Chapter XXXVIII - Romney Literary Society

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 2 County History
Pages 430-437

The Literary Society of Romney dates from January 30, 1819. It is the oldest literary society in the state, and there are few older in the United States. It is believed that not one of the original members is living. Never at one time were there more than fifty-two members on the roll, and there is no record that of this number more than seventeen were ever present at one meeting. The work accomplished by these few energetic citizens of Romney is astonishing. No other one thing in the history of the town has had such lasting results for good. The founders did not appreciate what a great work they were inaugurating when they entered upon it. On the evening of January 30, 1819, ten gentlemen of Romney met in the office of Dr. John Temple to organize a literary society. Those present on that occasion were Samuel Kercheval, Charles T. Magill, John Temple, Thomas Blair, James N. Stephens, Nathaniel Kuykendall, David Gibson, W. C. Wodrow, James R. Jack and William C. Morrow. They organized by electing Mr. Kuykendall chairman and Mr. Magill secretary. The business of the evening was the appointment of a committee to draft a constitution. This committee reported at a meeting held February 4, 1819. The provisions of the constitution were, that the organization should be known as "The Polemic Society of Romney;" that the dues from each member should be fifty cents a month; that no political or religious question should be debated unless in the abstract and in general terms; that after the running expenses of the society had been paid, the remaining funds should be expended in buying books; that a member who should use profane language in presence of the society, or bring spirituous liquors to the meetings, should be fined one dollar for each offense. The election of officers resulted in the selection of Mr. Magill as president, Mr. Wodrow secretary, and Dr. Temple as treasurer. This constitution was adopted February 4, 1819.

The next meeting was held in the court house, February 13, and the debate for the evening was on the question: "Ought a representative be governed by instructions from his constituents?" The decision was for the affirmative. On February 19 the question for debate was: "Is education in a public school better than that of a private school?" The decision was in favor of the public school. At this meeting the first money appropriated by the society was paid the doorkeeper. The sum was twenty-five cents. On February 26 the affirmative won in a debate on the question: "Is a system of banking advantageous to a community?" On March 6 a question somewhat more psychological in its nature was discussed. It was an abstract question of religion: "Can the human mind, by its own reflection, arrive at the conclusion that the soul is immortal?" The society decided in the negative. For ten years the society met at least twice a month, and usually four times. The questions debated covered all ranges of topics, scientific, religious, political, social. Some of them may have been "in the abstract so far as politics and religion are concerned," at that day, but viewed from the present standpoint, some of them seem almost partisan. For example, they debated and decided in the negative the question: "Is a protective tariff detrimental to the interests of the country?"

The first money to buy books was appropriated April 23, 1819. Two volumes were bought, "Plutarch's Lives of Illustrious Men" and "Vallett's Laws of Nations." This was the humble beginning of the splendid library accumulated during the succeeding forty years, and which was scattered and almost destroyed during the Civil war. On July 2, 1819, the balance of money in the treasurer's hands was two dollars and forty-six cents, but by October 23, following, sufficient funds were on hand to buy "Rollins' Ancient History," "Lewis' Roman History," and "Robertson's History of Charles the Fifth." No more books were bought till near the close of the next year, when "Livy," "Tacitus" and "Marshall's Life of Washington" were purchased. Three months later a bookcase was purchased. About this time, 1821, an act was passed by the Virginia assembly incorporating the "Library Society of Romney." The charter granted was not satisfactory to the society, because it required changes which had not been asked for, one of which was the name. The members considered that they had a "literary" society, not a "library" society. The assembly was asked to amend the charter, which was done a year or so later, and after many delays and debates the new charter was accepted by the society February 4, 1823, and it became "The Literary Society of Romney," a name which it ever after retained.

In April, 1821, the new books added to the library were "Hook's Roman History," "Herodotus," "Travels in Greece," "Modern Europe," "Ramsay's History of the United States," and the "Works of Benjamin Franklin." In May, 1822, a spirited debate took place on the question: "Is it to the interest of the people of Hampshire to encourage the canalling of the Potomac?" Unfortunately, no record exists of the arguments advanced in this discussion, but the decision was that it would be detrimental to the interests of Hampshire county, to have a canal built along the Potomac. It is presumed that the objection to the canal was that it would destroy the business of teamsters who hauled merchandise from the east. Such, at least, was the objection to building the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The society had passed a by-law that any member who published one of his own, or anybody else's, speeches delivered before the society should pay a fine of five dollars. Consequently no speeches were published. The society adopted a new constitution in 1824.

In the eleven years, between January 30, 1819, and January 22, 1830, the names of fifty-two members appear on the books of the society. They were: Francis A. Armstrong, Thomas Blair, Joseph W. Bronaugh, R. W. Baker, James H. Clark, William Curlett, James Bailey, Andrew W. Dailey, Joseph P. Eblin, David Gibson, James Gibson, Andrew Gibson, Isaac A. Inskeep, Henry M. Inskeep, James R. Jack, C. T. Jack, John G. Jack, Samuel Kercheval, Nathaniel Kuykendall, Thomas McDonald, Charles T. Magill, John McDowell, William Mulledy, Alfred T. Magill, Angus McDonald, Edward C. McDonald, John H. McEndree, Henry M. Machen, William S. Naylor, Robert Newman, William Naylor, Granville Newman, E. W. Newton, Cuthbert Powell, James Parsons, Peter Peters, Thomas Ragland, James M. Stephens, John Snyder, William Sherrard, John Temple, Warren Throckmorton, William Thompson, Chichester Tapscott, Newton Tapscott, John A. Thompson, William C. Wodrow, John B. White, Thomas B. White, Washington G. Williams, Neill Armstrong.

