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Ancient (sort of) decree

Odd, outdated ordinances still on the books

November 17, 2012
By Beth Christian Broschart, Anthony Gaynor and Katie Kuba Staff Writers , The Inter-Mountain

Reading ordinance books in Randolph and surrounding counties reveals many rules which seem archaic and simply do not make sense in this day and age. But in their day, these ordinances helped keep towns safe and running smoothly.

The Inter-Mountain staff members recently teamed up to leaf through old, often comical ordinances that are still on the books - but are not necessarily enforced - in municipalities in Randolph, Barbour and Upshur counties.

City Clerk Sutton Stokes said the city of Elkins has done a fairly decent job through the years of removing outdated laws from the city code, but there are still some ordinances on the books that may seem a little strange.

"There is a law against spitting on the sidewalks," Stokes said. "It was for germ prevention."

Section 13-10 of the code makes it illegal for any person to spit on any sidewalk in the city or upon the floor or "other portion of any public conveyance used and operated by the city..." The ordinance states that the act could endanger the health of residents.

Stokes said the current city code also says that residents are supposed to sweep the sidewalk in front of their homes everyday except for Sundays.

Fact Box

Noteworthy ordinances

Mill Creek

  • Section 94, XLIX: No person shall ride or drive on any bridge faster than a walk.
  • Section 91, XLVI: No person shall carry any lighted candle, lamp or other light into any warehouse, stable, house, room or building where there is kept any hay, straw, fodder, oil, varnish, turpentine, powder or other explosive or inflammable material unless such light is safely enclosed in glass or other substance.
  • Section 103, LVIII: No person shall needlessly blow any steam whistle.
  • Section 55, X: No person shall ring any door bell, rap on any door, window, or building for the purpose of annoying the inmates of the building.
  • Section 47, II: No person shall use any vulgar or profane language or curse or swear upon any streets, alley, road or other public place, or within the hearing of any one who's upon any street, alley, road, or in any public place, or the annoyance of another.
  • Section 121, LXXVI: No person shall misbehave in the presence of the Mayor while in the discharge of his official duty.


  • Section 32: It shall be unlawful for any person to attempt to climb or jump on or off any railroad engine, cargo train while the same is in motion, unless such person is an officer or employee of the railroad company.
  • Section 35: It shall be unlawful for any person to play ball, play marbles, pitch quoits or engage in any game or sport, utter loud cries, quarrel, riot, hunt, fish, or sell goods, wares, merchandise or intoxicating drinks or engage in any common labor or secular business on the Sabbath day, other than work of necessity or charity, except such persons as conscientiously observe Saturday as the Sabbath.
  • Section 36: It shall be unlawful for any person to molest or insult any person whomsoever, when going to or returning from a religious meeting.
  • It shall be unlawful for any person to willfully cause a fire alarm or cry "fire" or ring any bell or do anything creating or tending to create a false alarm of fire.
  • Each commissioner and clerk of elections shall be allowed two dollars for each day he shall so serve.

Another section of the code makes it illegal for anyone to lead, ride or drive any horse or other animal, except dogs, on any sidewalk. The same section of the code makes it illegal to ride a bicycle on any sidewalk.

Stokes said there are also several ordinances in the code that deal with using horses in the town. He said the code states people must clean up any manure from horses.

"The ordinances about horses are becoming relevant again," Stokes said. "We will be having horse drawn carriages in town during the holiday season."

Stokes said that it is a good thing for municipalities to take a look at their body of laws to make sure they are still needed.

"I think it is a good idea to be conservative with a body of laws," he said. "If it doesn't do any harm or contradicts a changed way of thinking, why leave it there?"

Stokes said looking back at an older code book, several laws have been removed from the Elkins City Code. Stokes said in the 1942 code there were laws against fornication and adultery.

"It was illegal to live with someone without being married," Stokes said.

Stokes said the ordinance, dubbed "Lewd cohabitation," makes it illegal for anyone married to each other to "lewdly and lascivious cohabit together."

He said under the older code it was also illegal to work on Sundays.

"To a large extent the City of Elkins has kept their books up to date," Stokes said. "A city is in a bad position when there are laws on the books no one is going to enforce."

The city is currently working to update their code with a new codification. The code book has not been updated since the 1990s. City Attorney Gerry Roberts said once a city passes an ordinance it remains law until it is rescinded by an act of council.

She said it is normal practice when a city updates its code to remove outdated ordinances. She said when the recodification is done city council will decide to remove any older outdated ordinances.

