Just west of West Virginia’s much-visited eastern panhandle lies a lesser-known, but equally fetching, part of the Mountain State—Hampshire County.
Thanks to local pride, creativity, and initiative, this scenic and culturally rich county—a lush expanse of forests, streams, and mountains dotted with historic sites and towns—is becoming better-known in the outside world, as travelers discover its proximity a few Appalachian Mountain folds away from the busy corridors of the Mid-Atlantic coast.
“It’s a new journey for an old county,” says Jonathan Bellingham, lauding the regeneration of this “quiet, natural, two-lane paradise” into a destination for lovers of history, nature, recreation, and that great American pastime, shopping. Bellingham, on the board of the county visitors bureau, is one of the third-generation owner/operators of Capon Springs & Farms, his family’s mountain resort in Hampshire’s southeastern corner.
It was also a new journey for me. I arrived last fall, driving over the Virginia line on U.S. Route 50 and on to Romney, the county seat, a handsome gaggle of historic structures from the 18th century to the 20th—houses, shops, churches, civic landmarks like the neoclassical courthouse, even an old Coca-Cola bottling plant that looks like it never left the 1930s.
Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad
I wanted to tarry, but had an appointment north of town—to ride the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, which chugs up the South Branch of the Potomac River, giving day-trippers bracing views of the river, forested ridges, farmland, and rugged valley walls. The vintage locomotives and cars (fancy club and comfy coach) have been running since 1991 on the still-operating South Branch Valley Railroad. As I relished the panorama—especially the long lazy floodplains—suddenly the 1789 Kuykendall House appeared, a stunning stone manor so close to the tracks I could almost touch it. And to gleeful shrieks from all, American bald eagles emerged, making lazy circles amid the trees of the gorge.
Returning natives, those who never left, and fresh transplants are energizing the county, as my Romney rambles revealed. Commerce, arts, and the public sector bolster each other in shops, community nonprofits, and museums. Patty Anderson, a West Virginian who moved here in 1972, runs Anderson’s Corner in two joined historic structures on Main Street, purveying jewelry—some of it made there by her two sons—other regional crafts, and food and wine. “This community works together,” says Anderson. “It’s all about small-town fun.” Nearby, an old feed-and-grain store lives on as the Hampshire County Co-Op and Heritage Market Place, vending local goods—foods to fine arts—and hosting meetings and musical gigs.
The Romney Project, run by the town and county arts council, is adorning the townscape with outdoor murals depicting local history and culture, one underway at the Co-Op to showcase its many offerings. And the nonprofit Refresh Restart Romney is spiffing up buildings, vacant lots, playgrounds, and sidewalks and—to the delight of visitors—replacing parking meters with flower baskets. “Our mission,” says Romney mayor Beverly Keadle, “is a better life for everyone here.”
I also stopped at Davis History House (1798), the last log structure in town, its low-ceilinged rooms lined with memorabilia painting an intimate portrait of life during the Civil War, and Taggart Hall (1795), a history museum and county visitors center, a good place to start your stay. The Coca-Cola plant, now called The Bottling Works, hosts live music and other public events.
Capon Bridge Finds
More can-do spirit thrives in the hamlet of Capon Bridge, at The River House, a community center in a revived c. 1890 house that hosts everything home-grown—art exhibits and classes to live music, citizen forums and crafts workshops to shared-interest clubs. And it serves tasty meals. Co-founders Beth and Tim Reese—she a D.C. native, he from West Virginia—shepherd this ferment of cultural goings-on. “I feel like River House is a pollinator,” says Beth, “since other projects are inspired by this.” Check out the nearby bridge over the Cacapon River, which Tim and locals fought successfully to preserve.
Memorable Military History
Military-history fans will find lots to see in Hampshire, which braved both the French and Indian and Civil wars. Fort Edwards, near Capon Bridge, was built for the former, one in a chain of garrisons commanded by George Washington. Its first-rate visitors center and outdoor displays explained a conflict I knew little about. The latter war saw the county change hands 10 times between North and South. Soldiers from both rest at Indian Mound Cemetery, atop ancient earthworks and near the gorgeous 1925 Parsons Bell Tower.
To sample Hampshire on more than a daytrip, try two historic but utterly dissimilar hotels. On Route 50 east of Romney is the Koolwink Motel, a with-it and wacky symphony of mid-century-modern design. From blond furniture and sunburst clocks to bright pottery lamps and retro wall art, the Koolwink will either keep you up ogling the décor or lull you to sleep with memories of Corvettes and the Supremes. I loved one couple’s thank-you note: “Our time at the ‘Wink’ is always cool.”
Capon Springs & Farms Resort
High in the sylvan hills stands Capon Springs & Farms, a 4,700-acre throwback to the creaky-floor, wooden-screen-door resorts of yore. Centered on a Victorian-era group of all-white, porch-and-rocker-bedecked “cottages” and handsome communal buildings, this sweet retreat owes its allure to the natural springs that first lured folks to refresh here in the 1850s and that still supplies all its water—for drinking, cooking, showering, swimming, and spa-soaking.
Hike, golf, fish, play tennis, plunge into the spa, and leap into the swimming pool, when not indulging in three daily squares of locally sourced, agreeably untrendy food in the Shaker-plain dining room. Take in the ritual raising and lowering of the U.S. flag. Evenings offer live music, lounging in the library, and other hustle-relaxants. Or, suggests manager Bellingham, “you can do absolutely nothing.”
Capon, by the way, has nothing to do with chickens. Pronounced “KAY-pun,” It’s Native American for “healing waters.” Just what the travel doctor ordered.
Find more information at www. cometohampshire.com
This is a guest post submitted by Arnold Berke, a writer living in Chevy Chase, Md. and Rehoboth Beach, Del. He formerly was executive editor of Preservation magazine.