Old Central City Park and Gazebo serve as the central part of this historic Huntington neighborhood and are utilized for entertainment and cultural programs during Old Central City Days. The park is one of several results stemming from a five-phase program to economically redevelop the district beginning in 1988. As part of that plan, the neighborhood was christened Old Central City and preservation and development efforts began in earnest in the years that followed. Before becoming part of Huntington, Central City was an independent town from 1893 to 1909 that included many of the largest factories in the region. Central City was established by a group of local businessmen who sought to entice industries into the area. During its brief existence, Central City became home to major businesses such as Heiner’s Bakery, the Fesenmeier Brewery, D. E. Abbott and Company, Duncan Box and Lumber Company, and the Huntington Tumbler Company. In 1909 Central City was formally annexed by Huntington and became known as the neighborhood of West Huntington or Fourteenth Street West. After years of deindustrialization, urban decay, and rising crime, revitalization efforts were launched in the late 1980s to inject new economic growth in the neighborhood. Now known as Old Central City, the district is promoted as a cultural and historical center. It has been dubbed by Huntington as the “Antique Capital of West Virginia.” Old Central City is home to a number of locally-owned businesses including multiple antique shops and a farmers’ market. In June of every year, this park and gazebo are the center of a street festival known as Old Central City Days.
Around 1890 a group of prominent Cabell and Wayne
County businessmen, including Martin and Floyd Chapman, Samuel and Zachary
Taylor Vinson, J. L. Caldwell, G. F. Miller, and George McKendree formed the
Huntington and Kenova Land Company with the goal of building a new community
just west of Huntington. The men sought to create an industrial, manufacturing
town to supplement Huntington, which at the time contained primarily only
residential neighborhoods and railroad facilities. Several farms were purchased
to make room for the new town, which was dubbed Central City. Some sources
state that the name was chosen because the area was centrally located between Catlettsburg,
Kentucky and Guyandotte, West Virginia. Because Huntington had already been
established and overshadowed Guyandotte however, this claim is questionable.
George McKendree designed the layout for the town, which consisted of numbered
streets running north to south and avenues named after early American
presidents running east to west. Central City was officially incorporated on
July 31, 1893. Municipal services were set up, and Martin Chapman was elected
as the first mayor.
In order to entice industries into coming to Central
City the Huntington and Kenova Land Company offered generous land grants; in
some instances businesses were given entire city blocks. The tactic proved
fairly successful and in a short time there were a number of businesses large
and small operating in the town. The largest industries were the Fesenmeier
Brewery, the Hartzell Handle Factory, the D. E. Abbott Company (which
manufactured picture frames), the Huntington Tumbler Company (which
manufactured glass dishware), and the Central City Bung Company. The Bung
Company, which manufactured poplar wood plugs used to seal beer and whiskey
barrels, supposedly was the largest producer of bungs. Because of this, Central
City was occasionally called the “bung capital of the world.” Other businesses
included Heiner’s Bakery, the Duncan Box and Lumber Company, as well as a
furniture factory, a veneer plant, a planning mill, an ice plant, warehouses,
and grocery stores. The town also boasted a fire department, police department,
electric lighting, and a newspaper.
Central City flourished thanks to the industrial
growth and its population peaked at around 5,000. In 1908 Huntington requested
to annex Central City, along with the town of Guyandotte to the east. The
Central City Council approved the proposed merger in December 1908, and on June
3, 1909 Central City became officially incorporated into the City of
Huntington. The area that was Central City became referred to either as West
Huntington, the West End, or Fourteenth Street West, after the central street
in the community. The neighborhood was not affected much by annexation and
business continued as usual. Over the decades, however, these industries
gradually shuttered. Today Heiner’s Bakery remains one of the only original
Central City businesses still in operation. By the 1970s and 1980s the
community was gripped by urban decay. Bars and gentleman's clubs occupied
storefronts; levels of crime rose; and many historic buildings were demolished
due to neglect.
In 1983 a redevelopment plan was submitted to
Huntington proposing ways to improve the Central City community. It suggested
actions such as creating recreational spaces, improving public facilities,
repairing infrastructure, beautifying the neighborhood, and promoting it as a
historic district. It also proposed that buildings be preserved or restored to
their 1890s appearances in order to attract both residents and commercial
activity. In 1988 the City of Huntington began a five-phase program to
economically redevelop the district, which was christened as Old Central City.
That same year the Old Central City Association was formed by community members
to preserve the early history of Central City and its industries. Huntington
and the Association each worked for years to revitalize the area.
Infrastructure was improved, a park and gazebo were built, and a farmers’
market was established. Bars were replaced with small businesses –primarily
antique shops– in many of the historic storefronts. In 1991 the Association
launched Old Central City Days, an annual summer street festival that includes
vendors, antique sales, and live entertainment.
Today Old Central City is promoted to tourists and
locals alike as an antique district and cultural center. In addition to antique
stores, the area around Fourteenth Street West is home to other small
businesses such as a nonprofit, locally-sourced grocery store and the Central
City Café, which was notably featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. It is also located within close proximity to
several area museums, such as Heritage Farm Museum & Village, the Museum of
Radio and Technology, and the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society’s
open-air railroad museum. Also located within Old Central City is the West Huntington
Library, a branch of the Cabell County Public Library; it contains a collection
of materials on the history of Central City.