West Virginia’s Best Small Towns
We invite you to fall in love with a town—or eight towns, to be exact. We have. In our first Best Small Towns competition, our readers shared what they love about the places they call home and why you should, too. But we didn’t just take your word for it; we took a few road trips of our own and did a little investigating. A few of the winners may not come as a big surprise—Lewisburg and Shepherdstown often top lists, but they had some stiff competition and barely pulled ahead of other contenders in their regions like Fayetteville, Bramwell, Hinton, Berkeley Springs, and Harpers Ferry. Others seemed to be hidden gems. We were wowed by New Martinsville’s stunning architecture, thriving art community, and delectable dining options, and Spencer’s little bit of bustle without all the hustle is endearing. The charm of downtown Barboursville made us realize there is much more to this town than a mega mall, and Buckhannon and Elkins are the perfect blueprint for blue ribbon towns—a college, flat lawns, wide sidewalks, art and cultural events, low cost of living, outdoor recreation, and great shops and restaurants. The community involvement and passion we witnessed in Bridgeport made it easy to see why so many people are choosing to live there. To be sure, there is something special about each of our winners, but what we took away from all of the entries this year is that it’s our small towns that make our state special.
photographed by toril lavender
Vast parks, creative small businesses, old brick buildings, and manicured front lawns welcome folks to this quiet Cabell County village. A large gazebo sits in the center of the small town—one of many reminders that you are somewhere unique.
Barboursville celebrates its 200th year in 2013, and the pride of its residents is clear. “No other place has quite the atmosphere that Barboursville has,” says Charles Seay, a lifelong resident and police officer for the Barboursville Police Department. Charles lives on Main Street, goes to church on Main Street, and says many families in the town go back generations. “It’s a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody.”
Part of what attracts people to Barboursville is its curb appeal—tucked just enough away from Interstate 64 to maintain a quiet, 1950s neighborhood feel while being a five-minute drive to the mall and an abundance of other shopping and dining.
Right on the edge of city limits, the 750-acre Barboursville Park seems like much more than simply a park. These sprawling grounds offer ball fields, soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts, multiple playgrounds, nine shelters, a fishing lake and ponds, walking paths, bike trails, and the list goes on. There’s an amphitheater, horse show ring, and archery range. Really—it’s a park that beats all parks, with ample room for a picnic or family reunion. The local elementary and middle schools are close to the park, too. “Everything is within walking distance,” Charles says. Nearby, the police and fire departments are beside each other.
About 10 miles away, locals have even more room to spread out at Beech Fork State Park—more than 3,100 acres of outdoor adventure and a popular fishing spot. The state park also has a large swimming pool, hiking and biking trails, and offers boat rentals.
Much of what keeps Barboursville humming, though, are its many shopping centers off of the interstate and U.S. Route 60. On Route 60, developments like River Place are thriving. There, the parking lot is packed every day with people grabbing dinner at Christopher’s Eats, Tascali’s Decades Pasta & Grill, or Los Mariachis, shopping at The Scrapbook Page, or making an appointment at one of the medical offices. For dessert, there’s frozen yogurt at Orange Leaf or a to-die-for cupcake from local favorite Sweet Confections Bakery.
Back in the center of town, the Barboursville Historic District is made up of 20 buildings in the area with strong examples of late 19th and early 20th century commercial architecture, including the old Brady Hardware building (circa 1906) on Main Street. The old hardware storefront is now filled with endless crafting possibilities as the home of WV Quilt. Next door, animal lovers get a kick out of Petiquette Canine Charm School and Salon. On the same block, Central Avenue boasts fine dining at Blackhawk Grille. “When you step into the center of town, to me it feels like the way it might have felt 50 or 100 years ago, just with different shops,” Charles says. Across the way, on a hill overlooking town, is the West Virginia Veterans Home.
Though Barboursville is next to one of the state’s largest cities—Huntington—you wouldn’t know it by walking these quaint streets. Charles says the area has always been safe, and many kids still walk from their homes to the park or school. On September 14, 2013, the town will gather all around Main Street for Fall Fest. A temporary fairground goes up across from the Guyandotte River for the annual festival, and everyone is invited to come together for carnival rides, parades, beauty pageants, and live music. For Charles, it’s one of his favorite times of year, and it exemplifies all that he loves about his hometown as it runs through the heart of the village. “I’ve always loved Fall Fest. There’s just a feeling you get when the parade lines all of the storefronts in Barboursville,” he says. “Ever since I was a kid, it’s always been something that’s been very comforting.”
photographed by nikki bowman
Many towns boast a family-friendly atmosphere—a strong school system, parks, and safe streets are often the benchmark. And Bridgeport, a small city near the booming I-79 High Technology Corridor, can honestly say family life, schools, and community spirit are some of its greatest attractions. “From a very young age, our students see the schools as a huge part of our identity,” says Matt Demotto, Bridgeport High School assistant principal. “Our schools are all located within a quarter mile of each other. One elementary school, the middle school, and the high school are beside each other. This area is also the location of the city park. It’s a high traffic area and the hub of activity in the community.”
