FRENCH CREEK — This series of regular articles explores aspects of Upshur County’s history, culture or people honored by the West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program. The state register lists 20 of these iconic white plaques in Upshur County, and each article will present as much information on the subject as can be found. This seventh installment discusses the community of French Creek.
An unincorporated community nine and a half miles south of Buckhannon, French Creek has existed since the early 19th Century, when the area near the Buckhannon River tributary of the same name, likely named for French explorers who passed through in the late 18th Century, was settled by Presbyterians from New England, known for their piety and faith-driven perseverance. The first religious services in the area were conducted in 1816 by Asa Brooks, who was also the first pastor of Clarksburg’s First Presbyterian Church. The French Creek Presbyterian Church was built in 1866, designed by Lieutenant Warson Bunten; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Additionally, in 1828, one of America’s first temperance societies was founded at French Creek, favoring total abstinence from alcohol, and the following year a ‘Bible Society’ was formed and distributed “450 Bibles and 200 Testaments” among county residents.
Asa Brooks was also one of the first postmasters of the French Creek Post Office, established in 1822 as only the second post office in Upshur County. It is said that he often read aloud from the “New York Tribune” to large crowds on days when the mail was delivered, according to “French Creek as a Rural Community” by A.J. Dadisman. However, the settlers of the community could hardly be considered illiterate, having “brought with them a number of books, which were used as a circulating library among the early French Creek people.”
Speaking of education, in 1871 the “French Creek Institute,” commonly called the Academy, was established for the training of teachers and general promotion of education. During its 12 years of existence, the academy offered a full high school course to male and female students and attracted many pupils from other parts of the state. Among its many graduates included at least 78 schoolteachers, 16 ministers, a university president, 12 physicians, four lawyers, four deputy sheriffs, a judge, bankers, authors, businessmen and more. Before the creation of the Academy, various local women and pastors taught the basics of education in their homes or barns.
Among the everyday people, the most common profession was farming, though the early community also included tanners, wheelwrights, house carpenters, cabinetmakers and joiners, as well as schoolteachers, ministers, doctors, and the like. Some of the first families to come to the area from New England included the Morgans, Goulds, Youngs, Brookses, Phillipses, Sextons, Leonards, Perrys, Aldens, Burrs and Hayneses.
Throughout its life, the community has been known by a few different names. It was sometimes referred to as Meadeville, being located in the magisterial Meade District. Around the time of the Civil War, it was known as Snatchburg, referencing either the perceived rapaciousness of local merchants or soldiers who would “grab or snatch what was available.”
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Ralph “Boonie” Young lived on Bush Run Road in French Creek, where he raised turkeys, trapped foxes and kept bobcats and other wild animals, which he would eventually release into the wild. Eventually, as more and more people came to visit his animals, and with the realization that much of West Virginia’s major fauna had been killed off from habitat loss and overhunting, the Game and Fish Commission created the French Creek Game Farm in 1923, crediting Young as one of the founders. Though the farm was originally intended to breed native wildlife for reintroduction, ecologists eventually realized that animals raised in captivity lack the instincts necessary to survive in the wild; even though these programs were stopped, the Game Farm remained open as a popular tourist attraction. In 1978, the center introduced French Creek Freddie, the state’s official Groundhog Day meteorologist. In 1986, the farm was renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center and it now welcomes about 50,000 visitors per year.
From its humble origins, French Creek has grown and expanded in many ways while still maintaining the feel of a small village nestled within nature. Readers are encouraged to visit the animals and people of French Creek and take in the quiet atmosphere of a community that has endured for more than 200 years.