Historic Building Finds New Life as John Henry Museum

Posted by | August 5, 2014

William JonesPlease welcome guest author William Jones. Jones is a member of the John Henry Historical Society and a John Henry Historic Park Steering Committee Member.

 

 

 

L. G. Rhodes Store, built in 1905, served the needs of the people in the small village of Talcott, WV, for more than 107 years. At one time, the once thriving railroad community had numerous stores, restaurants, service stations, hotels, boarding houses and other businesses. Talcott suffered the same fate as many other railroad towns and saw a sharp decline in its economy and population throughout the 1950s and 60s.

However, one business survived and continued to prosper: Dillion’s Superette, which was owned and operated by Donna and Ellery Wykle. They ran their convenience store out of the L. G. Rhodes Store building for more than 30 years before retiring in 2012.

L. G. Rhodes Store, built in 1905, Talcott, WV. Undated photo. Courtesy the author.

L. G. Rhodes Store, built in 1905, Talcott, WV. Undated photo. Courtesy the author.

Prior to Donna and Ellery taking possession of the building, it had been renovated in the 1970s and had a drop ceiling installed over the original pressed tin ceiling, industrial tile placed over oak floors, wood paneling installed over the 1905 beadboard walls, a faux wall installed in the rear of the store room which hid the mezzanine and all of its beautiful oak woodwork, and vinyl siding installed over the exterior of the building.

But even with all of the modern amenities, when you walked into Dillion’s Superette you felt as if you were walking into a turn of the century general store. I can remember being a child and going in for a piece of candy. You were always greeted and personally assisted with any need that you had. There was a charm to this building, and it lured people in not only for the items that were for sale (on the original shelving that had been there from the day the store first opened), or the clang of the 1930s cash register that was still being used by Donna, but for the sense of community and enjoyment that the Wykles brought to Talcott.

Over the years, Dillion’s Superette became a hangout for many of the town’s eldest citizens. They would meet there every day and sit on an antique church bench behind the checkout counter, reminiscing about years gone by. One of these citizens was my now 87 year old grandfather, Bernard Thompson. I can recall numerous times being in the store while he and his friends told stories of their youth, especially in reference to Rhodes’ corner (meaning the store building).

Currently, there is a 26 acre John Henry Historic Park being developed in our community to honor and tell the 1871 story of John Henry’s legendary battle with a steam drill at the Big Bend Tunnel. Donna and Ellery were both very active in this process, as well as with the annual John Henry Days festival. This festival takes place during the second weekend of July to celebrate John Henry and the history of Talcott. When Dillion’s Superette was still open, it was the focal point of the festival. It featured the Talcott Area Memorabilia Room (a collection of local history, photographs and artifacts) as well as a vast collection of railroad memorabilia.

The author (l) with Cheryl Jones (John Henry Historical Member) and Bill Dillion (John Henry Historical Society President and John Henry Park Committee President.)

The author (l) with Cheryl Jones (John Henry Historical Member) and Bill Dillion (John Henry Historical Society President and John Henry Park Committee President.)

The Wykles’ love of Talcott was no secret to anyone who lived there. Upon their retirement, they gave a priceless gift to their town. They donated the 1905 L. G. Rhodes store building to be used as a museum and gift shop. The John Henry Historical Society was then formed and took possession of the building in 2013. The only request that Donna and Ellery had was that the original pressed tin ceiling be exposed and restored, the oak floor refinished, and both the tiles and vinyl siding removed.

Volunteers quickly organized and started work to restore the building, removing all of the 1970s construction that hid virtually all of the historical integrity of the building. Ellery even took it upon himself to restore the ceiling that he and Donna had valued greatly. Donna was able to see the restoration process and was greatly warmed to see the building’s historical integrity beginning to shine through once again. Heartbreakingly, she was later diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed before the main floor was completed.

Meticulous detail went into the restoration. Period colors were selected for the walls, which were refurbished in tongue and groove beadboard just as L. G. Rhodes himself had selected. The ceiling has been beautifully painted fresh white, and the wood floors once again glisten beneath the reproduction porcelain light fixtures that would have once hung over store displays and showcases. The staircase and all of the beautiful woodwork on the mezzanine is once again the focal point of the store, just as it would have been on its opening day in 1905.

With all of the progress that has been made, much more is still in wait to be completed. The vinyl siding still needs to be removed, the newly added public restrooms need to be completed, and an authentic replica of the original balcony over the front of the store needs to be finished. The second floor is also waiting to be completely renovated.

This space was once the Masonic Lodge for Talcott and was an addition to L.G. Rhodes’ original plans. The Freemasons approached him and asked to add a second story to their building to be used for their lodge. Mr. Rhodes did so, and it was the meeting space for the Masons and Eastern Star for over 50 years. This floor will be restored just as it was during its time as the Talcott Lodge and will function as additional museum space.

John Henry Museum under construction

Fortunately, a community of volunteers and donors has come together to help us achieve this goal. In May of this year, this group of volunteers organized the John Henry Museum Restoration Gala. It featured a huge silent auction with pieces from local artisans, antiques, handcrafted jewelry and many other unique items. Two live bluegrass bands performed traditional railroad music to the crowd’s great pleasure, and the Wykle family provided a buffet.

Over 150 people attended, and more than $4,000 was raised in a single night. This event was a huge success and a great prelude to the opening of the John Henry Museum and Gift Shop that took place following the gala. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, visitors come to the historic building to view John Henry memorabilia and historical artifacts from Talcott and admire the grandeur of the newly restored main store room. There is a fully stocked gift shop featuring John Henry and Talcott souvenirs, pieces that are hand crafted by local artisans, Blenko Glass, homemade jams and jellies and many other exciting products.

Museum fundraiser

With all of the success that has happened over this past year with the restoration process, and the opening of the museum and gift shop, it is easy to forget about all of the work that still lies ahead. In order to complete Donna and Ellery’s wishes, more funding is still needed.

 

If you would like to see the restoration of this historic structure completed and support its continuing education about John Henry, the most famous African American laborer in history, please make checks payable to the John Henry Historical Society and mail to 104 Pence Springs Drive, Alderson, WV 24910. And if you would like any further information about this project, or to get involved, please feel free to contact William Jones at (304) 445-8839.

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