February 28th, 2022
By Katie Saucer
In 1890, the 19-year-old son of a former slave moved to Morgantown and became a millionaire. Intriguing, right? Now, what if I told you this same man owned 23 businesses in the area, helped black residents establish businesses, and had a granddaughter who became the first black woman to receive an undergraduate degree from West Virginia University? You’re probably perplexed as to why John Hunt isn’t a household name in Morgantown history. I know I was.
The first time I came across John Hunt was in our OnView photograph collection. WVRHC Instruction and Public Services Coordinator, Miriam Cady, showed my Digital Humanities seminar an image of one of his businesses, Hunt’s Oysters and Ice Cream Parlor. The odd combination of oysters and ice cream, along with the basic knowledge (from Cady) that Hunt was an influential Black entrepreneur in Morgantown, piqued my curiosity. My research took off from there, and now I can say, with full confidence, that it’s time we start talking about the incredible life of John Hunt.
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1871, Hunt moved to Morgantown at age 19 and began work as a cook. Two years later, he became one of the first African Americans in Morgantown to operate a restaurant, which was located on High Street. He later opened Hunt’s Oyster Parlor for Ladies on Walnut Street. In 1900, he opened the first ice cream plant in the county. (Fun fact: Hunt used cut and stored winter ice from the Monongahela River to create his famous “Hokey Pokies”, which were ice cream bricks on a stick). Hunt was also known for his aid to black residents in Morgantown. He “either transferred or shared his business license with cooks Eddie Dooms and B.W. Anderson”. Both of these men eventually owned prominent restaurants in the area.
Hunt, his wife Anna Davis, and their eight children lived in a home on Hunt Street (Yes, named after John Hunt himself) between Colson Hall and Purinton House on West Virginia University’s downtown campus. As the century progressed, Hunt became known in the area for his catering. When WWI broke out, he served food to local soldiers in training, and was appointed chairman of the State Council of Defense for black West Virginians by Governor Cornwell.
In the 1920s, Hunt established three resorts located in Preston County and the Cheat Lake Area. The most famous of these was Indian Rocks Resort near Reedsville, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The resort boosted walking trails, sun bathing areas, and private cottages for white guests. Hunt, though, continued his history of employing local black workers. In 1928, he constructed a large dining hall for the resort.
During the Great Depression, Hunt and his family made financial sacrifices to save the Indian Rock’s new dining hall, including the loss of their home. In 1932, 61-year-old John Hunt died at his beloved Indian Rocks Resort. His granddaughter, Annette Chandler Broome, went on to become the first black woman to receive an undergraduate degree from West Virginia University in 1957.
With a remarkable life story and lasting influence on Morgantown (and the surrounding areas) it is difficult to understand why Hunt is not discussed regularly as being a vital part of the state’s growth during the early 20th century. Hunt represents the efforts of black West Virginians pre-civil rights. His aid to his community, Morgantown, and the state coupled with his business endeavors, prove Hunt is a vital part of West Virginia history. It’s time we start talking about Hunt, along with other West Virginians missing from the popular historical record.
I would like to thank Miriam Cady for introducing me to the story of John Hunt. To piece together Hunt’s life, I used “Our Monongalia: A History of African Americans in Monongalia, West Virginia” by Connie Rice, along with the Indian Rocks National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.