In the town of Mill Creek, for instance, Section 98, LIII states, "No person who is affected with any dangerous or infectious disease shall come within the town limits unless he is a resident thereof."

This rule helped cut down the spread of diseases that could wipe out the population of a town.

Section 95, L of Mill Creek states, "No person shall bathe at any time in that part of the Tygart Valley River which is above the intake of the city waterworks, nor below said intake between the hours of five o'clock in the morning and nine o'clock in the evening." This same ordinance appears in Beverly, only referring to Files Creek.

Mill Creek Mayor Bill Brock said there was a good reason for these ordinances.

"This is when the water plants were working in the towns," Brock said. "They also used to use the ice from the river and creek to keep things cold."

Brock said many of these ordinances remain and are only changed when needed.

"It is expensive to change these because they have to be reviewed by the city attorney to make sure they are correct when rewritten," Brock said. "It is also very time consuming, and once the proposed changes are ready, it takes several months because they have to be read at meetings, giving residents the time to make any objections they may have."

Brock said Mill Creek is currently working to update its ordinances regarding animals.

"We are allowed through the West Virginia Municipal League access to ordinances from other towns in the state," Brock said. "We can use those and tweak them to fit our needs as a guideline. Then our city attorney works through them to make sure they comply with our charter, and with state code. Then they are read at council meetings and finally, adopted as ordinances."

In neighboring Upshur County, Buckhannon Mayor Kenny Davidson recently laughed over a number of outdated, often ludicrous ordinances that are, unfortunately, still in the City of Buckhannon's law books. Although the city continuously amends more modern ordinances when they became obsolete, Buckhannon's inaugural ordinance book is chock-full of strange, eyebrow-raising laws that the city could still potentially enforce.

For instance, Section 27 declares that horse-drawn vehicles "if backed to the curb, must stand with the horses facing the direction of traffic and parallel with the curb."

"See, you've got to parallel park your horse," Davidson chuckled. A number of sections concern the treatment of horses, such as one that forbids people from tying their horses up on a city street without water.

And don't think about flying a kite, rolling a hoop, playing a ball or "engaging in any play, sport or exercise which might produce bodily injury to any person, on any street, alley, or public park." Way back then, loitering wasn't just something businesses banned; council took it upon itself to outlaw loitering or wandering in streets, alleys, parks or public places "unless such person is able to give a satisfactory account of himself or herself."

Once upon a time, Buckhannon's ruling body also mandated times on Sundays during which it was legal to exhibit "any moving picture show" in the city. Such shows were permitted to run between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and again between 9 p.m. and midnight - so long as "such shows shall be clean and not of immoral or indecent character or calculated to corrupt the morals of youth."

It might be entertaining to paw through pages of such seemingly silly laws, but Davidson said they could be seriously enforced if the city chose to do so.

"These are on the books, so we could enforce them if we wanted to, unless something could prove that state law or U.S. law supersedes them," Davidson said.

The mayor said the city is in the midst of looking for a company to codify its ordinances - that is, compare its ordinances to current state code and U.S. law and edit or delete any illegal language or laws that are no longer relevant. In conjunction with codifying its ordinances, Davidson is leading a crusade to change the city's charter, which was drafted in 1933 when there were only 10 employees. The charter change is imperative, he said, because it delineates the powers of council members and the powers of the mayor. According to the 1933 charter, the mayor has the same authority as a constable, a position that no longer exists.

"In 1933, we did not operate a water treatment plant, and we did not even have a sewer treatment plant," Davidson said. "We didn't collect garbage, and all of those functions account for a large number of the functions of city employees we have today. We're relying on a system devised in 1933 to run $13 to $14 million enterprise in 2012."

In August 2011, voters voted down a potential charter change, but Davidson said he's still carrying on as a crusader for the cause. The mayor said he'll pursue the possibility in either 2013 or 2014.

"Trust me, this will be brought to council again," he said.

In Barbour County, Susie Bradley, city clerk of Belington, said her town updated their ordinances in the mid-1980s.

"The mayor in 1985 to 1987 worked with our city attorney, Joe Wallace, to redo the town ordinance and bring them up to date with the state code," Bradley said.

Wallace said he worked with Belington Mayor Glenn Watson, a retired brigadier general, to get everything up to date.

"It was a long process, but we completed it," Wallace said.

Recently, the town of Belington updated its animal ordinances and ordinances relating to camping.



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