Oglebay Institute’s Mansion Museum is perhaps one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of Wheeling. No local resident is without the image of the beautiful yellow mansion that breaks into view as you ascend Route 88 from Woodsdale – the manicured lawns and ornate fountains combine with the rolling hills that break scenically from between the buildings.
The summer home of Earl W. Oglebay, one of America’s foremost businessmen and philanthropists as well as one of Wheeling’s top benefactors, has become a hilltop icon pointing back to time past that whispers subtly of affluence and industrial power seated here along our river banks.
But what is less known and rarely experienced is the depth of story and intrigue that is found within the walls of this beautiful monument to Wheeling’s past.
Holly McCluskey, perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on the Oglebay family and the curator at the Museums, said that the true allure of the Museum is not its one-of-a-kind collection. It’s the stories behind those items and the mansion itself.
“The Oglebay family and the history of this family in relation to Wheeling is our own local Downton Abbey, complete with intrigue, scandal, secret engagements, tragedy, elite social circles, family tension, and glimpses at what makes the extraordinarily wealthy so intriguingly different from most of us while, at the same time, reminding us that they’re not so different after all. They still love. They experience grief and loss. They suffer from illness. They feel loneliness, and they are willing to put it all on the line for love.”
Christin Byrum, director of the Museums of Oglebay Institute, said that a lot of the programming at the Museums centers on telling the story of the Oglebay family in such a way that the engaging storylines become tangible through the very personal artifacts that have been left to the Museum from the family itself.
“The Oglebay family has been so gracious and generous over the years by leaving very unique, intimate, and valuable pieces to our collection,” said Byrum. “We like to take every opportunity to introduce the public to a story that is a part of the fabric of not only the Oglebay family but also of Wheeling.”
As Wheeling works toward creating a future that is founded on 21st century economy and sensibilities, it is important to look back and realize that men like Earl Oglebay and his grandson Courtney Burton succeeded by looking around and capitalizing on the opportunities presented by their place and time in history. And within those opportunities and calculated risks, their story, our story, is written.
“We are definitely seeing a resurgence in interest surrounding the Oglebay story and our programs offered here at the Museums. I think as Wheeling enters into a new chapter in its long and storied history, it is only natural to look back and have a knowledge about what its past looked like. And in Wheeling, it’s impossible to look back and not see the iconic faces and landmarks emblazoned by the Oglebay family,” said McCluskey.
To provide an example, McCluskey said that approximately 30 people took part in a lecture on the life of Mr. Oglebay in mid-January. The lecture focused on the personal and professional life of the man who in the span of one lifetime became the youngest bank president at the age of twenty-eight and parleyed that early fortune into a visionary investment of a fledgling iron ore industry.
“It’s really something special. We had thirty people come out on a Thursday evening to hear the story of a man who died in 1926 but left an indelible mark on Wheeling and the surrounding area and institutions,” continued McCluskey.
In continuation of the desire to tell the story of the Oglebay family to a new generation of patrons, McCluskey said the Mansion Museum offered a Valentine’s Day Champagne Tour on February 13.
“So much of the Oglebay story is rooted in romantic relationships. Over three generations, there were secret engagements, tragedy, young love, second chances, and so much more. It reads like a soap opera or romance novel. In this tour, participating couples had a rare opportunity to go into some of the period rooms as well as view some of the more valuable and fragile pieces in our collection like Sallie, his wife’s, wedding dress as well as some beautiful pieces of family jewelry while hearing some of the more intimate, intriguing, and sometimes scandalous stories that make up the family fabric.”
McCluskey said the program sold out, with several couples on the waiting list. Due to the interest and positive response from the public she is planning to offer additional tours during Valentine’s weekend next year
Each participant received a glass of sparkling wine, chocolates, a single rose, and a glass “kiss” made in the Oglebay Institute Studio at the Glass Museum, which honors, preserves and displays Wheeling’s impressive glass legacy through a world-class collection and working glass studio where visitors can experience the art of glass making though live demonstrations and workshops with glass artisans.
“We were very excited to see so many new faces in our Museum. It’s always great to watch as people hear the story for the first time.”
As Wheeling moves forward, perhaps it is more important than ever to take some time to look at the successes of our past, and there is perhaps no better place to do that than the Museums of Oglebay Institute.