With a growing population of more than 8,000 people, Bridgeport is changing fast, bringing in new businesses and attracting residents with its proximity to economic drivers like biotechnology, forensic science, biometrics, and aerospace manufacturing companies. Its convenient location—at the crossroads of historic U.S. Route 50 and Interstate 79—means Bridgeport is in a perfect position to continue its upward growth, and residents are passionate about the town’s prospects. “Our residents are the biggest asset we have,” Matt says. “We are competitive and fair. If you are willing to work hard, be a good neighbor, and raise responsible young people, then Bridgeport is your kind of town.”
People in Bridgeport live for school sports—be it high school football, softball, or a WVU Mountaineers game. Bridgeport High School (BHS) alumni pack the stands on game days even years after graduating, cheering for the next generation. Consistently scoring high on national standardized tests, BHS, like many Bridgeport schools, boasts great educators and passionate administrators in an ideal, small town setting, and several other local schools have won awards for excellence. Matt says an emphasis on keeping community members involved in preparing the next generation is key. “Our schools are strong because the overwhelming majority of parents support the schools at all levels.”
Bridgeport isn’t only known for its great schools; it’s also a retail and recreation destination. People from more than 14 counties converge on the Harrison County town for an all-encompassing shopping experience at Meadowbrook Mall (now undergoing a $5 million upgrade that will be complete October 2013) and the plethora of restaurant chains right off of the interstate. The Benedum Civic Center—childhood home of multimillionaire oil tycoon and philanthropist Michael Benedum—is a center of the community as well, housing organizations like Connect Bridgeport, a strong online community and visitor resource. And when the weather is agreeable, you’ll find Bridgeport residents flocking to the city’s pristine parks, walking trails, ball fields, as well as the new $8 million recreation complex featuring four baseball fields, a one-mile walking trail, and a large multipurpose field. Coupled with growth in the White Oaks business park and the United Hospital Center, the city is adding new opportunities for residents to succeed at every turn. “All these areas have thrived. Really, it has helped make Bridgeport a destination for business, recreation, and health care,” says Randy Spellman, director of community development for the city.
Small businesses, too, have been stretching their legs in Bridgeport, especially along its winding and newly revitalized Main Street. Riversong Spa offers all the services required to help this professional community look and feel its best, including makeup artistry, waxing, and facials. Blooms Florist, also in the business of aesthetics, opened its sophisticated and inviting retail space in 2007 and has become a phenomenon in West Virginia and the region, offering full event and wedding planning as well as florist services from a convenient Main Street location. Little shops like Mustard Seed Primitives and Country Peddler provide a diverse assortment of unique gifts, home décor, jewelry, and more.
Don’t let Bridgeport’s small size fool you, though—this city has an appetite for beautiful art and great food, and if the two can coexist in the same location, all the better. The Shoppes of Averil Place on South Virginia Avenue is a colorful locus of creative energy, complete with a wide front porch and cozy chairs perfect for contemplating a crisp fall day and sipping espresso from the Provence Market Café and Marketplace. Hungry visitors can grab a bite in Provence Market’s dining room, which offers a taste of France and an award-winning wine menu, browse Artworks’ gallery of art and unique gifts, or take up knitting at The Nest—all under one roof.
The city’s vibrant cultural life stems from a growing amount of diversity. Events like Jazz at Charles Pointe and the year-round Bridgeport Farmers Market (both held in the Bridgeport Conference Center) attract everyone from families to young professionals. The sheer popularity of other yearly community gatherings—the fall festival, Christmas parade, Easter egg hunt, and Bridgeport Scottish Festival, to name a few—give the impression that this small town has somehow managed to find a unique balance between economic growth and small town charm that bolsters local pride and gives Bridgeport its winning spirit. “The community supports the community,” Matt says. “We have great leadership within our businesses, and many of these leaders give back.”
photographed by nikki bowman
Walking along Buckhannon’s Main Street, it feels like you’re already home. Brick storefronts hug the sidewalks, planters of bright flowers line the road, and the white dome of the Upshur County Courthouse peeks above the rooftops. Look up “hometown” in the dictionary and it wouldn’t be surprising to find a picture of this idyllic Mountain Lakes community tucked into the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, anchored by the lush campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. Buckhannon has that postcard feel about it without even trying. “It’s always the same town I grew up in,” says local Tim Saffle. “After being gone long periods, I can always count on the town and the people to stay unchanged. It doesn’t lose that ‘I’m home’ feeling.”
