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History in the Hills: The house Bezaleel built

I love old houses and the stories they can tell us of the past.

I have always wanted to live in an old home and learn its history, but as of yet, I have not fulfilled that dream. My house growing up was built by my parents in the 1980s, and my grandparent’s homes were built by them in the 1950s. Those homes have a history now, too, to be sure, but it is not the same as a Queen Anne style home, or a colonial, federal, gothic or an Italianate structure. Truly though, most of us aren’t lucky enough to inhabit a high style example of a previous trend in architecture.

After watching a lot of HGTV, I am not sure many would want to, either. Most of us live in vernacular examples that are reminiscent of those styles and that’s great, too.

My wife and I take pride in identifying vernacular architecture, and it sort of has become a game for us. As we travel, we often point out old houses and buildings and see who is first to identify the right style. And if we disagree, we can defend our various platforms. Driving slowly and looking around at buildings does possibly pose a hazard to other drivers, so we have thought of getting a bumper sticker that reads “Will Brake for Architecture.” Let’s just say that I am extremely fortunate to have a wife and a life companion who shares a quirky and similar interest in history.

It is true to say that we have lost more than a few unique buildings in our area. There are even fewer left that can be identified as striking examples of specific types of architecture. And when you find one still standing, it is exciting. Looking at downtown Steubenville, many of the early 19th century stately homes have long since vanished. One that I come across often in my research that played an important part in our town’s early history was built by our town’s founder, Bezaleel Wells, and was dubbed, the Grove.

The Grove was a stately federal style house built of brick on a large plot of land in the southern end of Steubenville. Today the site is located south of the intersection of Slack and South High streets, very near the abandoned Weirton Steel Office, and is just east of the intersection of South Third Street and state Route 7. When Bezaleel began construction of his home in 1798, he had already finished laying out the city lots and streets that would become the city of Steubenville. For his own holdings, he settled on 412 acres just south of his settlement.

The building was made up of three parts. Although there aren’t any floor plans or prints that I am aware of that still exist of the place, using primary source evidence and existing pictures of the mansion, we can get a good idea of the layout. In any case, this is my best educated guess. The central core of the house was 2 ½ stories and most likely comprised of main formal and entertaining spaces of the house. There was a central hall with a unique iron sweeping and curving grand stairway that led to upper floor bedchambers. The stairs were located in a circular hall in the rear of the building at the end of the central hall. Some houses of this time period would have a special bed chamber on the first floor that was saved for important guests or important events in the life of the family, like births, wedding nights and unfortunately, deaths. I am not certain the Grove had any such room, at least in this section of the house.

The two other wings of the great house, to the left and right of the main section, were two-story brick buildings connected to the main section by short, one-story passages. Each of the passages had an exterior door and a window for ventilation in the days before air conditioning. The left wing of the house most likely housed the dining room, because after investigating existing sanborn fire insurance maps, there is an out building located directly behind this section that is separate from the main structure. This is almost sure to be a summer kitchen. The summer kitchen would have been a separate structure due to the fact that in the summer, one would not want their kitchen near their living space to add the heat of the cooking fire to their lodging. Also the risk of fire was decreased if the buildings were separate.

Just like today, a kitchen is located near a dining room so it would make sense that this wing housed that room. A winter kitchen could have been located under this wing, in a basement, but that is speculation. Also in the wing could have been another sitting room and on the upper floors, rooms for live-in help. My guess would be that the right wing housed the less formal, everyday living spaces of the house. Perhaps a few bedrooms, nursery, living room or second dining room where less formal meals were taken. All in all, the house was a mansion, considering many houses in the area at this time were log or wooden frame structures at best.

Bezaleel moved into his home in 1800 and stayed in residence there for the next 30 or so years. He had been widowed in 1797 and also had lost two daughters prior to his wife’s passing, but he remarried in 1798 to Sarah Griffith Wells and they had six sons and five daughters. The Grove had plenty of room for this large family. It was the social center of town and it has been reported in a number of publications that many prominent visitors were guests like Henry Clay and, in 1821, Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who “stopped at the hospitable mansion of Mr. Wells … his beautiful place on the banks of the Ohio … with his pleasant family, passed some very agreeable days.”

Hard times unfortunately fell on the Wells family, and the Grove was ultimately sold around 1830 to Gen. Samuel Stokely. Here the Stokely family and their descendants passed the next 60 years. The house was then known at Stokely’s Grove and was still the center of social gatherings in our city. Stokely was the land receiver at the Steubenville Land office in 1827, state senator in 1837 and finally a U.S. Congressman from 1841-43. In 1861, Stokely died and passed the home to his daughter, Jane, and husband, Col. William R. Lloyd. Lloyd fought in the Civil War with the 6th Ohio Cavalry which he was the commanding officer of until he resigned shortly before the regiment saw action at Gettysburg in 1863. I can only imagine the conversations that took place at the Grove during that time.

In 1877, Lloyd passed away and left the home to his wife and remaining children. By 1902, the property was sold and the site was to be redeveloped into the Pope Tin Mill Plant and later Weirton Steel’s Steubenville plant. According to a Herald-Star article in March 1902, “workmen commenced demolishing the old Bezaleel Well residence … The big steam shovels cut away the hills close up on each side of the historic old manor house and now it must go … even the hill upon which it stood was to disappear.”

While demolishing the home, according to another article in April 1902, relics of the past were found in the ruin such as a land grant signed in 1785 by Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, legal land documents from the 18th century and a letter written by President William Henry Harrison in 1836. Many books and newspapers were found going back to the 1820s and 1830s as well. By June of 1902, the whole site was transformed into an industrial site and to this day, bears no resemblance to its former history.

The Grove passed from our landscape in 1902, but the history of the impressive place still resonates in our town’s story. In Joseph Doyle’s book, “History of Jefferson County,” he recounted a poem about the old place that appeared in the Herald on April 8, 1820: “Near where Ohio’s flowing waters glide, And Nature counts the sun’s resplendent rays, The enchanting Castle, well of man the pride, Arrests the passing stranger’s wistful gaze. Here fancy and simplicity unite, And taste and culture happily combine, Delightful spot, where fruits and flowers invite, Where clusters tempt, and fruitful vines entwine.”

Even though the old house is gone, we can still hear its story.

(Zuros is executive director of Historic Fort Steuben.)

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