Berkeley Springs Ice House and Morgan Arts Council
Built around 1910 as cold storage for apples, the building at the corner of North Mercer and Independence Streets in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia that now serves as the headquarters of the Morgan Arts Council has filled a number of roles throughout the years (as has the site itself). Prior to the building’s construction the location was the backdrop of Morgan County’s only legal execution, carried out by local authorities on the eve of the American Civil War. Following the war Baltimore industrialist Benjamin Franklin Deford incorporated the site into the tanning operation his family owned in town, which became the center of local controversy in 1875 when local innkeeper Charles Green filed a lawsuit against Deford alleging that his tannery’s foul odor had deterred potential guests and ruined his business. These events connect the site to pivotal moments in both the legal and industrial history of the area, and as such is particularly notable as a window into the experiences of the county’s residents throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. While that period made the site central to Morgan County’s past, however, the Morgan Arts Council’s adoption of the building as its headquarters in 1996 has ensured its continued centrality in the community’s present. The council operates an art gallery at the site that is open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM, and hosts regular art and dance classes there in addition to summer camps, community theater productions, and a Digital Media Center that broadcasts locally-produced video content online through a partnership with Comcast.
Backstory and Context
The site at which the Ice House now stands may currently serve as the centerpiece of Morgan County’s artistic community, but it played a pivotal role in local affairs long before the Morgan Arts Council made it its home in 1996. As the site of the county’s only legal hanging (of Ezra Mason of nearby Fulton County, Pennsylvania for the murder of his wife Rachel in 1861), the location stands as a testament to the practice of law and order in an area soon to be engulfed by the Civil War. After that conflict, the site remained central to the history of Berkeley Springs, this time as part of the Deford Leather Company’s tannery in town, a business that evidently was the source of much resentment among those residents active in efforts to attract visitors to rejuvenate local tourism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The conflict between those residents and the tannery (which enjoyed considerable influence among municipal authorities as the town’s largest employer) culminated in local innkeeper Charles Green’s lawsuit against Deford Leather Company in 1875, a case that ultimately helped to determine the economic destiny of the town itself. After the construction of the building now known as the Ice House as a cold storage facility for apples circa 1910, the site served a variety of purposes at various times, from furniture store to health club to teen center. It became the home of the Morgan Arts Council almost eight decades later, nearly twenty years after the council formed in 1977 to encourage artistic education and expression throughout Morgan County. Since its arrival to the Ice House, the council has expanded its operations on- and offsite to include theatrical productions, gallery exhibitions, summer camps, special events, and a Digital Media Center on the second floor. Its permanent art gallery is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM.
Prior to the construction of the Ice House the vacant lot on which that building now stands evidently served as the customary place of execution for the county, though the only legal hanging on record is that of Ezra Mason at 12:30 PM on June 21, 1861 for the murder of his wife Rachel Divelbiss Mason in September of the previous year. Mason, who had recently moved to the area with his family from nearby Fulton County, Pennsylvania, killed his wife with a corn cleaver under the influence of alcohol on the evening of September 27, 1860, an act of such brutal violence that it (and its perpetrator’s subsequent trial, conviction, and execution) remained a topic of conversation throughout the region long after the affair’s conclusion. Mason’s trial evidently hinged in part on his assertion that he could not receive a fair trial in a district where he had few social connections, an argument that jury members chose to disregard in their guilty verdict on May 8, 1861. According to the journals of Union General David Hunter Strother (a popular illustrator known by the pseudonym “Porte Crayon” whose father operated a hotel at the current site of the Country Inn), the entire town turned out in “holiday attire” for Mason’s hanging at the corner of what is now North Mercer and Independence Streets. Strother was returning to Berkeley Springs at the time from a trip to Charleston where he had been active in the efforts to organize western Virginia’s resistance to secession, and as a result was witness only to the aftermath of Mason’s execution and not the event itself. A report on the 1894 arrest of Mason’s son Samuel (himself accused of a murder for which he was later acquitted) in the April 27th issue of the Hagerstown Mail includes an account of both the execution and its aftermath, however. The executioner, Sheriff William J. Fleece, was evidently insufficiently prepared for the occasion, forgetting to cover Mason’s head (as was customary at the time) and misjudging the length of rope necessary, a mistake that resulted in the rope’s breakage and necessitated a halt in the proceedings so that the sheriff could prepare for a second, more successful attempt.
