Memories of St. Marys

By Wiley E. Rea

My full name is Thurman Wilber Rea. I was born in 1935 and was raised in St. Marys, WV. I now reside in Yorba Linda, Orange County, California.

My first name is British and comes from my mother's side of the family. If you look in the book, The History of Pleasants County, W.Va. to 1980, you will find a lot of Wilsons who are all my ancestors. The Reas in the book, Charles and Odie, were my grandfather's brothers.

My father's people were Irish and settled on the Ohio River in Washington County, about 1800; don't know for sure yet. One of my favorite family stories is that William Rea came down the river and opened an inn at Reas Run. They cut the fireplace into the rock face, and when he died they buried him on the hill right above the fireplace, on the mantle piece - literally. He must not have liked the cold so they put him there to keep him warm. Must have liked it, he is still there.

This year, the First National Bank of St. Marys published a 100 year Anniversary Calendar. The old pictures of St. Marys (one for each month), provided for the calendar by the Pleasants County Historical Society, brought back many memories. I am sharing those memories on this page.

*~*~* January *~*~*


A 1907 panoramic view of the southwestern portion of St. Marys. Visible are the W.C. Dotson home in the upper right corner and the old courthouse behind the dense tree stand. In the upper right corner is the old St. Marys High School. Oil derricks are at the intersection of Barkwill Street and Court Lane on the refinery property.

"The hills in the background are in Washington County, Ohio. The water seen at the left is the Ohio River. The line of trees running left to right are on either side of the island. The river runs from right to left. The corn field is now a marina where the WV bass tournament is held every spring. The school building is still in use. I went six grades there. Some of the other structures still exist. The arrow marks the First National Bank which is still in use after 100 years."

*~*~* February *~*~*

B & O

Pictured are the B&O train depot and Howard Hotel on Second and Clay streets in the early 1900s. The last regularly scheduled steam locomotive ran in the mid-1950s. Note the gas streetlight at the left of the photo.

"St. Marys is built on two plateaus, as you may be able to see in some of the other pictures. This picture is on Second Street, just before it starts uphill behind and to the right of the train depot, and the two buildings on the left were still in use until about 1946. I don't remember the buildings on the right as there was a movie house in one of these buildings and it burned and took some of the others with it."

*~*~* March *~*~*


The St. Marys Pearl Button factory operated from 1910 to 1928. In its peak years, the company employed as many as 100 men. Button "blanks" were drilled from the shells of mussels taken from the river and shipped to Amsterdam, New York for finishing.

"The button factory was before my time, but some of the shells are still laying around. The plant closed because most of the mussels were harvested. The mussels are making a comeback and are protected, but people come from all over the US to poach these mussels. I know not why."

*~*~* April *~*~*


The first St. Marys City Building, seen here circa 1901, housed Hose House #1 on the ground floor, the city jail in the basement and the city offices on the second floor. The bell in the tower was rung on special occasions and was used as a curfew bell. The Auditorium Theatre stood just behind the city building on the corner of Second and Lafayette streets.

"This smaller building was converted into the police office and city offices in my time. The lower floor was converted into the public library. The theatre was in use until about 1953 when the Illar family built a new theatre on the other side of the street at the other end of the same block to the right. I lived in a house two doors to the left from 1944 to 1954 when I left to join the USMC. This building faces Second Street, and the river is located one street to the rear of the picture."

*~*~* May *~*~*


The 1942 St. Marys High School Band, led by the American Legion Color Guard, starts off this Memorial Day parade. Note the highway markers on the corner of Second and Washington streets.

"The Rexall sign hung on the front of Phillips Drug Store. It was owned by three generations of the Phillips family. Its last owner was Jim who graduated from SMHS in 1953. The building on the left was Tripplett's Hardware. This building is still there but the rest of that side of the street has been changed. The pine tree on the left was in a church yard. The church is gone and a bank resides there. Three banks and no one with any money. The First National Bank is located directly behind the person who took the picture."

Home Town Stories:

When I get with a bunch of braggarts, of which I am not one, I use a twist to a Mark Twain story. The first part is factual; you can judge which part.

When I get with a bunch of braggarts, of which I am not one, I use a twist to a Mark Twain story. One part is factual; you can judge which part.

Tripplett's Hardware partially burned on Sunday morning in 1950. The fire was on the third floor. Now my story is, "I was there rubbernecking with everyone else when someone remembered that Old Mr. Barnhart, who was the night watchman, had not been seen. Suddenly he appeared in one of the third-story windows. The smoke was dense, the fire was hot, the ladders way too short. What to do? I ran into the store, got a coil of rope and a weight and ran back into the crowd. I tied the weight to the rope and threw the rope up to Old Mr. Barnhart. When someone asked what good that will do, I instructed Old Mr. Barnhart to tie the rope around his waist. When he had done that, I simply yanked him down three stories to safety. Smart, no?

