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Peter Burr House 'wonderful remnant' of Jefferson County's frontier days

July 14, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Allen McGarry Cassell of Mount Olive, N.C., a direct descendent of Peter Burr Sr., visited his ancestor's mid-18th-century home Saturday in Kearneysville, W.Va.
By Richard F. Belisle

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. — Cited as a “wonderful remnant” of Jefferson County’s frontier days in an architectural history of early county homes, the Peter Burr House also has the honor of being named the oldest original frame house still standing in West Virginia.

The house, built in 1751 by Peter Burr Sr., abuts the industrial park that bears his family name. The house was acquired by the Jefferson County Landmarks Commission in 1998.

The house’s architectural features are listed in “Uncommon Vernacular,” a book by Shepherdstown, W.Va., author John C. Allen that was published in 2011 describing area homes built between 1735 and 1835.

In addition to calling the Burr House a wonderful remnant, Allen wrote that it’s the “sole mid-eighteenth century survivor of frame construction ... and a rare example of early timber-framed construction in the valley ...”

Burr, according to family lore, was an architect and carpenter who moved to the area from Connecticut. He might have built the house for his son, Peter Burr Jr., and his family, said Allen McGarry Cassell, 64, of Mount Olive, N.C., a Burr family descendent through marriage on his mother’s side who was visiting the house Saturday.

“Peter Burr was my great-great-great-great-grandfather,” he said.

Cassell is on the faculty at Mount Olive College. He said the Burr family didn’t own the house after 1799. It had a series of subsequent owners until the late 1870s, when Burr descendants once again had possession.

Cassell said much family history was lost over the years and replaced with lore.

“Nobody knows for sure what happened,” he said. He said the house was occupied into the 1940s.

It fell into disrepair until the landmarks commission took it over, said Lori Schwartz, a member of the nonprofit Reliving History Inc. The local group conducts tours of the house and grounds every other Saturday through fall.

About 40 patrons toured the property Saturday.

Every fourth-grade class in Jefferson County comes to the barn for programs, Schwartz said.

According to a landmarks commission history, the Burr House was enlarged twice by the early 1800s. It’s been basically unchanged since.

Other buildings on the property include a reconstructed barn that’s used for educational programs and demonstrations of mid-18th-century living skills.

The springhouse has been rebuilt, and there’s a root cellar. Of special significance is a reproduction of an 18th-century wood-fired brick-baking oven.

On tour Saturdays, the oven becomes the haven of Wayne Braunstein, head of the Peter Burr House Bread Bakers Guild.

“I light a fire in it the night before,” he said. “It burns down overnight, and by morning, the oven has reached temperatures of around 400 degrees.”

Braunstein rakes out the remnants of fire, and loads in his round loaves of sourdough, white, raisin and olive bread. It takes about 45 minutes to bake each batch, he said.

“I usually make 60 to 70 loaves. They sell for from $5 to $7 a loaf. I have regular customers who call ahead,” he said. “All the money goes to the house.”

Tables in the main room of the house were lined with grocery bags Saturday afternoon, each containing a loaf or two waiting to be picked up.

Deborah Rocherfort of Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., sat on the porch displaying toys that were popular with children in the mid-1700s. Among them were hoops and sticks, ring tosses, balls and sticks, board games and marbles, she said.

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