Located centrally in the state, Buckhannon was once in the running to become West Virginia’s capital, and like much of the state, its history is written in Civil War tensions and the once booming B&O Railroad. Today, however, Buckhannon draws more than 100,000 people to its streets every year for events like the West Virginia Strawberry Festival.
A community like this is one part location—with relatively flat, walkable streets and proximity to recreational opportunities like Audra State Park—and one part dedicated townsfolk. “More and more people are willing to put money into the community,” says Bethany Long, co-owner of the West Virginia Hometown Market on Main Street. Bethany and her husband, executive chef and co-owner Morgan Ware, say they would never have been able to leave their jobs and create their business—a specialty foods store with a full-service deli, gourmet chocolates, sushi, catering, and gluten-free and organic products—without community support. Bethany says she’s just helping to keep the small business tradition in Buckhannon alive. “There’s more preservation of history here, whether that’s preserving the 1866 George Latham House or opening a small business like ours in an old building.”
Downtown Buckhannon is thriving because its people are invested. Although tourists can’t get enough of the quaint shops in town, locals do their shopping there as well. You’ll find a line of Buckhannon natives inside The Donut Shop, open 364 days a year (closed Christmas), 24 hours a day, since 1977, or holed up at The Daily Grind with a cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich. The local institution CJ Maggie’s restaurant is still a mainstay on Main Street. And the dinner bell calls residents to 88 Restaurant & Lounge in The Bicentennial Inn for a Cheers-like atmosphere and heartwarming home cooking. “Everybody in this town is striving to live that small town legacy,” Bethany says. “We want a Main Street hustle and bustle. We’re really working to make good on that.” Their hard work is paying off. With the Main Street Arts Cooperative showcasing more than 30 artists from across the state—delicate glass vases, colorful pottery, and unique photographs share space with woodcrafts, textiles, paints, and more—Buckhannon draws art lovers from a surprising radius. Add to that the 40-year-old Buckhannon Community Theatre, with productions like Into the Woods and Rocky Horror Show, and this community of more than 5,500 people can call itself a central point of art and culture in the region.
Here, creative retail space can be found both on and off Main Street. Hourglass consignment on North Kanawha Street features vintage women’s apparel and trendy accessories, while Anderegg Jewelers carries beautiful jewelry for any taste. Buckhannon’s antique store has an edge—it’s considered the largest privately owned antique store in the state. Main Street Antiques and Collectibles covers a sprawling 14,000 square feet and includes a wine store, while across the street, Whimsical Treasures has become a one-stop shop for West Virginia-made gifts. Nearby, art lovers flock to a studio off of Sago Road for demonstrations by renowned glassblower Ron Hinkle.
But if you want a real taste of Buckhannon’s people, book a stay at the century-old red brick A Governor’s Inn Bed & Breakfast (built by the state’s second governor), get up early, and head to the Buckhannon-Upshur Farmers’ Market at Jawbone Park. “We have one of the nicest facilities in the state,” Bethany says. “You see the same farmers who’ve been here for years selling right out of their trucks. This is one of the few places that still allows that.” And you’re in for a real treat if you happen to wander into Buckhannon on a Friday before the end of September 2013. Festival Fridays, running all summer from 5 to 8 p.m., are free gatherings at Jawbone Park with live regional music, art, and food vendors.
Strolling through Buckhannon’s residential neighborhoods, beautiful historic homes mingle well with new construction. Children play games on the sidewalks, neighbors wave from their front lawns, and nearly everyone has at least one rocking chair for Sunday afternoons on the porch. It isn’t hard to see why Buckhannon natives love their hometown. “Growing up in Buckhannon, if someone passed away, us kids were sent out to find out who was bringing what pies to the funeral,” Bethany says. “Around here, we’ll still bring you brownies when you move into the neighborhood. It’s great to have that embodied sense of community.”
photographed by carla witt ford
Theater, venezuelan food, a small liberal arts college with beautiful, historic buildings, and a thriving art community—this is not the scenery of a fairytale. It’s Elkins.
