In 1835, when Alfred Beckley first visited the land he had inherited from his father, he looked out over a small portion of the vast expanse of acreage and saw nothing. There was an Indian trail in front of him, and the population of the immediate area in what was then southern Fayette County (and is now Raleigh County) consisted of nine families. But something about the small portion of his property that we now know as South Kanawha Street attracted the young land speculator.
So he contracted a builder from Sandstone, West Virginia, named John Lilly to construct a home for him and his family. He returned to Pittsburgh, packed up his wife, Amelia Neville Craig, and their three children, and moved to what was then the wilderness of western Virginia. He named his new home “Wildwood.”
Wildwood is what was known as a “double log cabin,” with two rooms on the ground level and two above stairs. Sometime during the 1850s, two more rooms were added to the back and a porch was added to the front. The entire house was covered in white clapboard. Several outbuildings shared the property. In its day, Wildwood was considered a mansion.
Over the course of Alfred Beckley’s life, four more children were born to him and his first wife. Sadly, only seven weeks after giving birth to their only daughter, Emma Jane, Mrs. Beckley died, and Alfred buried her across from the house (in what we now know as Wildwood Cemetery). Her parents came to Wildwood and took five of the children back to Pittsburgh with them, including little Emma Jane, who died of scarlet fever at the age of three.
Alfred remarried in 1850, and he and his second wife, Jane Rapp, had three more children, including his youngest child, his beloved daughter Maria. Alfred Beckley died at Wildwood in 1888, and his widow lived there until her death in 1901.
The house then passed out of the hands of the family. According to an account written by Beckley’s great granddaughter, Margaret Lucille Ralsten, the house had surprisingly few owners over the next 63 years. It was empty in 1964 when Mrs. Ralsten, known to all as “Teelie”, and her husband, Dr. M. Murrill Ralsten, decided to purchase the ancestral home, and restore it to days of yesteryear.
By all accounts Teelie Ralsten was a formidable woman. She took the task of restoring Wildwood seriously and let very little stand in her way. Modern bathrooms were removed, walls and windows were taken out, and years of paint and wallpaper were stripped down. Teelie found family heirlooms, many of which had originally been in the house, and put them back in Wildwood. If she couldn’t find a piece she wanted for the home in family collections, she scoured the country for items from the proper time period. The Raleigh County Historical Society assisted with the restoration, and many Beckleyans donated items to the house, but most agree that the driving force was Teelie Ralsten.
“Dr. and Mrs. Ralsten put a lot of time, money and effort into the restoration,” remembers former Beckley Mayor Emmet S. Pugh. “The Historical Society was involved, and eventually took over the home, but the Ralstens were really the driving force.” Their efforts paid off when Wildwood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The Ralstens deeded the home to the Raleigh County Historical Society in 1985, and it was opened in May of 1987 as Wildwood House Museum.
Mary Legg Stevenson, author of several books of local history, was the President of the Historical Society for many years, and was a docent in Wildwood House after it opened to the public for tours. “I think it had been difficult through the years for Teelie to see her great-grandfather’s home go downhill, and be remodeled and changed and even empty, “ she recalls. “She wanted to preserve its history, and the important history of her family.” Stevenson was present when the Historical Society deeded Wildwood House to the City of Beckley in 1993.
Mayor Pugh says the city “… was the only true entity that can properly care for the house and the grounds. We’ve had to restore the roof, and fix other problems that come with a house of that age, and I think we have done a really good job with it,“ he said. He tells stories of times when Teelie Ralsten felt otherwise, and she was going to make certain the city took care of Wildwood during her lifetime. “She was sometimes waiting at my office for me in the morning if she wasn’t pleased with what we were doing,” he remembers.
Sandra Parker, former Executive Director of the Youth Museum, once served as Wildwood’s Director. “The significance of Wildwood House is two fold, “ she says. “For those living in Beckley and Raleigh County, Wildwood House can provide a visually compelling history lesson about the formation and development of what was in 1836 a large tract of unsettled land. Conversely, a visit to Wildwood House for tourists living outside of the area, a vivid picture of early Victorian life is depicted.”
Parker says the house was restored to represent the period of time between 1850 through 1890’s. “While Raleigh County was still largely a frontier town, one can experience what life was like for the early settlers,” she noted. “The Beckley family did experience hardships, but there is a certain sense of grace and elegance of life that was established during the years in which they occupied the home.”
Indeed, a visitor to Wildwood not only enjoys a sense of Victorian style, but also sees some of Raleigh County’s earliest treasures. A piano in the parlor was purchased in New York for Maria, and traveled by train to Prince, West Virginia, and then by ox-cart to Wildwood. A similar piano was bought by Alfred’s son, John, for his daughter, and the two instruments became the first pianos in the county. Occupying a Victorian settee is Minnie, a childhood doll of Teelie Ralsten’s, who keeps a careful watch on the home. The elegant hall tree and simple dining table were original to Wildwood. A pot on the wood-burning kitchen stove is known as “Jenny’s” pot and was the actual vessel used by the slave for whom it was named when she cooked for the Beckley family.
Upstairs, Amelia Beckley’s white wedding gown is encased in glass. Beside it stands a black dress worn by John Beckley’s wife, Margaret Jane. Pictures of the Beckley family grace the home, with portraits of children and grandchildren throughout. Alfred Beckley’s favorite chair sits in a corner of the library, angled to enable him to either look out a window across the room, or stare into his bookcase to find more reading material. The large collection of books and the bookcase are original to Wildwood.
Alfred Beckley’s father, John, came to this country as an indentured servant, and through a combination of hard work, good fortune and good friendships was eventually the first Librarian of Congress and the first Clerk of the House of Representatives. A heavy table in the center of the library was a cherished possession of the Beckley family. John Beckley affixed his name to the Bill of Rights on that table, and John Beckley’s name is on many other important documents from the founding of this country.
In an upstairs bedroom, a glass case holds treasures from other eras. Tiny beaded purses and white gloves share the cabinet with dishes and pottery found on the property during restoration. Artifacts from 1830 to 1870 line shelves on the wall. A trunk belonging to Alfred Beckley is the centerpiece of the room. The trunk has had a life of its own, once buried in Amelia Beckley’s gravesite to hide important legal and familial documents from the Union forces determined to prove Beckley was involved with Confederate forces. Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes learned of the trunk’s hiding place in the cemetery and dug it up. It was searched and eventually returned to the home. On the wall alongside the trunk hang Beckley’s West Point canteen and sword, along with his letter of appointment, signed by John C. Calhoun.
Two presidents have visited Wildwood and Civil War battles forces camped all around the house. Both Pugh and Sandra Parker think the historical importance of the unimposing white house should be more widely known. “I would like to see our school system use the house more for tours and teaching, “ Pugh said. Parker says that Wildwood brings history to life for students. Both agree that events like Founder’s Day, celebrated on Alfred Beckley’s birthday each May, have brought renewed interest in Wildwood. Members of the Raleigh County Historical Society have made themselves available to give tours of the home.
And although it has been rumored that ghosts occupy Wildwood, most who have spent time there quash those rumors. The only presence found in the 176-year-old museum is its rich history. A presence that longtime supporters like Mary Stevenson are happy to see come to life. “I think teaching the history of a place like Wildwood and preserving it is very important, “ she said. “Our younger generations need to know about our past. Their future depends on it.”
For more information about Wildwood, call 304-252-3730.
Author Cindy Worley is a Beckley-based journalist and historian.