Blacksburg, VA’s Alexander Black House is Newly Restored as Cultural Center

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 24, 2014

Please welcome guest authors Hilary Harrison and Lori Jones from the Blacksburg Museum & Cultural Foundation. Harrison oversees exhibits, collections, history and education at the Foundation and Jones oversees the gift shop, volunteer program & marketing. In the following article they focus on the recent opening, history and future of the Alexander Black House and Cultural Center in Blacksburg, VA.  


Blacksburg, Virginia: A small southwest Virginia town, with a rich culture and history. Within the last decade or so, Blacksburg has been able to gather this important culture and history into one central location to share with the community.

Losing their first home to fire in 1896, Alexander Black and his wife Liz Kent Otey rebuilt their house in the Queen Anne Victorian style, quite uncommon in small town Appalachia.

Losing their first home to fire in 1896, Alexander Black and his wife Liz Kent Otey rebuilt their house in the Queen Anne Victorian style, quite uncommon in small town Appalachia.

When a historic structure was sold for the construction of a new parking garage & retail center (Kent Square), the Town stepped in to save it. In 2002, the Alexander Black House was purchased and moved by the Town of Blacksburg to its current location on Draper Road.

The history of this home actually begins in 1772, when Samuel Black purchased six-hundred acres in the Draper’s Meadow area. Samuel chose not to live in this area, but when he passed away in 1792, he divided his land evenly between his two sons, William and John. John’s land would later become Virginia Tech’s campus while William laid out sixteen blocks on thirty-seven of his acres and founded Blacksburg in 1798. William, like his father, was an expansionist and looked for opportunities to make his mark in new territory. Blacksburg did not grow at the rate William had hoped for, so he left for Ohio in search of more opportunities in expansion. In the thirty year period from 1840 to 1870, however, Blacksburg grew significantly. It became home to many different communities and cultures unique to Southwestern Virginia. A prime spot for resupplying on the road west, Blacksburg captured travelers with varied backgrounds who brought with them a flair for music, agricultural practices, foodways, deep religious beliefs and education.

As the great, great nephew of William Black (founder of Blacksburg in 1798) and son of Dr. Harvey Black (Civil War surgeon), Alexander (1857 – 1935) became a well-known figure in Blacksburg. Losing their first home to fire in 1896, Alexander and his wife Liz Kent Otey rebuilt their house in the Queen Anne Victorian style, quite uncommon in small town Appalachia. Because of its unique architecture, the house became a prominent structure on Main Street, where it stood until 2002.

Construction crews at work on the house in January 2014.

Construction crews at work on the house in January 2014.

...and the finished results in August 2014.

…and the finished results in August 2014.

The Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation has its roots in the Town of Blacksburg’s History and Preservation committee, which was created to guide the establishment of a museum for the community. In August 2010, the committee created the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization, as the fundraising arm of the museum, which adopted the mission to preserve, interpret and promote Blacksburg’s historic, artistic and cultural heritage. Since then, the BMCF has carried out their mission through the management and programming of Blacksburg’s museums and cultural centers as well as the historic 16 Squares of Blacksburg.

August 6th of this year marked the grand opening of the newly restored Alexander Black House and Cultural Center. With Phase 1 complete, visitors can experience the entire first floor of the original house including a new addition. The Cultural Center contains rotating exhibits in art, history and culture and a gift shop. The Foundation also conducts tours of the historic 16 Squares, an historic lecture series, festivals and other events at both the St. Luke & Odd Fellows’ Hall and the Alexander Black House. Fundraising continues as we look forward to the completion of Phase 2, opening the entire upstairs and areas of the basement for community use. Visit for more information and to donate to the restoration fund or to participate in our engraved brick program.

Since the grand opening, thousands of visitors have walked through the halls of the Alexander Black House and are able to learn the importance of our local history, arts and culture. Our rotating exhibits highlight the rich history of our community as well as the work of local artists and the distinctive culture that continues to make Blacksburg special.

