as well as cash and credit.
“You must settle each month, for it takes the dough, to make the machine go,” was found in the store’s ledger from 1919.
The other sign has photographs of different buildings and businesses on Main Street and the wear and tear they suffered, including fires.
Leaving Main Street and taking a right onto Second Street, then another right into the alley, the walking tour continues at the restored town jail, where the sign “One ‘Damn Good Jail’” fills visitors in about the history of the small building.
The cinder block building with concrete cells was built after the original wooden jail burned down in 1938.
The jail was restored by local historian Jason Bauserman in 2015 with grant funding from the Pocahontas County Historic Landmarks Commission and serves as a stark reminder of how bleak a night in the slammer was back in the day.
Moving further down the road, to the right on Highland Avenue, the next sign, “All the Normal Vices,” refers to one of the main causes for Durbin men to end up in the aforementioned jail. During prohibition, the town of Durbin was not immune to bootlegging.
Lawmen were breaking up stills left and right, and arresting those who made their own liquor and moonshine.
At that time, Justice of the Peace J.B. Sutton – who had no legal training – was also busy, handing out sentences to the bootleggers. Fines ranged between $100 and $300 and came with a jail sentence of 30 to 90 days. For those charges, the convicts served their sentence in the town of Marlinton.
The last two signs in the walking tour are across the street at the entrance to the West Fork Trail.
The first – “A Changing Industry” – gives the history of logging in the area. From 1880 to 1910, 90 percent of the virgin forests in West Virginia were felled and shipped out. Due to the clear cutting, many issues arose, including erosion, fires and flooding. As a result, the National Forest Weeks Act of 1911 was established, which permitted the federal government to purchase private land in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the United States and called for fire protection efforts through federal, state and private cooperation.
The sign also has a sidebar about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CC) which recruited thousands of young men to assist communities in rebounding from economic and environmental issues.
The final sign – “Ambush at Hanging Rock” – tells the tale of bushwhackers, local fighters, who tormented Civil War soldiers in 1861. Although no Civil War battles were fought in Durbin, it didn’t mean the town was safe for soldiers. The bushwhackers made sure that was the case.
The UPCC printed brochures illustrating the walking tour, with a map and directions for those interested in taking a walk through history. The brochures are available at the Durbin Library.
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