Rural Sistersville, West Virginia, might seem a curious place for a village of high-style architecture, but then the oil rush that brought prosperity here in the 1890s was nothing less than exceptional.
Folks had always assumed black gold bubbled beneath the hills, but it wasn't until an enterprising farmer learned the trick to drilling there that everything changed.
Laid out 70 years before the boom, the sleepy hamlet was platted in 1814 by sisters Sarah and Delilah Wells as the seat of justice for Tyler County. They added a diamond-shaped green for a courthouse square and a public landing on the Ohio River, much used by farmers.
But those slow-paced days ended when oil was discovered. First one driller then another struck oil. Wildcatters arrived, followed by merchants and builders who saw the promise of the sudden new economy.
Within a matter of months, oil derricks were growing like trees throughout the town, and fantastic new homes and buildings were being raised.
But as with any extractive industry, the boom lasted only long enough to transform the landscape, and after a generation, activity subsided, and the peaceful nature of life began to return to the valley.
Now the town of just more than 1,000 residents is attracting attention again among investors and new residents searching for rurality rather than urbanity. Looking for a getaway or an investment opportunity? Sistersville may be the answer.
"Now very few people on my street are actually from Sistersville," says Terry Wiley, recently recognized by the West Virginia governor for his contribution to community development.
"This is the kind of atmosphere that so many people are looking for. It's here. The folks are friendly, the crime is low, and the landscape is beautiful."
Though he grew up in southern West Virginia, Wiley spent summers on a family farm nearby and paid little attention to Sistersville until he drove there in search of cell-phone reception in 2007.
"I can tell you the moment I discovered the town for myself. It was 7 p.m., July 7, 2007," he said. "I drove in to get reception and pulled onto Wells Street to park, and that's when I saw the flower shop for sale."
The shop was then the oldest flower shop in the U.S., and Wiley moved quickly to buy it. The town and its potential took hold, and he bought another building to use as a small produce market.
Then he bought the town's theater. Then he bought a historic bank building and converted it into the Sistersville Museum. Then he bought another historic bank building, in which he's set to open a coffee house. Soon a new furniture store will open, and he's opening a bed-and-breakfast.
Wiley says he believes Sistersville is ready for growth as a tourist destination, and he's working to find other entrepreneurs interested in joining him in the Sistersville National Historic District, in which grants and tax credits are available to encourage restoration and investment.
"There's plenty we need here to support the community and attract tourists. We could use crafts shops, restaurants, a grocery, a dog groomer, a laundromat, a dry-cleaner, professionals who specialize in restoring houses."
The booming natural gas industry is also providing more opportunity for employment regionally, and gas leases are paying off for many local landowners. The potential for the installation for a gas-cracking facility that could employ hundreds north of town at Moundsville, West Virginia, would have a positive influence on the local economy.
The town is currently also on the hunt for a captain to operate the ferry that crosses the Ohio River. The oldest ferry in operation in West Virginia, it has been in continuous operation since 1817, is one of five ferries left on the Ohio River, and is a tourist attraction itself.
Interested in an investment? Wiley is available to answer questions at 304-652-1707.