By Greg Jordan
September 6, 2021 - A photographer’s efforts and an historical interpreter’s research have come together to create a new book that describes a small town enriched by the history of residents who became coalfield millionaires and built the homes to prove it.
“Bramwell’s Golden Years: The Homes and History of Bramwell, W.Va.” was created by photographer Hal Brainerd and historical interpreter Elizabeth L. “Betty” Goins.
Brainerd and Goins went to the new Honeycomb Cafe on Main Street and spoke about how the new book came together.
“I wanted to do this book for many years and it was a dream that I don’t think I really took seriously until I mentioned it so many times to Jackie Sheahan who lives in the Tudor House (the Thomas House),” Brainerd recalled. “And she said, ‘Why don’t you do it? You could do it.’”
Brainerd went to the Bramwell Foundation with the idea. The foundation’s members thought it was a wonderful idea, and pointed out that the Bramwell Theater Corporation that raises funds for such projects. Goins is a member of both organizations.
“So I presented it to them, they liked the idea and said we’ll turn you loose on that. Now what I was going to do was just have a photo book because I’m a photographer, and have two or three sentences about each house, but when I got into it I decided that the history was more important than my photographs. I think the photographs will bring the attention to the book. They get your attention, but I think the history is really important. I already had a contract that this had to be finished by Sept. 1; our agreement, anyway, and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to research the history thoroughly in that length of time.”
Goins came to Brainerd and told him that she had already written a book detailing Bramwell’s history and invited him to use it for “Bramwell’s Golden Years.”
“So I figured that if I was going plagiarize all her work, I better put her name on the book,” Brainerd said.
“Which, by the way, was not necessary as far as I was concerned,” she replied with a smile.
“Betty never asked for anything, which amazed me. She just handed over the book and told me to use it,” he said.
“I wrote a book about four years ago. I did it for my girls.” Goins said. “They said, ‘mom, write what you know about the history of Bramwell.’ I just did it for them. It turned out to be pretty extensive. It’s called ‘A Comprehensive History of Bramwell.’ What I did, I took all of the article’s I could find, all the books I could find, everything I could find and put all that information into one place so that when people come to Bramwell, they can pick up this book I had written, they could walk the streets, pick a page and say, ‘OK, there is the Cooper House.’ My photographs in that book nowhere near compare to Hal’s.”
The new book is a good reference for people who are unfamiliar with the Town of Bramwell, they said. Besides the photographs, it includes the historical background of each home pictured in it. Besides seeing the homes’ exteriors, the readers get good views on their furnished interiors.
“They might say, ‘Did people really live like this?’ Yes,” Goins said.
Many of the millionaires who built Bramwell’s fine homes had worked their way up from humble beginnings. For example, the first coal operator to settle in the area, John Cooper, was born in South Staffordshire, England to a poor family.
“He grew up in the coalfields, and he was not a wealthy man by any means,” Goins said.
When Cooper was 6 years old, he went into coal mining with his father. In 1862 after his father was killed in a mining accident, he came to the United States with his mother and two brothers. He settled in Pennsylvania, but later returned to England and married his childhood sweetheart, Maria, and brought her back to America in 1867.
Cooper was “practically penniless” from 1872 to 1892 until some friends offered a lease on some coal lands they owned along the line of the C&O Railroad. After many struggles, he used his savings to close the first coal lease in the area with the Flat Top Coal Land Association, later the Bluestone Land Company, and became the first coal operator in the Flat Top Field. He later became the second president of the Bank of Bramwell.
The book features the history of each home and its builders.
“This book is organized by when each of these individuals arrived because we wanted to show how the town grew as each individual came in,” Brainerd said. “They provided something else: by working together, they created the Town of Bramwell.”
The book is available the the Corner Shop and the Train Depot in Bramwell, but the best away to obtain a copy is to go online at visitbramwell.com and order one, Goins said. It costs $25, which comes to $28.50 with shipping.
“Unless you want to come to Bramwell and enjoy some of the shops, eat at one of the places here and walk around town yourself,” she added.
Putting together the book took cooperation with the homeowners. Getting the photographs involved more than taking a camera and visiting each home. Brainerd often had to stay at locations past midnight in order to get the right lighting and other factors in place.
“Property owners have been so kind. I think Hal can attest to that. It’s not easy to come into someone’s home and spend hours upon hours upon hours trying to get the right picture,” Goins said.
“Most of the homes have this very dark woodwork,” Brainerd explained. “You have to use theatrical lighting or you’re not going to see the detail in the wood. And it being wintertime, I was always shooting in the evening. You don’t want the blue light coming in the windows when you’ve got the yellow light, the incandescent, inside. Blue and yellow are opposites, and it throws the color off. If I started shooting at 9 o’clock, I could finish by midnight or one in the morning.”
At first, people didn’t think that much time was necessary to get the best photographs, but they changed their minds when they started seeing the results. To get those results, he had to arrive at the right time and get his equipment set up. Sometime factors such as clouds or rain complicated the effort. He compared the work to fishing: being there at the right time with the right equipment and the right conditions to get the best results.
“It’s really what I call an art book because you’re trying to get the most perfect natural light you can from mother nature,” Brainerd said. “The first hour of sunrise and the last hour of the evening is the best time to get the beautiful light.”
To get the best outdoor photographs, Brainerd used digital technology to move away power lines, power poles and other items that obstructed the view.
“When you’re doing an art book, you’re doing it for the love of it because you’re spending a tremendous amount of time on it,” he said.
Brainerd thanked the Bramwell Foundation and the Bramwell Theater Corporation for their support along with the Community Foundation of the Virginias and the National Coal Heritage Highway Area Authority for their financial support. Proceeds raised by the book will benefit the Town of Bramwell.