“There is so much happening, so much change and growth while still retaining the quaint, small town feel. It’s an exciting place to be,” says Meggan Sexton, who has lived in Elkins for more than four years after moving from a much larger city in Arkansas. She relocated to West Virginia for work and is the vice president of operations for American Mountain Theater.
On any given day in this small town, people walk their dogs, stop to chat with neighbors, or ride their bikes to local businesses. More and more people are coming through the area, too, thanks in large part to its growing art community. “Several years ago, Elkins became one of the top 10 artist cities in the U.S.,” says Brenda Pritt, executive director for the Randolph County Convention & Visitors Bureau and a longtime resident.
Surrounded by the scenic peaks and valleys of the Monongahela National Forest, Elkins has a lot to offer, like Augusta Heritage Center, American Mountain Theater, Gandy Dancer Theatre, and the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, the latter of which offers scenic train rides that often sell out. Many unique shops and restaurants are also sprinkled throughout city limits. “Today, we are one of the premier tourist destinations in West Virginia,” says Brenda, who recalls when, 20-plus years ago, the town was searching for ways to become a destination.
Meggan and colleagues say changes have been clearly visible in the last five to 10 years, with new hotels like Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn opening to accommodate more visitors. In summer 2013, the Isaac Jackson Hotel (formerly Elkins Motor Lodge) and the 1863 Tavern also began renovations and expansions. “Elkins has developed all of these things in that short amount of time and we’re seeing significant growth because of it,” Meggan says.
Each year, nearly 35,000 people attend one of the live family-friendly shows at American Mountain Theater, showcasing country, bluegrass, pop, patriotic, and southern gospel music. And residents and visitors enjoy more Branson-style entertainment at Gandy Dancer Theatre.
Clearly, art thrives in this Randolph County town. On Davis Avenue, Artists at Work Gallery is a cooperative gallery of local artists and craftspeople displaying everything from baskets, prints, and textiles to jewelry, pottery, and soap. At Davis & Elkins College overlooking town, Augusta Heritage Center is an internationally acclaimed program aiming to preserve traditional folklife and folk arts. Through intensive weeklong summer workshops—from Bluegrass Week to Blues Week to Cajun and Creole Week—the program brings together master artists, musicians, dancers, craftspeople, enthusiasts, and novices of all ages. Thanks to Augusta, you’ll hear people strumming guitars or see artists carrying canvases and paintbrushes when you walk around Davis & Elkins campus in the summer.
The buildings on campus are magnificent and diverse to say the least. On the hillside, Graceland Inn is a restored Victorian mansion built in the early 1890s as a summer home for U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis and his family. One of six buildings on campus designated as a National Historic Landmark, it has 11 guestrooms and an elegant restaurant, the Mingo Room. Nearby, the Halliehurst Mansion is made from native hardwoods and stone and patterned after a castle in the Rhineland. Across the way, the Icehouse is a cylindrical stone structure built in the late 1800s as a place to store ice in the summer. It’s now a campus pub and popular spot for live music. Perhaps one of the most unique repurposing projects on campus is Broiler House Theater, used for campus theater productions and concerts.
There’s a level of culinary sophistication in Elkins you might expect from a metropolitan area, but perhaps not from a small town in West Virginia. El Gran Sabor, an authentic Venezuelan restaurant, offers an incredible menu of tostonés, cachapa, arepas, and fajitas and often has live music. Kissel Stop Café on Davis Avenue offers everything from scones to paninis to frappés. Right around the corner are local hot spots CJ Maggie’s and Beanders, where you can get large portions and fabulous desserts. Scottie’s is another local institution that offers inexpensive diner fare and friendly service. And the cinnamon rolls at the 1863 Tavern will have you craving more for years to come. Watch the trains come in while you enjoy down-home cooking at the Rail Yard Restaurant and check out the accompanying Rail & Trail Store for a delightful collection of souvenirs and gifts.
In early fall, the true colors of friendly, vibrant Elkins appear during the Mountain State Forest Festival—taking place September 28 to October 6, 2013. More than 100 festivities are held throughout the city as part of the annual festival—from parades, a carnival, and a lumberjack competition to Irish road bowling, muzzle loading, and arts and crafts. “It really is a great place to live,” Meggan says. “For the region, Elkins is the hub. It is a quaint little mountain town, but it’s still accessible.”
photographed by nikki bowman and elizabeth roth
Day or night, a creative undercurrent runs through the historic Greenbrier County town of Lewisburg. On any given Friday, a man plays the clarinet on a Washington Street sidewalk and a band sets up to take over the Wild Bean coffee shop across the way. Children splash in a downtown fountain, while nearby a man sets up a seemingly impromptu shop selling plants in front of another popular storefront. On up a few blocks, Carnegie Hall entertains a group of visitors with a special art exhibit.
