"A Gateway to America . . ,"
in West Virginia?
Most people know that while Pearl was born in West Virginia, she spent very little of her life in the State. She became an internationally known "rock star" of the literary world, and a citizen of the globe. Why, then, was she so moved to ensure her original manuscripts be used to promote the restoration and continuing management of her birthplace— a place seemingly unlikely to hold much meaning for her?
In order to help answer that question, the following is a brief history of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, the Birthplace itself, and how the Pearl S Buck Birthplace Foundation (PSBBF) came to be the owners and stewards of Ms. Buck's original manuscript collection, to shed light on Ms. Buck's views on her place of birth and her stated desires for the manuscript collection and the Birthplace to become ". . . a gateway to new thoughts and dreams and ways of life!"
1. The House
The house, in the Little Levels area of the Greenbrier River Valley at the town of Hillsboro, WV, was built by Pearl Buck's Great Grandfather Mynheer Stulting and Grandfather Hermanus Stulting in the 1850's, finished in its original form in 1858. Mynheer Stulting was the first Stulting settler in the Greenbrier Valley, immigrating from the city of Utrecht in Holland earlier in the century. The house was built in the design of a Dutch city house, with red brick walls covered on the outside with a wooden frame and plastered on the inside. It was 12 rooms, with 4 of those rooms dug into the ground and lined with sandstone walls. This was the original kitchen and storehouse area. The first and second floor consisted of bedrooms, studies, and a library/music room. The craftsmanship of the house is exceptional, and today the floors, woodwork, stairs and other details, much of it hand-rubbed walnut and other local hardwood, are still as they were when first built. Pearl's mother Caroline, or Carrie Stulting, daughter of Hermanus and Hannah, was born there in 1858 and lived there until her marriage to Absalom Sydenstricker in 1880. They left on a mission to China, but returned in 1892, when Pearl was born there also, making her the 4th generation of both her Mother's and Father's (Sydenstricker/Argbrite) families in West Virginia. The house remained in the family until the 1922 when it was sold to George Edgar, a neighbor. It remained in the Edgar family until the 1960's.
2. Pearl and the House
Pearl was born in the house, and spent the first 3 months of her life there. She learned of the house through her mother Carrie's stories while they were living in various villages in China as missionaries. Carrie's ability to tell those stories must have been great, as she had a tremendous impact on Pearl. Carrie's love of her home was strong, and her memories vibrant. She was so descriptive of the mountains, the house, the landscape that years later, as Pearl was driving to her home State, she was able to visualize exactly the scene she would see around the next bend in the road. Pearl was enamored of those stories, and came to think of the house as all that was good about her birth country— the United States of America. In her words, "It became the symbol of security and peace in a world where there was neither security nor peace." China was undergoing great cultural change, and the Boxer Rebellion was to be soon. Pearl always claimed to be able to remember her birth in the house— details of the setting, the furniture, the smells, the look of her mother's face. She returned to the house twice during her youth— once at the age of nine. She spent the summer of 1901 at the house, stayed in Lexington, Virginia over the fall and winter, and spent the 1902 month of August again at the house before returning to China. She writes glowingly of that visit. The impact of her impressions of that house, West Virginia, and the United States as the embodiment of sanctuary, justice and integrity was manifest in her writing throughout her life— an aspect of her literary and social career that has been little studied or written about. When she returned in 1909, her Grandfather had died, and an uncle had taken charge of the house. She spent the summer there before starting her college days at Randolph-Macon. She vacationed there briefly the next summer, but that was the last time she visited while the house was still in the family. She did see the house again in 1963 during a visit to celebrate WV's 100th anniversary of Statehood.
3. The PSBBF
During her visit to the birthplace in 1963, Pearl had the idea to buy the house and present it to the State so that they could make it into a park or memorial. That idea never came to fruition. This distressed Pearl and quite a few others around the state who knew the story. The cause for the house was taken up by Jim Comstock, and newspaper man and raconteur who was the publisher and editor of the Richwood newspaper and a weekly publication called the WV Hillbilly, in Richwood, WV, one county over the mountain from Pocahontas County. Comstock had the reputation and the gumption to take on the project and accomplish it. He organized the beginnings of what was to become the Pearl S Buck Birthplace Foundation, solicited donations from around the world, and finally bought the house and presented it to Pearl under the stewardship of the foundation in 1965. The foundation was incorporated as a WV 501c3 non-profit organization in 1968. Several fund-raising activities took place, including book signings and the writing and publication of "My Mother's House" by Pearl to be given to $100 donors to the cause. The WV Federation of Women's Clubs became a partner in the venture and, also in 1968, a $100, 000 grant was received for the restoration of the birthplace and grounds. Attorney Robert Jacobson served as the first volunteer executive director of the foundation, succeeded by David Corcoran, who became the first paid director in 1972. The house was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and opened as a museum in 1974, a year after Pearl's death. After 47 years, the PSBBF continues to function as the overseer of the birthplace and grounds. The foundation is governed by a 12 member Board, of which a 5 member Executive Board, consisting of 4 elected officers and one member at large, conducts the day-to-day administration. During the summer months, the house is open for tours conducted by an on-staff tour guide. Currently, there is no Executive Director.
4. The Manuscript Collection
As part of the original discussions of how to fund the foundation, an idea grew to leverage Pearl Buck's vast original manuscript collection, then in storage at Shawmut National Bank in Boston, MA. In the fall of 1968, Robert Jacobson visited with Pearl in Danby, VT to discuss the creation of the foundation and his service as director. In 1970, a seminar was held at the birthplace, co-sponsored by Westvaco, during which several prominent persons from around the state spoke. Pearl autographed 300 of her books, which were stored in the vault at the Bank of Marlinton. On October 15, 1970, Pearl signed a bill of sale conveying all of her manuscripts in the collection to the PSBBF for the sum of $1.00. The next day, Pearl and Mr. Jacobson attended a Board meeting of Pearl S Buck International, her foundation in Philadelphia, PA, to announce the sale. During the fall of that year, Pearl went on a state wide tour of West Virginia, sponsored by the WV Federation of Women's Clubs, where she announced the conveyance of the collection and her hopes to develop her birthplace as a cultural center. In 1971, Pearl became terminally ill, and moved to Danby, Vermont. In 1972, new PSBBF Executive Director David Corcoran visited with Pearl in Danby, and discussed the collection and long-term plans for the foundation. Pearl died on March 6, 1973. Later that month, the affidavit and Bill of Sale were recorded in the Office of the County Clerk of Pocahontas County, WV. In April of that year, Mr. Corcoran and members of the PSBBF drove to Pennsylvania to make a claim of the manuscript collection under the terms of the Bill of Sale. In October, 1973, Mr. Corcoran drove a van to Boston, obtained the collection, and delivered it directly to WV Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, WV, where then-president of the university John D. Rockefeller IV took possession. The collection was placed in the Annie Merner Pfieffer Library on campus. The collection remained there until 2014, when an agreement was struck among the PSBBF, WVWC, and the WV & Regional History Center of the WVU Libraries to showcase the collection at the WVRHC in Morgantown, WV. That agreement was fulfilled and announced in October of 2014. The original manuscript of "The Good Earth" is not with the collection. It disappeared sometime before the PSBBF took possession of the collection. It surfaced in an antique shop in Philadelphia in 2007, and was confiscated by the FBI, which mistakenly returned it to Pearl's estate without notice given to the PSBBF.