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Underground Story

CHESAPEAKE — It was billed as a lecture on the Underground Railroad, the Civil War era’s mission to rescue Southern slaves.

But author Don Daniel McMillian started out his talk Thursday at the Chesapeake Library sharing his personal tales of the rich and famous.

McMillian was there to discuss and promote his latest book, “The Underground Railroad Lawrence County, Ohio, and Cabell County, Virginia,” taking the audience on a visual tour of the Tri-State.

McMillian, a Cabell County native with long family ties with eastern Lawrence County, spent about 15 years as the legal secretary for Mary Donohue, widow of Woolworth Donahue, heir to the Five and Dime fortune.

Donahue, known by his friends as Wooly, was noted for many eccentricities like keeping a tamed cheetah as a pet.

Donahue committed suicide in 1934. But his widow carried on the tradition of offbeat behavior that McMillian saw firsthand.

While Mary Donahue had a cook to take care of her meals, she eagerly took over the kitchen at night to cook and debone Cornish game hens for her dogs with which they had with bowls of ice water. One night the 25-carat diamond in her solitaire ring fell out and got lodged in the sink. However, Mary was unaware of what had happened to the stone.

Days later, her chef complained that the kitchen sink wasn’t draining. He pulled out the stone, but thought it was one of the crystal pendants off a chandelier. When Mary saw the diamond, her reaction was swift and sudden.

“I never saw anyone’s knees collapsed like that before,” McMillian said.

In 1993 McMillian returned to the Huntington area and began his career as a writer.

“I was happy to get here,” he told the audience. “I saw what a beautiful community I had grown up with and wanted to learn more about it.”

The result became a book about the mansions of Huntington, and the current work, which is available for checkout at the library or can be purchased on Amazon.com.