Visit Middlebourne’s National Historic District
(Editor’s note: This is the latest installment from the Tyler County Planning Commission in conjunction with the Tyler County Bicentennial.)
Tyler County is fortunate to be home to two National Historic Districts, as well as 10 independent structures, which hold a place on the National Register of Historic Places. In this installment we feature the Middlebourne National Historic District. We encourage readers to look more closely at our county’s historic resources and appreciate the architectural wealth, which has been recognized on a national level.
As Tyler County celebrates 200-years as a county during 2014, Middlebourne can boast of 201-years of existence this year. Middlebourne was established as a town by Virginia legislative enactment on January 27, 1813, on the lands of settler Robert Gorrell. However, the town was not incorporated until February 3, 1871.
Middlebourne’s historic significance, along with its remaining wealth of vintage homes, commercial structures, and government buildings, led to the recognition of the Middlebourne National Historic District in 1993. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Middlebourne National Historic District’s period of significance begins with the first building activity in what is now Middlebourne, about 1805 and extends to about 1925, the point at which the last building activity of consequence (within the Middlebourne National Historic District) occurred.
The district is located along several of the town’s oldest and most important streets. The neighborhood retains a sense of place and character within a community that has served since the early 19th century as the site of the Tyler County Courthouse.
Middlebourne’s growth was steady but modest from the point of the town’s founding around 1813. Population fluctuations in the town were never sizable. 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.
Through most of the 1800’s, 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 1890’s, assured the town a measure of prosperity and stability.
Aside from its service to surrounding farms, Middlebourne benefited from the discovery in 1894 of huge natural gas reserves east of town (see the story about “Big Moses” in the the Feb. 12 edition of the Tyler Star News). From the 1890’s well into the 1920’s, commercial and residential construction expanded along Main Street, East Street, and Dodd Street.
Most of the Middlebourne National Historic District’s buildings are two stories high. The greatest number of buildings are, by far, constructed of wood, reflecting the region’s plentiful forest and lumber resources that produced milled products for local builders and superintendents. Most wood frame homes within the district feature ornate wooden ornamentation around windows and doors, in cornices, and at the apex of gables.
By 1905, a brick-making facility just east of East Street was producing high quality bricks that were used in the construction of the Tyler County High School building, East Street Methodist Church, and the bank buildings on Main Street.
Anchoring the district is the Neo-Classical and Baroque Tyler County Courthouse. 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 was 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 to the Victorian Gothic. Not surprisingly, many merchants lived in their shop buildings, or owned brick or frame two-story houses on Main Street. Indeed, the earliest buildings (from the early 1800’s) in Middlebourne are along the north end of Main Street.
The third portion of the Middlebourne National 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. The pronounced Victorian grandeur of the street is the result of a number of over-sized houses bearing towers, turrets, and deep porches.
The architecture of the Middlebourne National 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 and a prime example of American towns of its era.
An appreciation for the heritage that remains on our streets and in our countryside is vital to preserving what we still have. While many of Tyler County’s historic and architectural gems have been lost over the years to fire, flood, decay, or the wrecking ball, many more remain. So, during your next walk downtown or drive in the country, look up and look around. You might be surprised at what you’ve been missing.
Acknowledgments: 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. National Register of Historic Places, nomination document, prepared by Rodney S. Collins, Architectural Historian, and Karen Maple-Stover, West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, Middlebourne Historic District,, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1993