“Lewisburg is unique in that it’s a small town with big city amenities,” says Rachael Stebbins, director of marketing and communications for the Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have access to arts and culture. We have one of only four Carnegie Halls in the world, Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the professional theater of West Virginia, and Trillium Performing Arts Collective. You can find live music almost every night as well as rotating art and history exhibits.”
It’s true. This southern town is alive and thriving like few others in West Virginia. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 p.m. on a weekday—people buzz about the streets going from the Honnahlee toy store to Wolf Creek Gallery for clothes to Yarid’s for shoes, and with plenty of street parking downtown, who could blame them? When they tire of walking, they simply sit with one of the in-demand specialty drinks and veggie cuisine at The Wild Bean; enjoy a lazy, gourmet lunch (complete with wine) at Stardust Café; or take a break at Food & Friends for top-notch comfort food. Closer to dusk, they might get dolled up for a hearty meal and a few cocktails at Livery Tavern. No matter where they are, they look happy—really happy. Some are visitors from the world-renowned Greenbrier resort nine miles away in White Sulphur Springs. Others live and work in Lewisburg, relishing the fact that they live in one of America’s best small towns. “Farm-to-table restaurants, boutique shopping, the arts, and outdoor recreational opportunities are at your fingertips here,” Rachael says. “From Lewisburg you can also strike out in any direction and find attractions like a distillery, caves, bike trails, and of course, The Greenbrier.”
Indeed, it’s not just the town’s creative hum and entertainment options that keep everyone smiling. The area is a haven for outdoor adventurers and history buffs, too. Destinations like Lost World Caverns, Greenbrier River Trail, and the Greenbrier State Forest keep nature-lovers satiated, and history enthusiasts need much more than a day to discover all of Lewisburg’s artifacts. Carnegie Hall on Church Street was built in 1902 as a gift from Andrew Carnegie. The Confederate cemetery is a cross-shaped mass grave on McElhenney Road that holds 95 unknown Confederate soldiers killed or mortally wounded in the 1862 Battle of Lewisburg. On Route 60 West, the Herns Mill Covered Bridge (1884) is one of two covered bridges remaining in the county. Churches like John Wesley United Methodist Church on Foster Street also date back to the 1800s, and this particular place of worship attracts tourists for the cannonball that struck its southwest corner during the Battle of Lewisburg—the place of impact is marked on an outside wall. This stunning structure was first built in 1820 and was expanded in 1835. In total, the Lewisburg Historic District is more than 200 acres that encompass the city with architecture dating all the way back to 1784.
No matter the season, Lewisburg maintains a vibrant energy as more than 50 art galleries, restaurants, cafés, antique shops, and clothing stores line downtown. On October 12, 2013, the 29th annual Taste of Our Towns festival will bring thousands in from all over the region to try favorites like pecan pie from The Historic General Lewis Inn & Restaurant and countless decadent creations from The Greenbrier. In April, all eyes—or sweet tooths—are turned to the annual Chocolate Festival. And every summer people from across the country travel in by the busload for The Greenbrier Classic and The State Fair of West Virginia in nearby White Sulphur Springs and Fairlea, respectively.
“Nowhere in the state can you find the combination of amenities we have here,” Rachael says. “I’ve lived and worked here for more than four years. We’ve started a family here, and it’s the perfect place for that, too. We’ve found plenty of other young families who are interested in the things we’re interested in—like having a safe community with genuine, welcoming people and opportunities for our children.”
photographed by nikki bowman
At the base of the northern Panhandle, this small town has figured it out. For decades, residents have been building on what was already there—great architecture, history, art, the Ohio River—and the efforts have paid off. “New Martinsville is its people,” says Sandy Hunt, executive director of the Wetzel County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And I love the people.”
The feeling in New Martinsville is overwhelmingly positive. It is here where the phrase “best-kept secret” may actually ring true. After all, this writer has heard at least a half-dozen people confuse New Martinsville for other West Virginia towns (think Martinsburg). And yet it’s here, in the valley off of West Virginia Route 7, that there is no clearer identity. The people are passionate, creative, and determined. They do what it takes to improve their town, located halfway between Wheeling and Parkersburg (45 and 65 minutes away, respectively). But the people of New Martinsville don’t need to go anywhere else. They’ve got everything they need. “Our goal was to create a destination,” says Sandy, who also co-owns S&S Jewelry, a local business for more than 30 years, with husband Steve.