Entry way to Black house

Entry way to Black house.

In addition, the BMCF is making a conscious effort to reach audiences of all ages within the community. Throughout the exhibits, technology and modern ways of teaching and participating along with traditional concepts are incorporated to reach a wider audience.

Most recently, on September 13th, the Alexander Black House celebrated the debut of the cultural exhibit “Live Music in Blacksburg in the ‘70s & ‘80s”. Visitors gathered on the lawn for a concert featuring two Blacksburg bands from the ‘80s, The Electric Woodshed and The Kind, and were able to preview the exhibit, which will be on display until November 16th.

A more permanent exhibit, the Alexander Black Bedroom, will continue to highlight the history of the Black family and their contributions to Blacksburg and its development, including furniture that was original to the house.

Upcoming exhibits include focuses on a Victorian Christmas, with quilting, and bicycle culture, coming in the new year.

The Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation invites everyone to come and make yourself at home in “Blacksburg’s Living Room.” Engulf yourself in the community, culture, and history that Blacksburg has to offer.

Museum Hours at the Alexander Black House & Cultural Center (204 Draper Rd., SW) are Tues – Sat, 10 am – 4 pm; Museum Hours at St. Luke & Odd Fellows Hall (203 Gilbert St) are Thurs – Fri, 2 pm – 5 pm.  Visit us on-line at or on Facebook!

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A new home for the cabin of Mark Twain’s parents

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 23, 2014

“I had heard that Mark Twain’s father and mother, John Clemens and his wife, had lived near the internationally famous Sgt. Alvin C. York, in the Pall Mall community of the Tennessee mountain county of Fentress,” says John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia.

“It is a matter of factual history that John Clemens owned much land in that county, and that he was an official in Jamestown, the county seat. He was the postmaster there, and then he moved to Pall Mall on the Wolfe River, and he also opened the post office there.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

“Once while visiting Sgt. York’s son Andrew, I asked about the old log cabin which I’d heard was once occupied by the Clemens family. Andrew was very familiar with it, he said, and he volunteered to take me to it.

“Just two miles north of the old York home, we came upon a tiny one-room log cabin, sitting in an open field, but near a wooded area. This was about 1990, and the structure was quite sound. It was located on property belonging to Ernest Buck, who was not home at the time; but Andrew and I walked over to the forlorn little house, and I took several pictures.

“Some two or three years later, I was speaking to a civic group in Maryville, and I was talking about so much of the largely unknown history of the region, and I mentioned this historic little cabin. After the program, a man named David Buck introduced himself to me. He stated that the cabin to which I alluded was on his father’s property and that it did indeed once serve as the home of John Clemens. He agreed to go with me to talk with his father, Ernest Buck, along with Dean Stone, editor of the Maryville Times. Dean had invited me to speak to the group.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

“It took us nearly a year to find a time when the three of us could make the trip—in August, 1995. We found the elder Buck (Ernest) to be a most friendly and knowledgeable person, and one who was keenly interested in all aspects of local history. He had traced the Buck family back six generations to the 1750s.

“Ernest was a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University, and had lived in D.A.R. Hall, the same place, the same floor, and maybe event the same room, as where I roomed several years later. He’s a great farmer, gardener, and along with his wife Grace, a pillar of the community—and most respected, I’m informed.

“According to Ernest, the foremost local historians agree that Mark Twain’s father and mother once lived there, and he produced local history books to verify this. He also told me of the local tradition to that effect.

“’My daddy died when I was very young, and I went to live with my daddy’s sister, Minnie Buck Greer and her husband, Marion Greer. That was about 1921, and they lived near here. I was walking along with my uncle one day, and we walked past that old house, and Uncle Marion pointed to it and said the house was over 100 years old and that a famous family had once lived there—and I think he told me the name of the family, but I was just a child and didn’t learn until years later that it was the Mark Twain family. The original cabin had a stick and mud chimney, but in 1905 a man named R.G. Crouch built the rock chimney that’s there now.

