The building at 23-23B E. Main Street, pictured in this above photo taken in November 2021, is on track to be razed this week, city officials announced Sunday. / File photo by Katie Kuba

Fire recovery, part two: The past, the present and a future of possibilities for 23-23B East Main Street

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series about the Oct. 5 fire that decimated the building at the corner of Spring and Main streets. While the first story covered how downtown business owners are coping with the losses they suffered, the second delves into the history of the building and what the future might hold for the property.

BUCKHANNON – When one of Main Street’s main structures burned in a merciless fire that broke out on a Tuesday afternoon in October, it housed a handful of businesses –Sweet-A-Licious, September Sun Salon and Bacteria Busters among them.

The building opposite the Innovation Center at the corner of East Main and Spring Street was also, at the time of the Oct. 5 blaze, home to people who lived in the nine residential apartment units.

But before hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream, skilled hair colorists and apartment occupants, the large brick building at 23-23B E. Main Street was once something much different — a house.

According to information from the Upshur County Historical Society’s Ralston Collection provided to My Buckhannon by city officials, the original, central building was home to Thomas J. Farnsworth, who served as West Virginia’s Senate president in the 1880s. Born on May 17, 1829, Farnsworth was the grandson of one of the first pioneers to settle in Buckhannon and Upshur County – Daniel Farnsworth.

For his part, after U.S. Congress granted West Virginia statehood on June 20, 1863, Thomas J. Farnsworth became involved in the early politics of the State of West Virginia and was elected a member of the W.Va. House of Delegates in 1874. He subsequently served as president of the state Senate from 1883-1884. UCHS records reveal that T.J. Farnsworth, as he’s referred to in Upshur County Clerk’s Office records, originally lived in a residence on the opposite side of Spring Street, where the Innovation Center currently stands.

But Farnsworth didn’t remain there. According to the UCHS, between 1894 and 1898, “he built a new, larger home for himself and his daughter’s family” which, prior to the fire, could still be seen tucked into the middle portion of the building at 23-23B E. Main Street. When T.J. Farnsworth passed away, he willed the home to his daughter, Anna M. Edmiston.

His daughter constructed a building “around” the original house in 1930 with three storefronts, and a variety of businesses operated out of the building, including (but not limited to) two beauty parlors in the 1940s, an appliance store in the 1950s and a children’s clothing store in the 1960s. UCHS records show “owners of record” — Nathaniel and Susanna Farnsworth from an unknown date until 1851; T.J. Farnsworth, the Senate president and House of Delegates member, from 1851-1912; and Anna Edmiston, Farnsworth’s daughter, and her heirs from 1912 to 2002.

In 2002, United Holdings Group LLC purchased the Farnsworth/Edmiston property, and an online records search in the Upshur County Clerk’s office shows Foster’s Marketing Group, run by Travis Foster, the lot’s current owner, purchased it from United Holdings on Oct. 27, 2017.

The attic in the original house, around which the larger building was constructed, is where the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s Office officials believe the blaze sparked.

“The original house was old, and before the fire, you could see a roof up there, and that was the attic of the old house,” Foster said in a recent interview. “That’s why when it caught on fire, no one could see it at first, and it had been burning for quite awhile. When the reports started coming in that there was smoke coming out of the windows, everyone thought the fire started on the corner of the second floor, but now what [the state fire marshal’s office] think happened is it started in the attic, which makes sense.”

“They think it caught on fire and spread to the second-floor roof, but nobody knew it at that point, until the smoke came out the sides of the second floor,” Foster added. “By the time someone noticed the second-floor smoke, it was getting ready to explode through the roof.”

Two days after the fire was contained, during a Buckhannon City Council meeting, city officials heaped praise on the Buckhannon Fire Department, city employees and first responders – from both within and outside of Upshur County – for their impressive response to the massive blaze. Foster was equally impressed.

“I’ve never seen a fire like that or how it’s responded to, but that was pretty impressive,” he said. “I was impressed with the organization of the whole operation, with (Buckhannon fire chief) J.B. Kimble and (BFD Captain Brian) Elmore, who was on the ground, directing everyone and telling them what to do. I was impressed with those two, in particular, but really, with all the firefighters and the whole process.”

Foster said seeing local firefighters in action upended his thinking about the vital role firefighters and other first responders play when it matters most.

“You don’t think about it, and you kind of take them for granted and you get upset when fire fees are raised and all that stuff, but this puts it in a whole new light,” Foster said. “Those guys did a heck of a job keeping it from spreading, and I was so impressed by their organization and that of the surrounding counties.”

He also wanted to thank Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner for being supportive and remaining an on-the-ground presence from start to finish at the scene.

“He was excellent,” Foster said of Skinner. “That day, he really showed he is everything a small-town mayor should be.”

Foster also commended public works director Jerry Arnold; city employees who work in the water, street, sanitary sewer and waste departments; city attorney Tom O’Neill; zoning officer Vincent Smith; and all city and county first responders who showed up.

“If you’re paying taxes, you should be very proud,” Foster said. “Everybody there did a top-notch job.”

Although the future of the lot is unknown, the building itself – including the old Farnsworth house at the heart of the structure – is on track to be torn down in December, Foster said this week.

“Our goal is that the process for demolition will start in December,” he said. “There is a lot of paperwork that has to be processed to do it the right way, and we are making sure this is done correctly. We are working closely with the city, the state, and all parties involved so this demo is a smooth transition and it’s done the right way.”

Foster isn’t planning to build any new apartments on the lot, and he’s unsure whether he will ultimately sell or hold on to the property.

“I’m entertaining offers right now,” he said. “I’m in no hurry and I don’t want to make a decision based off emotions. I’ve had a couple large corporations call me, and they’re willing to pay a lot of money for it, but people have also told me, ‘Hold on to it for awhile; it will be worth more, you don’t need to sell it.’ I’ve had investment groups contacting me that want to build a multiple story building with retail on the bottom and then apartments above it and offices.”

Foster said that if he had time, he would love to create a Christmas-themed spot, complete with an ice-skating rink.

“If I had the time, what I really wanted to do was put an outdoor ice-skating rink for like two months in the wintertime, with a big Christmas-y spot,” he said. “I’ve looked into it really heavily, but I don’t know if I’m going to have the building down in time to be able to do it. I thought that it would really nice, if for two months I could just set it up — from maybe Black Friday to February 15 so it would include Valentine’s Day. I think it would be a great corner for that, kind of like downtown Pittsburgh and the little German village that they have that’s down by the ice-skating rink – that was kind of my concept.”

Ideally, then in late February or March, he’d like to “build it out for Strawberry Festival.”

“I think we could have 20-30 vendors in there – little huts with a walk-through market – just something different and something I could do for the community,” Foster said. “I think it would be really cool on that corner.”

The Oct. 5 blaze was classified as a three-alarm fire, which means it required the largest response in Buckhannon Fire Department dispatch policy, according to an Oct. 8 press release sent out by Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble. Firefighters on scene utilized about 1.3 million gallons of water, and four residents were removed from the burning structure. Although no one suffered injuries severe enough to be transported to a hospital, one firefighter had a close call but was evaluated and released on scene.

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