With many arts organizations, parks, and creative, local businesses, New Martinsville is well on its way. The Wetzel County town is home to an arts council serving Wetzel and Tyler counties. Called ArtsLink, the organization sponsors concerts, presents Arts in the Park on July 4, and hosts a free coffeehouse series, monthly art shows, and a holiday homes tour. ArtsLink also puts on productions at the historic Lincoln Theater in downtown New Martinsville, including Annie in August 2013. An artist herself, Fran Caldwell is a past president of ArtsLink and wears many creative hats in the community. “We have a lot of artisans in our area,” she says. “It’s amazing.” Sandy says Fran was also instrumental in getting the Florentine Arts Center started downtown. On Main Street, the community arts center hosts open mic nights and has artists and crafters on-site.
But it’s not just the artsy businesses that are doing things right. The cool, casual Barista’s Café and Pub downtown serves up delightfully fresh and original sandwiches during the day while a small, stone basement bar below fills up quickly with regulars and musicians at night. Across the street, Presto Lunch is the quintessential, family-friendly diner with classic booths, the town’s favorite burgers and hot dogs, and, of course, milkshakes and floats. And The Tin Ceiling is everything you could want in a gift shop, with friendly staff and a wide variety of gifts, from candles and jewelry to baby clothes, football gear, specialty food items, and wine. The shop is located in a former 1900s drugstore and now hosts wine tastings and special events.
A strong sense of community keeps the town running, and volunteers are always working on something new. In summer 2013, much attention was turned to another project—the renovated Wetzel County Museum, which had a sneak peek opening in July. The Main Street building used to be the local hardware store and dates back to the late 1800s. When complete, it will also house the Wetzel County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Sandy says the museum will keep the dream of residents who have passed on alive, like that of Jim Fitzsimmons, the building’s namesake. Jim was part of the famed “Lunch Bunch,” a group of history buffs who met daily at the Quinet’s Court Restaurant, a hugely popular restaurant with multiple homestyle buffets and old photos covering the walls. Sandy says, “After Jim Fitzsimmons died, he was basically the only one keeping the museum open, and they did not have the people to keep it going.” In recent months, volunteers have been working to repair floors, catalog artifacts, and install displays calling back to a time of flourishing family pharmacies and local glass industry, among other items.
The community is also big on giving back. Fran says New Martinsville is home to many charities, including Bags of Bounty, which is unique to the small town. On Fridays, volunteers give local elementary school children bags of food to ensure they have enough good things to eat over the weekend. There’s a clearer commitment to health here than in some other towns, as a new farmers’ market in town has taken off and a community garden thrives. There’s a local bicycle club of riders who bike their age on members’ birthdays. Turning 60? Time to bike 60 miles. The Academy for Dance & Theatre Arts keeps locals of all ages active, and Prodigy Wellness Center offers personal training and classes like Zumba. Lewis Wetzel Park has a swimming pool, pond with paddleboats to rent, basketball court, and playground. Hydro Park has a bike trail, ballpark facility, primitive camping areas, and fishing access near the hydroelectric plant and dam. And off of the main drag through town, families line up for miniature golf in Bruce Park.
But most of the town is just plain active in every way. Even the public library has more activities than most and has increased the amount of people using its services. “That’s unusual in this day and age,” Sandy says. Fairs and festivals are in demand, too, with the Festival of Memories in July, Town and Country Days in August, boat races in September, and chili cook-off in October. Sandy says, “To those people who say there’s nothing to do in New Martinsville, I would heartily disagree.”
photographed by elizabeth roth
Perched on West Virginia’s easternmost edge, Shepherdstown is a vibrant cosmopolitan center in the lower Shenandoah Valley, brushed by the winding Potomac River. Although many might consider this border town a bedroom community of the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, areas (just 90 minutes away), residents are proud West Virginians. “This is one of those places you fall in love with and never want to leave,” says Shepherdstown native Cari Aliveto Rosen. Cari and her husband David own Plum, a fashion, accessory, art, jewelry, and West Virginia crafts cornucopia on German Street. Cari grew up in Shepherdstown, attended Shepherd University, and couldn’t wait to get back to her favorite town after a brief hiatus. But that’s Shepherdstown—it has a peculiar siren song made up of fascinating history, eclectic atmosphere, and laid-back charm—and its song appeals to people in all walks of life.