“’I moved there in 1931 to live with my mother (Dollie Sharp Buck) who had recently moved there. She lived there from ’31 until `948, and a Betram Reynolds moved in and lived there from ’48 until 1951.’

“The following comments from Ernest regarding the Clemens family and the log cabin are based, I believe, on both oral and written history—from the people of that region.

“’John Clemens came from Celina (the home of Cordell Hull) in 1826 or 1827. He stayed there for four years, and then he came down here. They called this Possum Trot in 1832. He had a wife and four children at the time, but they said she wouldn’t come with him. She didn’t want to come out here in the wilderness, and she’s supposed to have said that she was tired of having a child every year.

“’They also said that John Clemens was working on a perpetual motion machine, and that he wanted to be in a place where he could concentrate. He founded the Pall Mall Post Office and served as the first postmaster there.

“’His wife and children joined him here at Possum Trot and moved into the little log house with him. Three of his children went to school here—at a school called Mt. Vernon.

“’John Clemens sold out to the Berry Gatewood family and went to Missouri. Some say that Mark Twain was born here and was taken to Missouri as a child, but most people say he was born a few months after his parents moved there.

“’Some people thought the cabin had been moved a little ways from its first location, but that’s not right. I’m sure that it was never moved ‘til you [John Rice Irwin] moved it.’

“The cabin had become severely damaged in the last four or five years. The cabin leaned to such an extent as to allow all the water draining from the northeast side of the roof to fall directly onto the logs on that side. Hence many logs were totally rotted. It would soon have fallen and been impossible to restore. I think that is why Ernest and Grace agreed to let me have the cabin. Also, they had recently visited the Museum of Appalachia (unbeknownst to me) and were much impressed, they said.

“I took my crew of workers, two trucks, and a trailer to take down the cabin on a very hot day—August 29, 1995. They went back a couple of days later and got the chimney.”

One Response

  • Ernest Buck is my uncle (now dead), my mother, Bessie is one of three sister. I well remember visiting there on holidays including families of the six children. David, Ernest’s oldest boy was just a little older than me, now living in Knoxville. I visited the cabin in the 70’s and took many pictures of, two are hanging in my house today. I remember meeting Srg.York as a child, but of course, had no idea who he was. I always thought it was cool to say my mother grew up in a log cabin, but it was years later that I really appreciated just how special the place really was. Thank you

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The Wizzard Clip –part 3 of 3

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 22, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 3 of 3

“The result of the inquiries led Adam Livingston to visit an Episcopal minister, who then resided in Winchester, but he derived little satisfaction from this visit, and returned home much disappointed.

“He was then advised to see the McSherry family, who were Roman Catholics, and who resided in a very fine estate called “Relievement,” about a mile east of Leetown, at which place the priest was often in the habit of stopping while discharging his spiritual functions in that neighborhood.

“Late in the evening of the same day Mrs. McSherry saw a man coming to her home; she met him at the gate when he told her he wanted ‘to see the priest.’ She informed him that the priest was not at her house, but there would be church in Shepherdstown the following Sunday, when the visitor would have an opportunity of seeing him.

“Mr. and Mrs. McSherry, in company with Mr. Joseph Minghini, went to church on the appointed day, and there they saw the man who had inquired for the priest, and who proved to be Livingston.

“As the priest appeared at the altar, vested for Mass, Livingston seemed to be perfectly overcome. He wept bitterly, and exclaimed loud enough to be heard by the small congregation: ‘This is the very man I saw in my dream; he is the one that the voice told me would relieve me from my troubles.’

“When the service was over, Livingston promptly called on the priest and told him his sad story; but the priest, Father Dennis Cahill of Hagerstown, laughed at him and told him it must be some of his neighbors who were plaguing him, and that he must go home and keep a strict watch for them.

