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McMechen House history gets a new chapter

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CYNTHIA McCLOUD / For The State Journal CYNTHIA McCLOUD / For The State Journal

By CYNTHIA McCLOUD

For The State Journal

Moorefield's McMechen House has begun a new chapter in its storied history.

Its new owners opened a coffee shop and bakery April 1. It's the first phase of bringing back business to The McMechen House Bed & Breakfast. 

Owners Randy Bailey and Richard Thompson plan to open a gift shop selling handcrafted items made in West Virginia, plus things made in the United States and Europe. They're working toward checking in the first overnight guests this summer.

The pair purchased the house and attached store at 109 N. Main St. in December 2013 from the Hardy County Rural Development Authority.

"This was a thriving business eight years ago. There was a restaurant and it operated as a B&B for several years," said Kriston Strickler of the Hardy County Tour and Crafts Association. "The RDA was looking for someone who would purchase and open the house up for something in the community and preserve its history."

The house will be open to the public to tour during Hardy County's Heritage Weekend in September, Bailey said. The coffee shop and bakery are open at 7:30 a.m. Monday-Friday. Medium-roast coffee is served until 10:30 a.m. The bakery closes when it runs out of the day's products. If the shutters are open, the bakery is open. The specials on opening day included orange cranberry scones, butter rum muffins, cookies with old-fashioned pineapple, apple or raisin fillings, a whole lemon chess pie and a whole black walnut apple cake.

Bailey is the cook, but both men operated a catering business together for 14 years. And the house currently can be booked for special events.

"It's available by reservation for catered events such as a Christmas party or bridal shower or anniversary party," Thompson said. 

The businessmen have been working diligently to restore the brick Italianate building to its former opulence.

"Ten weeks we've been working on it," Thompson said.

Most of the work has been cleaning and painting the 160-year-old structure and replacing the heating system.

"The house sat empty for seven or eight years," Bailey said, adding they've removed 10 truckloads of trash that had been stored in the basement, including old food and mildewed linens.

They uncovered an artifact in the process: a journal from Samuel McMechen's dry goods store. That's remarkable because the house was turned into apartments when the last McMechen died. An earlier renovation by previous owners turned up a political slogan supporting James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential election. It's painted on a wall in a room on the third floor that Moorefield history books record as being the local Grange Hall.

Only three pieces of original furniture remain in the 25-room house. A chest is being restored and will be displayed in a guest room. A settee is located in one suite, and a sideboard is in service in the coffee shop, which was the McMechens' formal parlor for entertaining guests.

Bailey and Thompson brought décor such as crystal chandeliers and paintings from their own collections, such as a portrait of Mrs. John Marshall IV that hangs in Mrs. McMechen's parlor, a sitting room where family would gather. 

Samuel McMechen built the house in 1853. According to local legend, he wanted his house to be bigger than another imposing residence in town — the Maslin house, Strickler said.

When the Civil War came, McMechen and his family, Confederate sympathizers, took off for their cabin in Howard's Lick Spring (present-day Lost River State Park in Mathias) or for friends' homes in the Shenandoah Valley. Union and Confederate generals slept in the house as both sides sought control of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Union Gen. John C. Fremont made his headquarters in the house in May 1862. And on Aug. 7, 1864, Confederate Gen. John McCausland was asleep upstairs when Union Gen. William W. Averell attacked his troops camped outside of town in what became known as the Battle of Moorefield.

After the war, the McMechens returned to reclaim their house, which had been badly damaged by the Union army.

Mary Elizabeth McMechen remarked in 1866, "We have been torn from Virginia by wicked force, but we are Virginians still."

The McMechen House is again owned and occupied by Virginians. Bailey and Thompson also have a home in Luray, Va., where they retired as public school teachers and administrators.

"We weren't ready to stop," Bailey said, explaining the men were looking for a retirement project. "We can make this a viable part of this town again."