By Dwight Williamson
Some of Logan County’s most precious history has truly been buried within the bounds of Logan County. Unfortunately, along with time, and some factors beyond the common man’s reach, the great efforts of men and women of the past are not nearly as distinguished as perhaps they should be. Take, for instance, the life of Henry Clay Ragland— the man who wrote “The History of Logan County” after first beginning what was then called The Logan County Banner in 1888. Ragland, at least, has his writings that most historical people can always refer to when desiring a recorded glimpse of life in the Guyandotte Valley hundreds of years ago. Ragland is buried in the neglected High Street cemetery in Logan that has been referred to as the “City Cemetery.” Though abandoned long ago, Ragland’s family gravesite there is still easily accessible.
However, there is one man who, like Ragland, was a scholar and an attorney, but his name is not nearly identifiable to Logan Countians as it should be. Yet, this gentleman may have played the most influential role ever in the true growth of what is now the town of Logan and the entire county. This person was so important to the citizens of Logan County, that following his death May 6, 1934, the entire city was ordered shutdown in his honor. This man, who is rarely even mentioned in the local historical realm, much less in the educational field, was regarded as such an influential figure to Logan County that the County Court advocated for the erection of a suitable tablet bearing his name at the then old Logan County courthouse. Likewise, the Logan City Council voted in 1934 to establish a memorial on the soon to be completed brand new Water Street Bridge; a bridge that would have the community buzzing with excitement. This noted person, whose picture should logically now appear at the Masonic Lodge in Logan, First Baptist Church in Logan and in the halls of Alderson-Broaddus College, is none other than John Cary Alderson—the founder and operator of the first bank ever opened in Logan County.
J. Cary Alderson, as he was mostly identified by, was born September 29, 1869, a native of Alderson, West Virginia, where his father, George, was born. The town itself in Greenbrier County was named after Cary Alderson’s grandfather, John Alderson, who came to America in 1719 and established the first Baptist Church west of the Alleghany Mountains. He was a Baptist “circuit rider” until about 1790. The Alderson clan hailed from England and was strongly of the Baptist religious belief.
Cary Alderson completed law school at the University of Virginia, where he also was an assistant professor of Latin and Greek, and returned to Alderson at the age of 21. According to an article written by Alderson years later, a cousin of his had been to Logan County and thought there was a good opportunity for an attorney “in that section of the state.” Alderson— who admitted to not having any “definite plans for life work”—rode on horseback 50 miles to Logan, sending his clothes by push-boat up the Guyandotte River. Arriving in 1890, Logan was still called Aracoma and there were only Indian trails leading to the town that would welcome the railroad that finally reached Logan in 1904.
Alderson wrote, “……..I soon found that the people in the mountains of Logan County were as fine a class of people as I had ever met. They were fair and willing to give a young man a chance to become established. I have nothing but the highest praise for the people I found in Logan County when I arrived.”
The Logan Banner obituary of Alderson described him as being recognized as “a man of capability, trustworthiness, ambitious and enterprising.” The story further said he was “of quiet, unassuming disposition; firm in his friendships and eminently fair in his business dealings.”
Because of timber interests and then coal companies’ mineral interests (even before there was a railroad to Logan) there was talk of the need for a bank in Logan. With Henry Ragland’s repeated efforts in The Logan Banner for a railroad into Logan to haul the coal interests from the county, Alderson, along with the financial help of Vicie (Stratton) Nighbert, and others, had the vision for the need of a banking institution. Nighbert’s husband, Colonel James A. Nighbert, who died in 1898 as the wealthiest man in the area, had the desire for a local bank prior to his death.
Though the first bank was a small one room structure at the same site that the Guyan Valley Bank would later occupy, Alderson operated it by himself before the very large stone bank opened its doors January 1, 1900. There were those few people of the community then that believed in Alderson’s idea for a bank, simply because they knew of the possibilities that the railroad would bring to what could become a coal community. It would be proven within the coming years, as coal mines opened across the county and workers were imported from other parts of the world, that the Old Stone Bank, as it was affectionately called, was the key to the county’s growing success.