“Richard McSherry and Joseph Minghini, who were present at the interview, were much moved by the old man’s tears and tried to comfort him. After much urgent persuasion, Father Cahill, accompanied by Mr. McSherry and Mr. Minghini, agreed to visit Livingston’s house and to inquire into the strange transactions which he had related.

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“They found his story corroborated not only by the family, but by most of the people with whom they conversed in Smithfield.

“Father Cahill resorted to the remedy of sprinkling the house with holy water, which did not expel the troublesome visitor from the house. However, this attempted remedy yielded a deposit on the doorsill of the exact amount of money that Livingston had mysteriously lost a week after the unnamed traveler’s death.

“The strange clipping still continuing after that time, it was determined by Father Cahill to have Mass celebrated in the house, which was done, and Livingston was relieved from all annoyances of his ghostly visitor.”

The West Virginia Historical Magazine article fails to mention that the old Lutheran farmer was so deeply grateful for having obtained the relief that had been promised him, that he and his family decided to convert to Catholicism.

At this time, in the fall of 1797, a young Catholic priest was sent by Bishop Carroll of Baltimore to investigate the strange happenings at the Adam Livingston house. Father Demetrius A. Gallitzin started as a skeptic but, after interviewing witnesses and seeing the phenomena himself, changed his mind.

Father Gallitzin befriended Mr. Livingston and remained close to him and the family up until Livingston’s death. “Mr. Livingston removed from Virginia to Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where he died in the spring of 1820,” says Gallitzin in his memoirs. “I had Mass at his house repeatedly. He continued, to the last, very attentive to his duties, but did not receive the rites of the Church in his last sickness, which carried him off too quick to afford any chance of sending for a priest.”

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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The Wizzard Clip –part 2 of 3

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 21, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 2 of 3

“In about a week afterward, his barn was burnt and his cattle all died, the crockeryware in his house, without any visible agency, was thrown upon the floor and broken; his money disappeared; the heads of his turkeys and chickens dropped off; and chunks of burning wood would leap from the fireplace several feet out into the floor, endangering the building unless promptly replaced.

“Soon the annoyances, which were then destroying his peace, assumed a new form. The sound of a large pair of shears could be distinctly heard in his house, clipping in the form of half moons and other curious figures, his blankets, sheets and counterpanes, boots and shoes, clothing, etc.

“This was all in one night, but the operation of clipping continued for upwards of three months, a small portion of it only being done at a time, but the inexorable shears never being silent twenty-four hours at a time.
“By this time the news of these strange proceedings was spread through the country for thirty miles around.

Image 013044/ West Virginia Historical Photographs Collection/ West Virginia University

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“An old Presbyterian lady of Martinsburg, hearing of the clipping that was going on at Livingston’s—to satisfy her curiosity, she went to Livingston’s house. Before entering the door she took from her head her new silk cap, wrapped it up in her silk handkerchief and put it in her pocket to save it from being clipped. After awhile she stepped out again to go home, and having drawn the handkerchief out of her pocket and opened it, found the cap cut in narrow ribbons.

“Many other phenomena are stated and testified to by many witnesses. The long continuance of this mysterious clipping had now aroused the country for many miles around.”

According to a 2003 article in the Wall Street Journal, Livingston begged a local Episcopal minister for help. The man, named Alexander Balman, had been a chaplain in the Revolutionary War, but his courage did him no good with the Clip. One account claims he “attempted an exorcism, and was famously abused by the scornful spirit, so that the prayerbook he used was found subsequently in one of the rooms, in a place which indicated no great respect for our admirable liturgy on the part of the ghost.”

As a result of this, Mr. Livingston turned in desperation to some local conjurers or magicians, one of whom promised to banish the evil spirit if paid a good sum in advance, but refused the job when the shrewd old farmer offered to pay him double that amount – after he succeeded!

The West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly article picks up the thread again: “Three daring and adventurous young men from Winchester came to Smithfield declaring their utter unbelief in the reports and offered to sleep in the house all night and to face the Devil himself, if he were the author of these doings.