The other story, if you can stand another, has to do with the First National Bank. If you look at the picture on the front cover you will see that the bank has three stories and a barber shop in the basement. When the phone company still had manual switchboards, they were located on the third floor. Well, in the back of the building on the left side was the entrance to the second and third floors. At the foot of the stairs there was a landing, a back door into the bank. In warm months when the bank president and some of the clerks, who were his relatives, would work inside, they would leave the heavy door open and only a screen door for security. And twice each Sunday someone would come out of the door and cross the street to the left to Phillips Drug Store, where there was a soda fountain, to get cokes. At this time the screen door was also left unlatched and sometimes ajar, the bank vault wide open and only one or two people in the bank. I often thought how easy I could rob the place, but also I couldn't... and I couldn't tell anyone else about the caper because the people inside were friends.

*~*~* June *~*~*


The Bank Barber Shop, circa 1930, was located in the basement of First National Bank. Barbers pictured left to right are Roy Virden, French Fogle and Raymond "Dobber" Hemsworth. The young lady in the barber's chair is unidentified. A shoeshine stand and towel steamer are shown in the background.

"This picture was taken in the basement barber shop under the front of the bank. Roy Virden was the father of Linda Virden, one of my classmates. I cleaned the shop for a while in 1952."

*~*~* July *~*~*


Pictured in the American Legion Community Building in 1935. For twenty years, it ws the site of the high school physical education, basketball and T & I shop programs. In 1960, it was converted into Pleasatns County Park School and in 1974 became the Pleasants County Community Building.

"This building is still in use. In my time the above-ground structure was a basketball court and was used by SMHS for gym classes and basketball games. Behind the windows at ground level was the Trade and Industry machine shop, and behind that were the dressing rooms for sports and PE. Behind the steps on the right and on the lower floor was the only bowling alley in town until the Illar family built the new movie house and put in four bowling lanes. The cannon went for scrap during WWII."

*~*~* August *~*~*


A circa 1929 view of St. Marys and the newly completed "Short Route Bridge." This bridge was razed on January 29, 1971 and replaced by the present Hiram "Hi" Carpenter Bridge, which opened on November 19, 1977.

"This picture was taken from Emerich Hill and looks upriver, or north. The shape and size of the island can be seen. The upper end of the island is just beyond the large hill in the center of the picture. Middle Island Creek is the smaller body of water to the right and turns sharply to the right at the foot of the large hill.

Hiram Carpenter got word that a bridge was going to be built at Point Pleasant, WV, and went to see it for himself. He liked the idea so well that he told the builders to make him one, and here it is. This bridge was gorgeous, but flawed in a still unknown manner. It was December 15, 1967 when the bridge at Point Pleasant collapsed and killed 46 people as it fell during the rush hour in the evening (See Page 80 in the book, The History of Pleasants County to 1980). This bridge was inspected and no fault was found, and no reason was ever arrived at for the other one's collapse, so this one was destroyed as a safety measure on June 29, 1971 (See Page 81 in the book). The short span to the right is still there and allows vehicle traffic onto the island. The island is now a Federal Bird Sanctuary. The new Hi Carpenter Bridge is located where the open space is at the center of this picture."

*~*~* September *~*~*


St. Marys Public School, circa 1907. The first classes were held in this building in January, 1897 for grades 1-12. It served as the high school until the present high school facility was completed in 1920. The renovated structure currently houses St. Marys Elementary School.

"The old school house. What an ironic picture for September. This is the same school showing in the January picture, plus years of hard knocks. This is a two-story building and basement. When I went there, I often wondered why the sandstone steps were so worn. Well, when anything gets that old it has a right to wear out."

Another hometown story:

This building had a coal-fired forced-air heating system, a major point in story.

On the last day of school before Christmas break in 1941, my first friend other then family members (Max Cosper) and I were walking to school when I spotted a pretty black and white kitten in a junk yard that belonged to Davey Wiggner (grouchey ol' man). So I told Max, "Let's get the cat." Well, at that time I could run faster than Max, so as I reached for the cat up came the tail and out came the surprise. I was sick and went home; Max was scared and opted to go to school. His school day was terminated in about an hour. But the kitty and the furnace had gotten together (thanks to Max), and that building stunk for months.

*~*~* October *~*~*


The new Pleasants County Courthouse cornerstone was laid on September 3, 1924. A bolt of lightening in July, 1923 rendered the old courthouse unfit for use. Grading and landscaping, shown here, began in 1925.

"The new courthouse with the most modern of earth-moving equipment. My maternal grandfather's family did a lot of the brick work on this building."

*~*~* November *~*~*


St. Marys High School as it appeared in 1935. The first section of the school was completed in 1920 and the class of 1920 was the first to graduate from the new building. The second section, with the white pillars in front, was added in the summer of 1929. The facility housed grades 7-12.

"Oh darn, I forgot a tidbit about the old school house. It was on the last day of school when I was in the sixth grade, which was going to be the last day of school in this building for a year as it was going to be rebuilt and expanded. Now I have mistakenly been blamed for this, but the last day of school in the twelfth grade was also the last day the high school building was open for a year for needed renovation.

