My husband and I didn’t set out to have a “Responsible Travel Holiday” in West Virginia… We wound up not only having one, but creating one!
Dan and I came to West Virginia in 2002 after two back-to-back floods had devastated southern West Virginia. We are on-call disaster response workers for FEMA, and Dan was Logistics for the 2002 disaster response operation.
In the many months he spent traveling the back roads and “hollows” of southern WV he ‘discovered’ the last, surviving historic “Coal Heritage Trail” building in Landgraff WV- just about the Only building left after the floods swept away 30 houses next to the building. The once-beautiful 1922 three-story brick building that had been the Empire Coal & Coke Company’s “Miner’s Clubhouse”, with its Italianate archway and balcony, had no doors, a four-foot-high water-line inside, and five feet of mud in the basement.
McDowell County itself was shattered; 8 people had died in that second flood. Dan believed he could save the building from the wrecking ball and restore it, and that we could help kick-start the county’s economy by opening our home as an historic Inn and providing sorely-needed tourism lodging. And I believed in him!
During our first months in West Virginia we had the opportunity to do what is now called “weekend eco-tourism”, enjoying the many things southern West Virginia has to offer: ATVing and horseback riding, whitewater rafting, camping, hiking, fishing, playing golf, visiting wineries and exploring historic sites, attending festivals and buying locally-made jams, wines, soaps, quilts, crafts and art… and we both saw the potential in McDowell County and a way for it to economically recover from the floods through that kind of tourism.
Most of the people who come to this area are “eco-tourists”: ATVers who love to ride the gorgeous mountain trails- some of the best “four-wheeling” trails in the eastern, USA- “cultural heritage” tourists interested in exploring the area’s history of railroading and coal mining, and sites such as the Kimball Memorial to WWI’s African American soldiers (the first and only remaining such building), Coalwood (of October Sky book and movie fame), and the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine Museum; those who love fishing, hiking in State Parks and Forests, attending theatre performances or festivals, who want to buy locally-made craft and foods, to go leaf-peeping or “antiquing” or pick wild berries… in other words, people who care about and are interested in their surroundings and their environment- people like us!
And so we stopped being “eco-tourists”, bought the sad, old building no one else wanted, and became “eco-tourism providers”! Dan saved and restored the building, and in May 2003 we opened “Dan and Elisse’s Really Big House” as the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre: www.elkhorninnwv.com.
And the truth is that you really Can do it, too- 1000s of properties remain for sale REALLY cheaply in this area! (Artists, writers, and musicians wanting studio space, take note: call the WV Tax Office in Charleston, WV and ask for the McDowell County property list!) We do “Work Weekends” at the Inn so “This Old House” fans can work with Dan and get a taste of what it Really takes to restore an historic building, and Dan “can-do guy” Clark, US Army Retired, truly believes in the sheer, unadulterated power of sweat equity; he’s literally pulled downed trees out of the creek to help keep it from re-flooding.
He’s trucked in dozens of loads of topsoil to create our gardens where there was naught but flood debris; we then did the “eco-thing” and planted fruit trees and butterfly bushes, tomatoes, basil, corn, and other goodies, and our guests are welcome to pick what’s ripe: agro-tourism!
We put up feeders to encourage the birds that wake us up each morning with song to hang ‘round the inn… And in “true green” fashion (and out of economic necessity) we saved what we could save and reused what could be reused: Dan “MacGyver” Clark was able to salvage and restore kitchen equipment from the flood, as well as my “vintage” décor finds, and bring the antiquated plumbing and wiring up to code.
He wired the building for WiFi (you can’t be green and “paperless” if you don’t have the internet!), and we opened a gift shop at the Inn so we could feature locally-made hand-crafted products such as coal statuettes, quilts, and jams, and books by local authors, and created a small museum room to showcase the area’s history in railroading and coal mining. Dan restored the Theatre on our property, as well- a copy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre built by a previous owner- and we’ve had two concerts there featuring the great West Virginia Bluegrass band, South 52.
We truly played “field of dreams” (“If you build it they will come”), investing our lives- and a ludicrous amount of sweat equity- in this land, as no one we knew could see our ‘vision’ or believed that what we were attempting was even possible- we were denied an SBA mortgage on the grounds that we had bought a “flood-damaged, worthless piece of garbage”!
2009 marks the seventh year we’ve had the Inn, and since we opened a number of other eco-tourism-supporting entities have joined us: the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System now has a trailhead in McDowell County at the restored Ashland Company Store; Princeton and Bramwell restored and reopened their historic train stations; and two major arts centers opened- Gary Bowling’s House of Art in Bluefield features local musicians and artists. Our guests come from all across the country and even overseas to enjoy the wonderful things our area has to offer- the vast majority of whom are the “Cultural Heritage” and “Adventure” eco-tourists we thought they’d be!
Railfans, teachers, fishermen, hunters, ATVers, theatre-buffs, photographers and filmmakers, history-buffs, writers, artists, hikers, bikers, romantic getaway couples, families, weddings… and we still get to go ATVing to pick wild blackberries, have a picnic on the mountain, and play “eco-tourist” ourselves!
Gary Bowling’s House of Art
Art, Music, Café, and Wednesday Night “Open Mic Nights”
701 Bland Street, Bluefield, WV
Chuck Mathena Center for the Arts
2 Stafford Commons, Princeton, WV
Riff-Raff Arts Collective
869 Mercer Street, Princeton, WV
Landmark Antique Mall
200 Federal Street, Bluefield, WV
Black Wolf Links Golf Course
October Sky “Rocket Boys” Festival with Homer Hickam, Coalwood, WV
Cape Coalwood Restoration Assn.; Peggy Blevins
Tel:304-297-4124 or 5673
Hatfield-McCoy Trail System
www.trailsheaven.com 800-592-2217 or 304-752-3255
Indian Ridge Trailhead, McDowell County: Ashland Company Store, Ashland, WV
Happy Trails ATV Rental and Guided ATV Tours
Kimball Memorial to African-American Soldiers of WWI
Welch, WV (McDowell County seat):
Restored French “WWII Thank You” train car and Veterans Memorial
Courthouse: site of famed “Mine Wars” shooting of Sid Hatfield
“Terror of the Tug” summer theatre performances at McArts Amphitheatre
Princeton Train Station Museum, Princeton, WV
99 Mercer St., Princeton, WV
Pinnacle Rock State Park
Rte. 52, Bramwell, WV
Panther State Forest
Rte. 3/2 Panther Creek Road, (off Rte. 52), Panther, WV
Bramwell Train Station Museum
Bramwell, WV (Off US Route 52N, Between Bluefield & Welch)
Tel: 304-248-8595 or 866-858-8959
Eastern Regional Coal Archives, Bluefield, WV
600 Commerce St. Bluefield, WV
Coal Heritage Trail- National Scenic Byway
Note: Route 52 is “Coal Heritage Highway”
Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum
300 Centre Street, Pocahontas, VA 24635
Tel: 276-945-2134 or 9522
Writer Bio: Illustrator and Official Artist, US Coast Guard, FEMA Community Relations and Human Services Disaster Assistance Employee & Instructor, Contemporary Art Gallery Owner, Germany and NYC. Public Speaker: UJA Federation, etc.
Visit her “We Live In The Country!” Blog: www.southernwestvirginia.blogspot.com