“Old Josie” Dixon was (maybe) Mineral County’s first “Super-Centenarian”

Dale Brumfield
Special to the News Tribune
Joseph Dixon, 1877

In today’s world, age 100 is the new 80. According to World Atlas, the U.S. has the highest number of centenarians in the world, with about 97,000 people living today over 100 years of age. Japan comes second with 79,000 citizens age 100 years or older.

Explanations for the long lives vary. The New England Centenarian Study showed genetic factors that heavily contributed to people living past the age of 100, and that individuals were four times more likely to reach at least age 90 if their siblings were centenarians. Other studies focus on biochemical factors, including a link between high levels of Vitamin A and E helping people reach the century mark. Healthy personal health habits, such as staying both physically and mentally active, also seem to be common drivers in those reaching 100.

Whatever the contributors, they all blended in perfect harmony for former Elk Garden resident Joseph “Old Josie” Dixon. When he died Oct. 27, 1878, he was reportedly somewhere between 104 and 115 years of age.

Josie’s actual date of birth is lost to history. The 1850 census lists him as 76 years of age, making his birth year 1774, but the 1860 census lists him as 88, which puts his birth year at 1772. The confusion compounds with the 1870 census, which lists him as 106, making his birth year 1764. Other genealogical websites list his birth year at 1769. Josie himself thought he was 111 years of age near his death.

Regardless of the actual year, that a person born around the time of the American Revolution could thrive in a brutal, pre-antibiotic mountain frontier environment to reach such a venerable age is indeed astonishing.

It is generally accepted that Josie was born in Ireland, then immigrated to Baltimore in the late 1770s with his father, John, and two brothers, William and John Jr.

Little is known of his mother, Hannah Marshall, other than she was born in 1736 in Mohawk Valley, New York, and died in 1796.

The Dixons first settled near Fort Wheeling, Ohio, but life there proved too dangerous so they returned briefly to Baltimore before moving to Bloomington, Maryland.

While in Bloomington, Joseph met and married Keziah Ward in 1804, and they moved in 1810 to the largely unsettled Elk District in Hampshire County, Virginia, which later became Elk Garden, in Mineral County, West Virginia.

Like many pioneer families during that time, Josie and Keziah started producing children to help put food on the table and to work on their mountain homestead, eventually having a total of six girls and four boys. In addition, Josie began dealing in real estate, and by 1840 owned considerable acreage surrounding Elk District.

A prominent citizen and reportedly a public office holder, Josie was said to have donated the first dollar for the maintenance of the only public road through Elk District. His descendants – which allegedly numbered over 300 at his death – held public office at the county and state levels continuously for over 150 years.

After the death of Keziah in 1860, Josie welcomed travelers into his home, but because of the isolation, they were often required to stay overnight. Josie had only one rule – as a teetotaler, he required the visitor to leave his tobacco and his whiskey on a stone wall near the milk house, otherwise, the visitor slept in the barn.

In his later years, children frequently gathered around the somewhat eccentric Old Josie to hear tales of his boyhood in Belmont County, Ohio, including nail-biting stories of close calls and middle-of-the-night flights to Fort Wheeling to escape attacking local Indians.

Josie remained remarkably healthy into his triple digits. A Sept. 5, 1876 news short in the Bloomington (Indiana) News reports that Elisha Dixon visited his uncle, Joseph, who was “one hundred and six years old and who is yet able to saddle a horse and ride him without inconvenience.”

In fact, during numerous trips to Keyser, Josie’s “enfeebled” son needed help to mount his horse, while “the old patriarch sprang upon his own steed with the ready ease of one to the manner born.”

“[He] …within a few days of his death,” the article concluded, “was an active, hearty citizen.”

The same paper reported two years later that Old Josie, a “man well and widely known for his sterling character and strict integrity,” died on Oct. 29, 1878 in his home at Elk Garden. Still stumbling over his actual age, the paper reported that “Mr. Dixon, at the time of his death, had attained the advanced age of 115 years, and we are informed by a witness of the highest credibility that his age can be well attested.”

People who survive to 100 and beyond profess no consistent secrets to their longevity. A Fairmont woman named Annie Cunningham, who died in 1963 at age 102, credited hard housework and being a mother. In 1919, 100-year-old Staunton, Virginia native William Fuller credited three cigars per day. Ripley native George Kessell said in 1962 at age 101 he credited hard work, a good appetite and a good chew of tobacco.

Whatever the reason for his longevity, Old Josie Dixon lived a remarkably long and prosperous life, He was buried in the Dixon family cemetery on the Kitzmiller farm in Sulphur, West Virginia.

Dale Brumfield can be reached at dalebrumfield@protonmail.com.