“But as soon as they became comfortably seated in the house, a large stone was seen to proceed from the fireplace and to whirl around the floor with great velocity, when they took to their heels and made their escape.

“The condition of poor Livingston had become deplorable, he had lost much rest, and his imagination was so worked upon by his nocturnal visitor that his health began visibly to fail.

“Shortly after this Livingston had a dream. He thought he was climbing a high mountain and had great difficulty in the ascent. He had to labor hard, catching at roots and bushes, and moving forward slowly by their aid. Reaching the summit, he saw an imposing personage, ‘dressed in robes,’ as he described it.

“After contemplating for some time the person in view, he heard a voice saying: ‘This is the man who can relieve you.’ His wife heard him groaning in his sleep and she waked him; thereupon he communicated to her his dream and said he did not know of any minister who wore robes, but he would make inquiry in the morning.

(continues tomorrow…)

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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The Wizzard Clip –part 1 of 3

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 20, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 1 of 3

“From the “Eastern Pan-Handle” we take the following ancient ghost story.

“A town was laid out by John Smith in 1794, a town on his lands, then in Berkeley County, since in Jefferson, then in Virginia, now West Virginia. This was by Act of 1798 made a town by the name of Smithfield. It has since been known as Middleway, is located about five miles west of Leetown, and has about eight hundred inhabitants.

“The earliest record of the story was written by Rev. Demetrius A. Gallitzin, whose memoirs were prepared in 1797, and about the same time, Mrs. Annella McSherry wrote letters containing about the same facts, and since then there have been other papers written, all giving about the same facts, and the further fact that for fifty years the original name of the place was lost and it was only known as Wizzard’s Clipp, shows that the people there had no doubt of the facts related.

“The story gathered from the various publications is as follows: Adam Livingston, becoming dissatisfied with his residence in Lancaster County, PA, determined to remove to the State of Virginia, and carried his purpose into effect by the purchase of a house and lot in Smithfield, VA, and seventy acres contiguous thereto. This was about the year 1790.

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“He had the reputation of being an honest and industrious farmer, of fair intelligence, and brought with him his wife and a family of three sons and four daughters.

“Livingston continued to reside there without attracting any particular notice, until 1794, when a stranger, of middle age and of respectable appearance, made a visit to the place and was received as a boarder in his house.

“In a few days after the arrival of this traveler, he was taken sick, and as his illness became more threatening he called Livingston to his bedside, informed him that he was a Catholic, and inquired of him if there was not a priest somewhere in his neighborhood whose services he could procure, should his malady prove fatal, which he had reason to then fear it would.

“Livingston, who was an intensely bigoted member of the Lutheran church, very gruffly replied to him ‘that he knew of no priest in that neighborhood, and if there was one, he should never pass the threshold of his door.’ The dying man repeated his entreaties for the spiritual aid of a Catholic priest, but Livingston was inexorable and refused to countenance his request.

“The stranger died, his name being unknown to his host, and there being nothing among his papers to throw any light upon his history.

“On the night of the traveler’s death Livingston employed a man by the name of Jacob Foster to sit up with the corpse. But so soon as the candles were lighted in the chamber of the dead, after giving a weak and flickering light, they went out and the room was left in darkness. They were re-lighted several times, supposing it to result from some remedial defect in the candle, but with the same result.

“Livingston then brought two candles into the room which he had been using in his own family room, which were about one-third burnt down and which he knew to be good. But so soon as they were placed in the room with the corpse they became immediately extinguished. This so alarmed Foster that he abandoned his vigils and left the house.

“On the night succeeding the burial the peace of Livingston was much disturbed by the apparent sound of horses galloping round his house. He frequently rose during the night to satisfy his mind. While he could distinctly hear the tramp of steeds, he could see nothing to assure him that it was anything more than a figment of his own imagination.

(continues tomorrow…)

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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