On any given day, Cari watches men and women in business suits and ties and college students in plaid and Birkenstocks sitting together on the low stone wall across from her shop (an unofficial town meeting place in front of the McMurran Hall clock tower) debating the merits of a particular new café or restaurant. No one ever seems to be in a hurry here. Things tend to happen in their own time. Cari calls it “Shepherdstown time,” and it’s one of the things she loves most about this small community of less than 2,000 people. “It’s a very accepting place and that’s one of the things I really love about raising my children here,” she says. “And if you want to own a business in Shepherdstown, you have to have a laid-back, go-with-the-flow vibe.”
That vibe attracts businesses of all kinds, and more than 12 restaurants, shops, and an independent movie theater are on German Street as well as a plethora of bed-and-breakfasts around town. Well-preserved brick buildings sprinkled throughout town are a throwback to Shepherdstown’s once booming brick industry and now you’ll find them occupied by restaurants like the Yellow Brick Bank or the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery, where locals line up for hearty brunches and baked goods. The college crowd and local professionals alike flock to Blue Moon Café for veggie sandwiches and live music or Mellow Moods Café & Juice Bar for a too-good-to-be-true smoothie. A creative new American restaurant, Domestic, is also getting a lot of buzz recently, with sandwiches, salads, and entrées and an emphasis on the fresh and local. Bistro 112 has a funky, French vibe that’s perfect for a dinner downtown, and the Sunday brunch at The Press Room is worth a special trip.
“The buildings here are old, but there are so many things going on that are so vital,” says Jeanne Muir, innkeeper at Thomas Shepherd Inn. “It feels like you’re in a charming little city neighborhood. You can walk to nearly everything. A lot of people here know each other and we work together.” Jeanne and her husband Jim Ford were intent on buying a bed-and-breakfast when they rolled into town years ago. A six-bedroom federal-style inn (circa 1868) for sale lured the couple in 11 years ago, but it’s the community—with its quirky, youthful atmosphere, safe streets, and welcoming vibe—that has sustained them for more than a decade. “Everybody gets along. People have opinions, but when something is for the good of the town, people go outside party lines,” Jeanne says. Retail businesses, too, work together, providing more than enough for visitors and residents to enjoy. You can find anything from art galleries to fashion to outdoor gear at the boutiques and shops on German Street and many carry local or West Virginia-made crafts, gourmet foods, and art. There’s almost always live music drifting down the street, coming from a coffeehouse or pub with its doors thrown open.
Part of the town’s vibrancy stems from its close relationship with Shepherd University, a more than 130-year-old liberal arts bastion with 75 undergraduate academic programs and five graduate degree programs in everything from contemporary art and theater to social work. Students at the university integrate well with the community—interning at local businesses, working at local coffee shops, and getting involved in civic life. “The saying ‘it takes a village’ is accurate here. I definitely have a huge local support system and following,” Cari says. “We are a tourist town, so we depend on the tourists who come to see the things we have and what’s around us. But in the off-season, I depend on my local people who support the store and what we’re doing.”
Visitors frequent the Bavarian Inn, a German chalet with more than 70 rooms and a restaurant overlooking the Potomac River. Its convenient location is a five-minute walk to German Street. Shepherdstown is also a draw for outdoor enthusiasts, with biking and hiking on area trails and water sports on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. History buffs will get more than they bargained for in this pre-Revolutionary War town—the core of which is a National Historic District—with photo ops like the monument to steamboat pioneer James Rumsey or the historic Entler Hotel, which houses a museum and hosts community events. And don’t forget Antietam National Battlefield—its haunting grounds are just minutes away.
One thing is certain in Shepherdstown—folks put on a good show. With the Contemporary American Theater Festival, American Conservation Film Festival, Christmas in Shepherdstown, and regular street festivals drawing crowds from at least three states, it’s no wonder so many come to this little corner of West Virginia and never leave. Like them, you might find yourself happily wrapped up in “Shepherdstown time”—enjoying a live local jam session at O’Hurley’s General Store, sitting on the wall sipping coffee from Blue Moon Café, or strolling through Shepherd University’s immaculate campus—and simply decide to stay. “We always wanted to live in a little town like Shepherdstown,” Jeanne says. “You can come for a weekend and immerse yourself in nature, you can transport yourself back in history, or you can invest your time in cultural events like theater, music, and poetry readings. You can do almost anything you want to within a small area. We’ve lived in pretty big areas like New York City and Boston, but the truth is, it’s no harder to find something to do here.”
photographed by katie hanlon
World-renowned artist and blacksmith Jeff Fetty can see straight into the heart of Spencer, his boyhood home, from his studio at the top of Chestnut Ridge, where he and two other artists draw inspiration from the misty hills and secluded valleys of Roane County. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled the world. I could choose to do my work anywhere at all, but I chose to have my business in my hometown because it’s so wonderful. I’ve been all over the country and the world and there’s no place like home,” Jeff says.