Along with the new workers and new mines operating, came the rise of businesses, pool halls, hotels, churches, and all of the unruliness that generally accompanies speedy growth. Other banks also opened, including the First National Bank of Logan in 1906 and the Miners and Merchants Bank of Man that became operational in 1921.
Logan County grew tremendously following the railroad reaching Logan and eventually the Triadelphia area. Coal camps had sprung up in the dark hollows of the county and the diversity of its many ethnic groups sometimes led to problems, though usually not while the men were working side-by-side digging the black gold from the Appalachian earth. But with the advent of The Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929, it only took a few years for the economic situation in the area to become grim.
The Miners’ Bank of Man went broke early in The Depression and never reopened again, while it was just a few years later that both the First National Bank of Logan and Alderson’s Guyan Valley Bank also were forced to close, as the county’s future was dimmed almost to the point of a darkened coal mine. Alderson, then 62 years of age, had closed his institution in 1931 and the First National Bank then tried to absorb the old bank which had chiefly been responsible for the industrial development of the county. Unfortunately, First National Bank was also doomed and county leaders, including Alderson, tried in vain to keep it afloat.
Through the tremendous efforts of community leaders, the doom and gloom that had spread throughout the local land suddenly turned into optimistic expectation when The Logan Banner headlines of September 29, 1933 announced: “First National Bank To Reopen.” By his time, J. Cary Alderson had become an invalid at his large home on Main Street, unable to even walk to see his old stone bank that had been built from stone brought from a quarry at Stratton Hollow in Logan.
Though Alderson’s bank was closed for all banking purposes, the two story structure that also contained a basement was the home of Guyan Valley Drug, a barber shop, and a lawyer’s office. The drug store and the building were purchased by legendary sheriff Don Chafin, who opened an office on the second floor. It was there he was once arrested by the deputies of Sheriff Joe Hatfield for possessing illegal liquor. The Old Stone Bank’s front steps in 1932 also provided the setting for Clarence Stephenson, who at his murder trial of Mamie Thurman, testified it was there he was told— by his boss and landlord, banker Harry Robertson (who had worked at the bank along with Mamie)— to sit and watch (on the eve of her murder) for Mamie Thurman to enter or leave the scandalous “Key Club” that was located on the second floor of the Holland Building on Stratton Street; today, it is the business known as “Gold Town.”
The same year his bank closed in 1931, Alderson wrote his will, which spelled out that he was leaving his “mansion” and all its belongings to his adopted daughter, Mrs. Earl (Ruth) Carper. His wife, Julia Altizer, had died a few years earlier and was buried at the then almost new Logan Memorial Park at McConnell where her husband joined her following services at the First Baptist Church in Logan. Alderson, a charter member of Aracoma Lodge No. 99, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, was given Masonic burial rites by lodge members who attended the burial in mass. Unlike many important citizens of the county buried at McConnell, who were removed to other cemeteries, the Alderson’s remain amongst the weeds and brush that now have taken over the 20-acre abandoned cemetery; burial grounds whose former owners once promised perpetual care.
Alderson, whose sister and brother had founded Alderson College (now known as Alderson-Broaddus), had over the years donated thousands of dollars to the school, and in his will, he bequeathed even more. In addition, Logan’s first banker left First Baptist Church pastor Robert F. Caverlee, the sum of $5000.
Huge amounts of coal have been exported from Logan County over the years, thanks to the early beginning of the Old Stone Bank that once stood where Logan Bank and Trust now exists across from the Logan courthouse. In fact, J. Cary Alderson left behind a region rich in culture and history. Today, the local communities still maintain much of the character of its towns, reflecting our local traditions, our immigrant laborers and the complete dominance of the coal industry.
Unfortunately, Mr. Alderson, who perhaps has never collected the debt owed to him by Logan society, is buried at the forgotten cemetery at McConnell. He, like Henry Clay Ragland, another devout Baptist, helped elevate Logan to what used to be “greatness.” Today, it is as if nobody even cares.
And that is sad.
*Published with permission.