On the last day of the sixth grade, my class was running around and being rowdy without any teacher present. A teacher came in and took us out into the hall in lines. At that moment the ceiling fell down. These old ceilings were 10 or 12 feet high and the old lath and plaster must have weighed a ton. Five minutes sooner and it would have been a disaster."

*~*~* December *~*~*


Pictured in front of the Wells Store in Shultz, West Virginia, are two Matheny girls, Dr. Ross, Sam Wells, Billie Ward and Charley Thrash. Others are unidentified.

"The town of Schultz, been there and done that. One of my brothers-in-law was raised there. This area has always produced some gas and oil, and sometime in the 1960's a gas pocket found its way to the surface and blew up the town. Some people never returned, and it was years before the gas was completely stopped and the other people could return."

Couldn't resist one more home town story:

Hiram Carpenter used to cut ice out of the Ohio River in the winter and store it in large warehouses for use in the summers. One day Walter fell in and went under the ice. No one could reach him. One of Hiram's brothers, Dewey, grabbed a pike pole and thrust it under the ice and grabbed Walter's clothes and pulled him out. All I can say is "Thank God".... this world would be a smaller place without Squirt.

An addition, by request of my wife. In my time, when the phone company was still in the bank building, there was a red light that was suspended on a steel pipe on top of the bank next to the flag pole. When someone would call for the police chief (he was chief because he was the only cop we had), the operators would turn on the red light and when the chief saw the light he would call in to see what the problem was.

I like to tell everyone that in my time the Chief of Police, George Riggs by name, ruled with an iron hand, and when I get the proper shocked expression, I go on to tell them that he only used it to wave at his friends as they drove by. His car was his office and his usual place was on the corner across from Phillips Drug Store. At that time there were four George Riggs in St. Marys.

Two stories about Chief George Riggs:

Mr. Riggs served during WWII, but before he went into the service he was on the police force and his father was chief. As you can see from these pictures, St. Marys is only seven blocks wide and then the hills rise pretty steeply. After Hi Carpenter built the first bridge, St. Marys was the only place to cross the Ohio River between Parkersburg and Wheeling, WV. One night George was patroling "on top the hill" when a car whizzed by. He gave chase and pulled the car over. When he walked up to the side of the car, he saw the driver had a gun in his hand and it was pointed at him. The driver asked his name and when George told him who he was, he asked if he was Chief Riggs' son. When George said he was, the driver said his father was known far and wide as an honest cop so he had a deal to propose: If George would give him a 15-minute head start before he called for help or did anything else, he would let George live. Upon agreeing, the driver left. Four days later the driver was killed by the FBI at Youngstown, Ohio. His name was Pretty Boy Floyd.

There is another version of this story on Page 261 of the History of Pleasants County to 1980. In that version there was a second man by the name of Adam Richetti. I don't know who that was.

Starting in 1947, some chemical plants started coming into the Ohio Valley and construction brought in money, but never in a steady flow. So the joke started that when a guy got a job the first thing he bought was a new pickup, then some new guns, then a bass boat, then a house. When the job was finished and no money was coming in, the things left in the reverse order that they were purchased. This is the background for the second story.

About 1959/1960, jobs were scarce and some people were losing their homes. George was called upon to serve notices of default on these people, but he refused stating that they were his friends and that he could not do such a thing. He was then told that it was his job, so either serve the notices or resign. So after 13 or more years of peace he resigned, and the city began to deteriorate.

Just one more story:

In my senior year of high school, I had a friend by the name of Eddie Wells who was a junior. We were in the same shop class in the afternoon. This class was taught by Earl (DOC) Watson. Now Doc was the second smartest man that I have met. He didn't know it all but he would learn it before anybody else could even ponder it. Now ol Eddie was poorer than I was and I was poor, but I worked for Hiram Carpenter everytime I got a chance, I made a big $1.00 per hr. and boy that wasn't bad, so I usually had a little money, and I would get Eddie to clean up my machine when I left for ball practice. I would buy him a soda at the snack shop that Dink Snivley ran at the bowling alley next door. My oldest sisters husband had given me a shoe box full of firecrackers, they were old and had a real bang to them. Now DOC was always chewing on a Roi-Tan cigar, He seldom lit one but walked around in school chewing on one, his classes would always get him a box of cigars for Christmas. In this class, machine shop class, there were 4 small lathes built by South Bend Lathes, these machines were driven by a flat belt. If you put them in low gear and didn't take them out of high gear they would scream like a banshee. Enter my dirtiest trick ever. I told Eddie that if he would help me play a trick on Doc that I would buy him a coke, to which he readily replied. I told him to go over and stand by this lathe, I would light this cherry bomb and slide it into the spindle, and then he was to turn the lathe on, which we did. The lathe screamed the cherry bomb went of with a roar.Doc came out of the office and was spitting out the end of his cigar that he had bitten off. He took one look at the smoke, smelled the gun powder, look at the other end of the shop where I was nonchalant leaning against the stock rack. He immediately assessed the situation, shook his head and went back into his office. All my work had turned into a fizzle because he never said a thing to Eddie or myself.

Pleasants County.... Small place, huge people.