Just 50 miles from Charleston, set back from the traffic of I-79 along a winding back road, Spencer has held onto small town charm reminiscent of the 1950s while still proclaiming an independent quirkiness that stems from a budding arts scene and evolving downtown. In Spencer, visitors can find local businesses as well as convenient chains without driving all over the county. “It’s the city that lots of folks in surrounding counties come to. We are a hub,” says Spencer Mayor Terry Williams. “Not only can you go to the local jewelry store or antique store, you can go to Walmart, too.” Terry grew up in Spencer, has been mayor for more than 35 years, and continues to work long hours promoting the town’s growth by making it attractive both to visitors and new businesses. “The thing about Spencer is it’s a busy town. It’s a humming little place,” Jeff says. And practically every one of the town’s nearly 2,400 residents knows each other by name.
Residents of this Mid-Ohio Valley town are proud of their community—storefronts invite visitors with planters of flowers and colorful displays, the sidewalks are clean and bustling, and the lights of the historic Robey Theatre, considered one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the country, spill out onto the street, advertising the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Jeff delights in taking out-of-town friends on walking trips through the community just to see their reactions when they realize nearly everyone on the street offers a friendly “hello.” “It’s not me. Everyone knows everyone in Spencer. Our newspaper publisher once said, ‘The only reason to lock your car in this town is so people won’t put their extra zucchini in it,’” he laughs.
The town itself is small—encompassing less than one and a quarter miles—but it packs a lot into that space. The Heritage Park Museum, a Civil War park with earthen works, an old cemetery, and a well-preserved one-room schoolhouse provide a glimpse back along the community’s timeline. Cozy bed-and-breakfasts—the Cunningham House with its wraparound porch on Chapman Avenue and the Victorian inn-style Arnott House B&B Inn on Locust Avenue—welcome hundreds of visitors each season, many of whom drop by for the highly acclaimed West Virginia Black Walnut Festival in October that regularly attracts some 90,000 people each year.
Urbanites itching for a little wide open space head to Charles Fork Lake. This one-mile glittering blue jewel beckons nature lovers in all seasons but especially when set against the backdrop of vibrant fall foliage. Locals can be seen year-round, pushing off in their canoes and dropping in a line, and the surrounding pristine countryside provides 25 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking as well as camping. Nearby, two wineries—Vu Ja De Vineyards and Roane Vineyards—open their doors to wine connoisseurs and tourists from around the country (call ahead to schedule a tour and tasting).
Life is never dull in Spencer, Jeff says, especially up at Chestnut Ridge Artist Colony, where he and artists like Phil Holcomb, a master woodworker and luthier, and Teresa Holcomb, an award-winning jewelry designer, toil away at their respective crafts. Every year, they welcome visiting artists and art lovers from around the world. Guests of the colony can schedule studio tours, meet the artists, and even watch them work. “We get a lot of traveling students from France, Bulgaria, Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida—there’s a lot of creativity going on up on the ridge,” Jeff says.
Unlike many thriving downtowns, Spencer’s seems to have evolved naturally—without the growing pains of larger cities. Generations-old locally owned businesses sidle up next to brand new ventures seamlessly, and business owners are keen to help each other—and their customers—succeed. The 8,000-square-foot Spencer Antique Mall on Main Street shares customers with Berries & Vines, a primitives and antiques shop on Church Street, and locals gather for lunch on the deck at Church Street Deli or stop in at the new Island Garden Restaurant and sample Korean barbecue or grab a traditional burger and cheese sticks. Two locally owned hardware stores—Hardman’s Hardware and McIntosh Hardware, Furniture & Appliances—provide community members with all the necessities.
Yet the most vivid characteristic of Spencer is its people. “Spencer has hardworking, honest people. Everyone pitches in together to help people out. My friends come here and they’re blown away because I have such a team of supporters in the community. I can get things done because I know the electrician and plumber,” Jeff says. “We have successful people here who get the importance of giving back to the community. There’s a core group of us who take a lot of pride in Spencer and try to make it better for everyone.” Terry agrees. “When there’s a time of need, people come together. We might take that for granted, but it’s not a guaranteed thing, he says. “I sit back and see all that and realize how unique it is to be in such a community. It’s a pretty special thing.”