The Beverly Public Square

By Donald L. Rice

Any discussion of the Beverly Public Square has traditionally evoked a debate as to the authenticity of its dedication as a public square or playground. Local residents have long recognized it as the first public playground in what is now West Virginia and perhaps the first in this country.

This tract of land, which contains approximately one-fourth acre, apparently has been used for the benefit of the public since the acquisition of the property by the Westfalls in 1783. Extant records in both Monongalia and Harrison counties, which were the governing entities of the present Randolph County prior to 1787, offer little information which relates to the Westfall settlement and which would provide substantiation to the belief that it was dedicated as a public square by the Westfalls. Nor did the Beverly corporate charter of 1790 make any provisions for the reservation of a plot for public use.

In 1787, a lot opposite and south of the vacant square was selected by the county court as the site for a new county courthouse. When the courthouse was completed in 1798, it occupied a corner of the lot. The structure received little use as a courthouse and was abandoned in 1803 and later razed. A jail was ordered built in 1788 but was not completed until 1790.

However, the subsequent use and legal disposition of adjoining properties have been, for the most part, the determinants that established the property as a public domain in perpetuity.

Because of dissatisfaction with the temporary court arrangements, which provided for court sessions in private homes, and the inadequate jail facilities, the justices of the county met in 1808 to consider the construction of a new courthouse and jail, since the latter “had utterly failed.” By 1813, money had been appropriated to start construction and the court ordered, on November 24, 1813, that “William Marteney and William Steers to be appointed Commissioners to contract with Adam Myers for land to build a jail on and to enter into an agreement with said Myers that the Public will put no building on the Public Square unoccupied opposite said Myer’s House, but is to remain for the use of the public.”

This order was entered after consideration was given to placing the new jail on the unoccupied square. Adam Myers was at that time an heir to the property that was adjacent to the square on the east side (A in sketch) and north side (B in sketch). He had constructed a hotel on the east side of the square, and when the suggestion for the use of the square as the site of the new jail was presented, Myers objected as he believed that the structure in front of his hotel would interfere with his business and devaluate his property.

Following negotiations with the county court, an agreement was reached whereby he would deed the unoccupied lot north of the square to the court for the location of the new jail, providing the court would guarantee the reservation of the square as an open area for the use of the public. Accordingly, the following entry was made in the court records on November 25, 1813:

This indenture made this 25th day of November 1813 between Adam Myers and Mary. Myers of the County of Randolph of the one part and William Marteny & William Steer commissioners appointed by an order of the County Court of Randolph at the November term 1813 to contract with the said Myers for Ground to build a public jail on, of the other part, witnesseth that the said Adam Myers & Mary Myers for and the consideration of the sum of one dollar as well as one moiety (sic) of the public ground opposite to & in front of said Myers house so far as the said public ground is not to be occupied by public buildings to them by the said William Marteny & William Steer in hand paid the receipt whereof the said Adam Myers and Mary Myers hereby acknowledge hath granted bargained sold and confirmed & by these presents doth grant bargain sell and convey unto the said William Marteny and William Steer Commissioners for the said Court a certain lot of land containing one half quarter of an acre lying and being in the town of Beverly adjoining of the said Public Ground being part of lot known on the plan of said Town by No. 5. To have and to hold said lot or parcel of land with the appurtenances thereto belonging to them the said Commissioners for the use of the said Court & their successors to the only proper use & behoof of the said Court and their successors forever & the said Adam Myers and Mary Myers for themselves, their exers. & Admis. doth hereby covenant & agree with the said Coms. that they the said Adam Myers and Mary Myers & their heirs & the said lot or parcel of land with its appurtenances to them the said Commissioners against them the said Adam Myers & Mary Myers & their heirs & against all persons whomsoever shall and will warrant and defend.

In witness whereof the said Adam Myers & Mary Myers hath hereunto set their hands and affixed their seals the day & year above written.

Signed sealed & delivered     Adm. Myers (Seal)

in presence of     Wm. Marteny (Seal)

Mary Myers became the co-respondent to the indenture because she was involved in the sequence of transfers of property that became a part of the Myers heirship and which included the lot offered to the court.

The first recorded deed in Randolph County for the property surrounding the square was made by James Westfall and wife to Simon Reeder in deed book 1, page 408, 1793. The next transfer of the property occurred when Simon Reeder deeded the tract to Charles Myers in deed book 1, page 407, 1793. The property was retained by Charles Myers until his death in 1813, when this land fell within the provisions of his will which designated his wife, Mary, as the prime beneficiary and sons, John, Adam, and Jacob as residual beneficiaries. In the August 1813 term of the Randolph County Count the will of the deceased Charles Myers was presented, proved, and recorded, according to will book 1, page 137 of Randolph County.

In 1833, Adam Myers conveyed his hotel, then known as the Valley House, to Anthony See. The property was in turn sold to Solomon Wyatt in 1834 and the following year it was sold to William Rowan. In 1838, Rowan sold out to Franklin Leonard who subsequently deeded the property to Valerie S. Sturmer in 1879.

The year of 1895 brought forth an extended legal controversy over the disposition of the 1808 courthouse and lot, plus the public square, by the county court, which was then comprised of Patrick Crickard, Warwick Hutton, and L. D. Greynolds.

