Monroe County, formed in 1799 from Greenbrier County, was named for James Monroe, governor of Virginia at the time. From the beginning its economy has been based on agriculture; its gently rolling hills, underlain with limestone, have always provided rich pastureland and afforded the wherewithal to build commodious farmsteads. In 1845 a writer noted that, although much of the county was mountainous, “as a whole, it is a thriving agricultural section.”
By that time, the county's agricultural economy was augmented by another element, one that has a curiously twentieth-century connotation: tourism. Monroe shares with Greenbrier County the distinction of having been the epicenter of Virginia's popular antebellum springs resorts. Two of its major watering places, Sweet Springs and Salt Sulphur Springs, retain impressive but completely different architectural vestiges of those halcyon days. Union, the county seat, located between the two, is a quintessential courthouse town, though the county's seat of justice is a disappointingly mundane latenineteenth-century building. In and around Monroe County's other small settlements are a number of early farmhouses, some vernacular and additive in form and appearance (several incorporate first-settlement log structures within their walls), some far more stylistically oriented. To add to the variety, the county boasts what is assumed to be the oldest Methodist church west of the Alleghenies (Rehoboth Church near Union; MO12) and two covered bridges that look as if they had come from Currier and Ives prints.
Monroe County's architectural losses have been relatively minor, but two are especially regrettable. In the mid-nineteenth century, a gentleman from South Carolina erected what has been described variously as an observatory and “a showy summer retreat” on a mountain spur just west of Union. According to local tradition, his aim was to make it tall enough so that he could see his home state from it. He died soon after building his folly, and when word arrived in 1861 that Fort Sumter had been fired on, the owner of the property at that time had it burned. The other structure is the springhouse at Red Sulphur Springs. According to Dr. William Burke, proprietor of the spa, “Mr. Strickland of Philadelphia” was its architect. As far as is known, this was William Strickland's only work in what is now West Virginia. Shown in Edward Beyer's 1850s view (see the introduction to this volume), the springhouse, which Burke called “a dome 42 feet in diameter, supported by 12 Ionic columns,” virtually dwarfed the other buildings at the resort. Presumably it was demolished in the early twentieth century, when other buildings at Red Sulphur are known to have been taken down.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Monroe County had a population of 10,757. In 2000, 140 years later, the U.S. Census counted a total of 14,583, the highest ever recorded. Although this figure represents a 17.5 percent increase over the 1990 total, Monroe County still presents a comfortable picture of a fertile agricultural region, almost entirely rural in appearance. Traversing the county from northeast to southwest, U.S. 219 provides convenient access to many of its most important architectural resources, beginning with Spring Valley Farm ( MO1). A second area of interest is along West Virginia 3, leading east from Union to Sweet Springs.
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