West Virginia is a state steeped in history.
It’s evident in stories and folklore and in small towns scattered among the mountains. But perhaps no other small town offers a microcosm of West Virginia history like Malden, a town just a few miles outside Charleston.
Larry L. Rowe, a candidate for state House of Delegates and attorney with an office in Malden, has worked over the past couple of decades to preserve the history of the area. He currently is researching the Ruffner family, considered to be among the first white settlers in the Kanawha Valley and developers of several business practices that allowed the salt industry to flourish in the area. His research may turn into a book.
“You discover the Ruffners, everything we have in the Kanawha Valley was developed by the early Ruffner family,” Rowe said.
The family invented modern-day drilling in America. Rowe said the Chinese had discovered the technology hundreds of years before that, but it hadn’t been used in America until the Ruffners used it in their salt mines along the Kanawha River. By 1850, the family had developed a factory system and operated about 50 salt furnaces in the Malden area.
“This makes the Kanawha Valley one of the earliest sites in the Industrial Revolution,” Rowe said. “They attracted thousands and thousands of people to the Kanawha Valley by the Civil War.”
Among those attracted to the salt mines was the family of Booker T. Washington. Washington was born a slave in eastern Virginia, and he and his family joined his stepfather in Malden after the Civil War. Rowe said Washington lived with the Ruffner family for a time and was able to see the world through their eyes, helping shape his life as he grew older.”
“He’s able to live with the Ruffners and see his family through their eyes,” Rowe said. “He sees a good family worthy of success and worthy to be leaders in town. He also sees the world the Ruffners have created. He’s able to see from the perch of their greatness that if they did it, I can do it too. Very fundamental. The ultimate selling point is if they can create a society here, thousands of people, a whole factory system, industry, churches and school — if they can do that out of nothing, I can go to the South and create a new social order out of the horror of slavery after the Civil War. He has that confidence the rest of his life.”
Washington went on to receive an education, uncommon among freed slaves, and founded a school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama, at age 25.
Because of the prominence of the Ruffner family, many historic buildings in Malden can be traced back to them. Among them is the African Zion Church, where the Washington family worshiped. Other buildings have been preserved and are now private residences or house businesses, such as Rowe’s law office.
Rowe, originally from Peterstown, said he fell in love with Malden and its history around 1990 when he was looking to move from Charleston’s East End.
“I moved here to live in 1990 and moved the practice in 1995,” he said. “I truly love living here. It’s a great little town.”
Living and working in Malden allows Rowe, a history buff, better access to research for his books and articles. He said upon moving to the area, it became “natural to become involved in the history.”
“The thing about studying history in the town where you live particularly with national significance, it pulls you into the period,” he said. “You start to feel it, you immerse in it. It becomes an experience as opposed to reading a book or watching a movie.”
West Virginia State University maintains the African Zion Church, a replica of Washington’s boyhood cabin, two historic buildings and a park. Rowe said tours of the facilities are by appointment. To schedule a viewing, call Rowe at 304-925-1333.
Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.