Mason’s hanging at the current site of the Ice House was one of Morgan County’s final civil actions until the cession of hostilities between Union and Confederate forces in 1865 and, as civil actions went, it had not gone particularly well. The mistakes Sheriff Fleece made in the performance of the execution were not especially uncommon in the period but may have been indicative of the relative infrequency with which municipal officials were called to perform such tasks in the area. Indeed, more often than not over the course of the nineteenth century the county’s residents chose to take such matters into their own hands, effectively preventing local officials from exerting their full authority as representatives of law and order in the county. The upheaval of the American Civil War further complicated matters, as did the Reconstruction period that followed. The result was a sharp rise in the incidence of vigilante justice, typically perpetrated by bands of pro-Union residents against Confederate sympathizers, local vagrants, and the area’s few black residents (many of whom chose to simply leave the area rather than face further attacks). Those that remained could hope for little protection from county officials, themselves Unionists who more often than not found reasons to leave the area whenever rumors of an upcoming vigilante raid began to swirl. As a consequence, the remainder of the nineteenth century in Berkeley Springs and Morgan County was (as it was in other border states like Missouri and Maryland) a period in which local citizens more and more frequently took matters of every kind into their own hands rather than wait for government intercessions that they increasingly viewed with considerable cynicism.
It is within this context that the proprietor of the Florence Hotel, Charles Green, filed suit in September of 1875 against Baltimore industrialist Benjamin Franklin Deford and the Deford Leather Company, which operated a tannery that’s facilities included the plot of land where the Ice House now stands. Green, who purchased his inn from Jane Laurens Green O’Ferrall in 1872, alleged that he had spent three years endeavoring to convince town officials to take action against the tannery. Evidently, the leathermaking process there produced such unpleasant odors that local tourism (the foundation of Berkeley Springs’ economy since the town’s establishment in the 1770s) had largely failed to recover since the Civil War. As one of the businesses closest in proximity to the Deford operation Green’s was among the hardest hit, but to the innkeeper’s growing frustration his plight seemed of little concern to municipal administrators. As it turned out, the area’s office-holders had envisioned an entirely different future for their constituents than the one that had for so long held sway there. Rather than continue to rely on visitors to the town’s famous natural springs to prop up the local economy they (like many political leaders at the time) worked to encourage the growth of manufacturing enterprises like Deford Leather, which apparently offered far more employment opportunities than did the community’s numerous hotels. Because the Defords in particular had proven especially generous to the town, funding the construction of numerous public amenities over the period, Green found it uniquely difficult to garner support for his case after he had filed it and, ultimately, chose to settle out of court. Faced with the realities of attracting visitors to an area plagued by vigilantism and dominated by manufacturing enterprises like the Deford Company local tourism began to gradually restrict itself to a few prominent hotels within the immediate proximity of the springs. It would not be until the widespread collapse of local manufacturing during the Great Depression that tourism began to reassert itself as the dominant industry.
While the site of the Ice House enjoys some unique connections to local history, particularly in the period immediately surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction, it is as the headquarters of the Morgan Arts Council that it ultimately attracts most of its visitors in the modern day. With the exit of many local manufacturers in the first half of the twentieth century, the tourism industry regained its ascendancy over the area’s economy. The thriving artistic community the Morgan Arts Council has encouraged and promoted in the county since its foundation in 1977 is in many ways the core of that industry. Both inside and outside of its headquarters at the Ice House, the council has been integral to the growth of local artistic endeavors. Anyone interested in those endeavors (or the history of the area in the nineteenth century) may learn more by visiting the Ice House during gallery hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM or during one of the many special events, classes, or summer camps hosted by the council onsite.
 Frederick T. Newbraugh. Warm Springs Echoes: About Berkeley Springs and Morgan County. Ozark, MO: Dogwood Printing, 1975, 2:11.