No record of the proceedings of the society can be found covering the period from January 22, 1830, to May 15, 1869, nearly forty years. The records of this period are supposed to have been destroyed during the war. This is to be regretted, because during that period the society did its great work. Without doubt many members were on the rolls during these years whose names cannot now be ascertained; but, although the historian is compelled to pass over their individual acts without mention, yet the result of their work stands as a monument to their memory. It is learned from the proceedings of the Virginia assembly, and from other sources, that the great work of the society began in 1832. On January 6 of that year the assembly passed an act authorizing the society to raise by lottery the sum of twenty thousand dollars to be expended in educational purposes. A detailed statement of how the money was expended cannot be found; but it is known that large sums were paid for books; a building was erected; strong financial support was given to the Potomac academy, which stood near the site of the present court house. On February 15, 1844, the Virginia assembly passed an act authorizing the society to donate to the Romney academy the balance of the money raised by lottery; and on December 13, 1846, another legislative act was passed empowering the society u to establish at or near the town of Romney, a seminary of learning for the instruction of youth in the various branches of science and literature; and the society may appropriate to the same such portion of the property which it now has or may hereafter acquire, as it may deem expedient." In accordance with this act a handsome building was erected on the site of the present institute for the deaf and blind. In fact, the old building forms a part of the larger institution, as will be detailed more fully in this chapter. The splendid library of the society was removed to the new building, and a school was opened under the most auspicious circumstances. Few schools in the state of Virginia at that time had access to better libraries. In September, 1849, the society prepared a code and a system of by-laws for the government of the Classical institute.

In October of the same year the principalship was tendered to Dr. Foote, who considered the proposition and finally declined to accept it, and founded an opposition school, called the Potomac seminary. Thereupon Professor Meany was chosen as principal of the Classical institute. The difference between Dr. Foote and the society, which led to his refusal to accept the principalship, was in regard to the appointment of the assistant teachers and the amount of their salaries, and the manner of paying them. The literary society and the school flourished until the beginning of the Civil war. The disastrous four years, from 1861 to 1865, brought ruin to many a southern enterprise. The Literary Society of Romney suffered irreparable losses. Nearly all the members joined the confederate army, and the building and books remaining in Romney were considered legitimate plunder by the union troops. It is a wonder that a book remained. No list of the books at the commencement of the war can be found, but those who are familiar with the library say that fully three-fourths of the books were carried away or destroyed. The most valuable were never recovered. There were about three thousand volumes in 1861. About two hundred remained on the shelves when the war was over, but a considerable number of others were subsequently found, and the library contains perhaps seven hundred volumes now. But the value of these is greatly lessened by the sets being broken. Some sets of ten or twenty volumes now contain only three or four books. Other sets are all gone but one or two, and others are all missing. A cyclopedia which cost over eighty dollars, and was bought in 1826, is gone. It is no wonder that the members of the society were discouraged when they came home from the war and saw the ruins of the library which had cost much money and the labor of half a century. What remained seemed scarcely worth bothering with, and not until May 15, 1869, was an effort made to revive the society and collect what remained of the boots. A meeting was called for that date, and the members who responded to the call were, A. P. White, William Harper, James D. Armstrong, A. W. Kercheval, Robert White, John C. Heiskell, Samuel R. Lupton, David Entler and James Parsons. Many who were members in 1861 did not respond to the roll call of the society in 1869. They were at rest in soldiers' graves by the rivers of Virginia. Those who were elected new members between 1869 and 1886 were, Lemuel Campbell, J. J. Inskeep, J. D. Parsons, Robert J. Pugh, John T. Vance, T. T. Brady, James A. Gibson, S. L. Flournoy, R. W. Dailey, Dr. R. W. Dailey, Henry B. Gilkeson, John C. Covell, E. M. Gilkeson, C. M. Davis, John S. Pancake, H. H. Johnson, C. S. White, R. G. Ferguson, I. H. C. Pancake, Wilbur Wirgman.

A new hall was erected in 1869 and in November of that year the remnants of the library, and the other property were moved to the new quarters. At that time the proposition of establishing a school in West Virginia for the deaf and blind was under consideration; and the literary society took up the work of securing the institution for Romney. On April 12, 1870, the society passed a resolution by which it was agreed to deed, free of cost, the buildings and grounds of the Romney Classical Institute to the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute, on condition that the institute be located in Romney. The regents met in Wheeling April 20, 1870, and A. W. Kercheval and Robert White were sent by the Romney society to make the formal offer of the buildings and grounds to the regents. The offer was made, and in a short time was accepted by the regents. The society appropriated three hundred and twenty dollars, July 11, 1870, for the purpose of repairing and putting in good condition the building, preparatory to turning it over to the regents. The transfer was made, and the valuable property passed into the hands of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute.

After that the literary society met only occasionally. There is no record of any meeting from March, 1872, to April 1878. The last meeting of which there is any record was held February 15, 1886. The full results of the labors of the Literary Society of Romney cannot be measured. The influence for good has been very great. The principal visible results may be summed up in the collection of a fine library; the substantial support of the Romney academy; the founding and support of the Romney Classical Institute; and great influence and assistance in securing for Romney the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute. It detracts none from the credit due to others to say that without the aid of the literary society it is barely possible that the institute for the deaf, dumb and blind could have been secured for Romney.

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