Cockayne House Mysteries and Discoveries

by Thomas J. Tarowsky.

Column reprinted courtesy of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.


Tom Tarowsky with Vo-Ag Journal

     This is the first in a series of columns about the curious and interesting items that the Marshall County Historical Society has identified and cataloged in the Cockayne House, and what they tell us about life in the Ohio Valley between 1850 and the turn of the current century.

Sam Cockayne's Vo-Ag Journal

     It seems that most everyone in the Valley can recall the old, large farmhouse across from John Marshall High School. The Cockayne House has become a familiar landmark for the traveler on West Virginia Route 2.

As familiar as people are with the house, they know very little about the family that lived there for over 150 years. There is a good bit of curiosity and not a little bit of conjecture about the Cockaynes, and who they were, and what they were like.

     Many Glen Dale residents recall the last resident of the house, Sam, as a very private (some would say reclusive) individual who led a solitary life in just a room or two of the farmhouse. From all accounts, Sam was passionate about his privacy, to the extent of quietly coming home from his World War II service a day earlier than expected, in order to avoid a heroís welcome at the train station.

      Are there any clues about Sam hidden among the thousands of items that remain in the house today? Can we use these clues to figure out what made Sam tick? Can we gain an idea as to how he might have defined himself?

     One of the little treasures that has recently been found and studied provides a good bit of insight as to Samís interests through his high school career. From the fall of 1935 through the end of the school year in 1937, Sam was enrolled in the Vocational Agriculture curriculum at Moundsville High School. Each Vo-Ag student was required to keep a detailed record book of all his (or her) activities in the program, and Sam was no exception. This Record of Supervised Farm Practice in Vocational Agriculture provides much information.

     His record-keeping was meticulous, and it tells us about the farm on which he lived and worked, his interests and the things that made him tick as well as his work ethic.

     Just over an acre of the land that was the Cockayne farmstead remains with the house today. It is difficult for someone who wasnít here before the current high school was built to imagine that there was a large farm on the site of John Marshall High School, in what is now the middle of town. At the beginning of his enrollment in the Vo-Ag program at MHS, Samuelís instructor required him to document the scope of the farm at which he planned to work. On September 9, 1935, (according to Samís Vo-Ag record book), the Cockayne farm consisted of 296 acres, of which 10 acres were planted in corn, 14 in oats, and 25 in hay. One hundred ninety-six acres were used as pasture. The rest was in timber. Sam also documented that the familyís livestock included 15 cattle, 100 head of Merino sheep, 2 horses, and 50 chickens.

     It was quite a large farm, compared to the average farm in Marshall County in 1935, which had 93.8 acres, according to the 1935 West Virginia Blue Book. We can also note that an important product of the Cockayne farm was Merino sheep, as it had been nearly 60 years before. (A framed certificate in the North Parlor of the house attests to the superior quality of the American Merino wool displayed by the Cockaynes at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.)

     The list of farm equipment provides important information about the farm, as well. According to this list of resources, equipment included 5 walking/hand plows, 10 cultivators, 1 binder-thrasher, 1 rake-mower, 4 wagons, 1 sled, 1 lime spreader, 1 grain drill, 1 spike- and 1 spring-tooth harrow, 1 corn marker, 3 shears, 1 grain blower, 2 corn shellers, and 1 pair of harness. One item conspicuous in its absence from this list is a tractor.

     Even in mid-1930's, young Sam and his father (also Samuel), and his brother (John) farmed 296 acres using what was (even then) becoming old-fashioned horsepower and a 2-horse team. There is no evidence of a motorized tractor, so the logical conclusion is that the binder-thrasher and rake-mower were horse-drawn, as were the plows.

     So we have it: in living memory, less than 75 years ago, a prominent local farmer worked approximately 50 acres to raise feed for his livestock using horse-drawn equipment. This method of farming was beginning to fade in 1935, and became obsolete by the end of World War II.

     Sam worked the land as did his father and grandfather before him. Photographs taken in the late 1950's show him with his horses and his hay rake, in the field that has become the site of John Marshall High School.

     Sam worked on 3 year-long enterprises during his enrollment in the Vo-Ag program: during his freshman year, he grew corn, raised sheep, and raised a sow pig. He rented the land he used from his father at the rate of $6.00 for the year.

     In the end, his records indicated that there was more money, and better, in some phases of the business than in others. Growing corn proved to be the most labor-intensive of his projects, requiring 112 hours of Samís time, with 54 of those hours spent using horse-drawn equipment. His profit of $68.45 came out to an hourly rate of $.60 per hour (which was comparable to that of industrial workers of the day.)

     His sheep enterprise, including both shearing of the ewe as well as breeding and care of lambs netted him $.26 per hour, for the 27 hours that he put in. He also documented 87 hours work in the sow pig enterprise with a net profit of $.34 per hour.

     Although the family business had for many years focused on raising American Merino sheep for both shearing and breeding purposes, the market had declined for this product well before Samís high school years. The boom days for American Merino wool were in the latter years of the 1800s, and Samís slim profits provide a clear illustration of industryís situation in the mid 1930's. (The West Virginia Encyclopedia reports that the number of sheep in West Virginia peaked at more than 800,000 in the late 19th century. Today there are only between 40,000 and 60,000 sheep in the state.)

     Even though the family had significant resources in 1935, it would become more difficult for the sheep farming business to remain profitable with each passing year.