The commissioners had in 1892 advertised in the newspaper that the sale of the property would take place in front of the old courthouse in October of that year. During that sale, the property was conveyed for a consideration of $2,500.00 to F. J. Smith, who was later looked upon by the Circuit Court as being a “Straw Man,” as the property was resold to include the commissioners as joint owners on June 29, 1893, for the same amount.

On May 13, 1895, Valerie S. Sturmer secured an injunction from Judge Joseph T. Hoke, of the Circuit Court, which restrained the four gentlemen from erecting any buildings on the public square. In providing testimony in support of the injunction, many documents and supporting statements were secured to reaffirm the common belief that the public square was to remain in perpetuity as public property.

Affidavit of J. S. Bucky, Beverly, W. Va.

The Affiant John S. Bucky says that he is 67 years of age, that he has resided in and about Beverly all his life. That he is well acquainted with the hotel property owned by Valeria Sturmer, that he has always understood from his father and old men when he was a boy or young man that the square in front of said hotel property has been set aside as a common or public place by Adam Myers and Court of Randolph County and that the same was to be kept open and public as a common and he has been under that understanding ever since he can recollect, and that once when his father was a member of the County Court before the war an application was made to said Court, as he was informed by his father, to sell said square and the Court decided that they had no right to sell the same. Affiant further states that before the war the then owner of said hotel tried to induce the County Court of said County to sell the same to said proprietor, but the County Court disclaimed the right to sell the same and thereupon said proprietor engaged the service of the lawyer Gideon D. Camden, as he is informed, and proceeded to endeavor to procure an act passed by the Legislature of Virginia at Richmond authorizing said County Court to sell the same, but said act was never passed. Affiant further states that he has carefully listened to the affidavit of Elias Earle read and that the facts stated therein as being upon his own knowledge are also within the knowledge of the affiant, and that the facts stated therein as being upon information have long since been within the knowledge of the affiant by information from others, except perhaps the fact of an application having been made by the proprietor of the said hotel since the war to the Board of Supervisors to sell the said Square.

  1. S. Bucky

State of West Virginia, Randolph County:

John S. Bucky named in the foregoing affidavit being duly sworn says that the facts and allegations therein contained are true except so far as they are therein stated to be upon information and that so far as they are therein stated to be upon information he believes them to be true.

Taken sworn to and subscribed before me this the 16th day of May 1895. J. B. Ward, Notary Public in and for Randolph County

Affidavit of John C. Leonard, Beverly, W. Va.

The affiant John C. Leonard says that he is 50 years of age, that he has always lived in and about Beverly, and that he has always been informed and thought that the square in front of the Old Valley House in Beverly was a Public Square. That he first received information in regard to that matter from the late Wm. Rowan, an aged and respected citizen of the Town. That for amusement he used to controvert the matter with said Rowan, and tell him that his mother, Mrs. Lucinda Leonard, had obtained the privilege or was going to fence it up, and that said Rowan who had been a former owner of said hotel property always denounced the proposition with much warmth and vehemence and declared always that it was a public square, and that his mother had no right to fence said square, neither could the County Court give her the right to close it up, that it belonged to the public, and that such was the fact was accepted by me for the truth and I think was generally so accepted by the public. These controversies occurred shortly after the war between said Rowan and myself.

Affiant further says that while the heirs of Franklin Leonard was managing said hotel about the close of the war or shortly thereafter, culverts were put in at the north and south ends of said square for drainage by them and a rock pavement was lain down in front of the porch to said hotel and gravel walks were made & maintained from the main entrance at the center of the hotel to the main street opposite the present Post Office and also the North West corner of said square on Main Street.

State of West Virginia, Randolph County:

John C. Leonard, named in the foregoing affidavit, being duly sworn says that the facts and allegations therein contained are true except so far as they are therein stated to be upon information and that so far as they are stated to be upon information he believes them to be true.

John C. Leonard

Taken sworn to and subscribed before me this the 16tb day of May 1895.

  1. B. Ward, a Notary Public in and for Randolph County, W. Va.

Other testimony and documents were presented by witnesses appearing before Judge Hoke, which lent support to the cause for the injunction.

In 1885, boxes and other articles were stored on the square. The rakes and farm implements stored there gave off such an offensive odor that citizens of Beverly made a plea to the County Court to have all items removed. The Court made the deputy sheriff and jailer responsible for clearing the lot. Each time the county or circuit courts met thereafter, all items on the square were routinely removed.

On one occasion there was an attempt to place a well on the public square, but pressure was applied by court officials, which resulted in placing the well to the side of the square. At another time, the town council of Beverly had a walk put down, but the County Court assumed the expense for having it done.

To preserve the public’s interest in the property as a square for public use, the court entered on record in 1891 an order for the sheriff to free the public square of all obstructions.

The Commissioners carried the case to the Supreme Court of Appeals and on December 9, 1896, the court sustained the decree of the Circuit Court decree of October 19, 1895, that had made the injunction permanent.

According to Hu Maxwell, the Supreme Court, in effect, “had dedicated the square to the use of the public, and it must perpetually remain for the use of the public.”