One doesn’t have to be in downtown Logan to understand that the past is something that should not only be understood, but also appreciated for what transpired decades ago that could have changed all of what we identify with today. Sound confusing? Allow me to simplify the statement in an example.
What if I told you that all of Logan Senior High School’s Midelburg Island history — including former legendary basketball coach Willie Akers’ four AAA state championships and his 427 coaching victories over a splendid 20-year career — never happened? No fieldhouse overflowing with thousands of cheering fans? No football field? No baseball or softball fields? Indeed, no high school, middle school or elementary school? What if … ?
To understand the seemingly illogical scenario I’ve presented is to acknowledge the true history of the very land on which hundreds of people have trod even before Logan Senior High opened in 1957. For all of its storied past, the place many of us just refer to as “the island” almost became a housing development, as far back as 1938. And, naturally, the Hatfield name — like in so much of Logan County’s colorful past — played an important role in what did occur and what almost happened to a 43-acre tract of land that was named “Hatfield Island” long before it was known as Midelburg Island.
Although the Indian story of Aracoma and her tribe’s ambushed demise at the hands of soldiers in 1780 is widely known and appreciated as happening on what was in the 1700’s described as “the islands,” it is also historically recorded that the same land was the site of the original settlement of Logan by James and Joseph Workman some years later in the 1790’s; the land being a part of a grant to William Breckenridge for his efforts during the Revolutionary War. But what about the remainder of the land’s history?
From around 1800 until 1871, when records reflect William Stratton entered into an agreement with Anthony Lawson Jr. and Anderson Blair, the history of the two islands becomes murky. Lawson was the son of Anthony Sr., who died of cholera on a return trip from Philadelphia, the location in which he sometimes took furs and ginseng to barter for items such as coffee and sugar to be sold at his trading post.
Anthony Jr. had taken over the vast property interests of his family, especially after his mother, Ann Lawson, was murdered by two of her own slaves in 1847. Mrs. Lawson, like many other once prominent people, is buried in the cemetery on High Street known by many names, but back then was referred to as “our cemetery.”
Records show that Anthony Jr. in 1871 leased part of one of the islands to Stratton and Blair, who were to construct a “strong” dam to be able to at some high-water mark release and float logs timbered from what was even then referred to as Coal Branch. John V. Buskirk’s six-acre lease agreement for a garden on the little island was to expire that year and not be renewed.
Stratton sold his part of the agreement to Blair and no record can be found as to the success of the building of the dam. However, it would not have been unusual for a flood to have ended the business deal.
What is known is that in 1885 Oliver Perry first purchased what was referred to as the “little island” from Lawson for $338.38 and in 1888 completed the 43-acre transaction by agreeing to pay Lawson $1,500 for the remainder of the property. About one year later, Perry sold both parcels to Elias Hatfield and — at least for me — this is where the history gets interesting.
Although William “Devil Anse” Hatfield had a son named Elias, the Elias Hatfield who purchased the property named the islands was a brother of Devil Anse, and the father of Henry D. Hatfield, who served as governor and U.S. senator in West Virginia.
Following Elias’ death in 1908, it appears little was done with the property, despite local attempts to secure the land for development. But as Logan grew in the decades that followed, local realtor T.E. Agee announced plans to purchase the islands and develop a residential section which he said would be “twice the size of Logan’s prize residential area, Midelburg.
Agee announced that a Charleston company was willing to pay $50,000 for the property and that approximately $300,000 would be spent in development. A three-month option was signed by former Gov. Dr. Henry D. Hatfield, his sister Edna White of Stollings, and Joe Hatfield of Wharncliffe. Elias had left the property in a will to his children, Henry and Edna, and another son, Wayne Hatfield, the father of Joe.
A bridge across the Guyandotte from what was simply called the Huntington Road was planned. In addition, a retaining wall was to be erected to prevent flooding once the land was developed.
I have yet to find out what happened to those negotiations, but it appears that Mr. Agee attempted to “sweeten” the deal two months later when he announced that three acres of the property would be given to the City of Logan for a city park and playground.
The land transaction never took place, but in 1944 Ferdinand Midelburg, who developed the community of Midelburg, and opened movie theaters in downtown Logan, purchased the property, and it became known as Midelburg Islands.
In 1951 the Logan Civic Association and its President J.T. Fish bought the property and began to develop and heighten the land by hauling slate and other materials from the nearby Gay Coal Company. Joe, later a member of what was the Logan Park Board, confirmed these actions at a Park Board meeting in the early 1980s.
In what has to be the wisest transaction ever made by any Logan County Court (now known as the County Commission), members chose to purchase the land in 1951 for $102,000. Following a property dispute concerning the right-of-way for the first bridge to Midelburg Island, Taylor Vinson heirs, who still today own all of the property near Route 10, agreed to the bridge construction and also allowed dirt to be removed from what was known as the “Backbone,” which is the hill that separates Coal Branch and Route 10. That fill dirt was used to help build up Midelburg Island. The space created by the dirt removal later became the headquarters of the Logan state police.
The Logan County Commission and the Logan Board of Education worked jointly to have constructed Logan Senior High School, the fieldhouse — now titled the Willie Akers Arena — and the athletic fields, all of which opened in 1957.
Logan Elementary School was added in 1969, and Logan Middle School and Public Library followed in 1996-97. Many recent improvements have been made to the historic property.
The place was the site of the first white settlers (Workman brothers) in what became Logan; two trappers who lived there one season, raised and harvested their crops and then returned to civilization.
I have yet to discover why Hatfield Island was not sold and developed as planned back in 1938. However, as a 1971 graduate of Logan High School, I’m certainly glad that deal fell through.
You can bet, along with thousands of others, Willie Akers is glad, too.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.