The Importance of Heritage Tourism to WV's Economy
Editor Nikki Bowman shares her thoughts on heritage tourism in our state.
Places like Sweet Springs and Heritage Farm Museum and Village illustrate the importance of cultural heritage tourism
I have always loved old buildings. As a child, I thought the old Clay County Courthouse was the closest thing to a castle I’d ever seen. It was perched on the hill overlooking town like a golden sentry. After school, I’d go there to visit my grandmother Ella Braley, who worked for the county clerk, and I’d busy myself in the stacks of deeds and genealogy records. The heavy and dusty oversized books, the polished black and white checkered floors, the painted wooden banisters, and the thick doors that creaked open with authority were the catalyst of many stories I fabricated as I sat at a vacant desk with a typewriter. Someone along the way had told me the story of how locals tried to lynch the defendants of the Booger Hole trial at the courthouse in 1917. I vividly recall spending days pecking at the typewriter as if I were a tweed-wearing muckraker.
Historic buildings are not just the caretakers of our heritage; they are also essential to our state’s economic vitality. Heritage tourism is a billion-dollar industry. In West Virginia alone, $192 million in economic impact was generated from construction projects supported by the state’s historic incentive programs, according to The Economic Impact of Historic Rehabilitation in West Virginia, released by West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics in 2015. Every dollar spent by the state in tax incentives or grants supported $11.45 of economic activity in the state economy.
As we were working on this issue, we didn’t have a concerted plan to share with you so many stories about historically significant properties undergoing restoration—the theme just developed as the magazine came together. It just goes to show how important these buildings are to our state’s story. These cultural resources of our past give our communities their unique identities and hope for economic sustainability. Right now, as I’m writing this, funding to protect and restore them is in jeopardy on every front. This is tragic.
Sweet Springs, featured on our cover and on page 82, is a perfect example of a historic structure that, once restored, could be an economic engine for Monroe County. Within its walls, 180 years of fascinating history exist, not to mention the incredibly valuable resource of spring water that flows from its grounds. The first time I visited, I stumbled out of the car in awe. I was expecting rubble. What I discovered was a pastoral paradise. The second time I visited, Ashby Berkley had just purchased it at auction. As I walked the massive resort with him, he painted a vivid picture of what could be. With his broad strokes, I became a believer in his breathtaking vision. But no one person can accomplish such grand goals alone. We all must rally around these historic treasures and the special caretakers who are trying to give them new life.
A quick spin through this issue brings you, on page 20, a group of young people who recently took an old vacant building in Thomas and transformed it into the Front Street Grocers—a go-to spot for fresh produce, prepared foods, and organic products. In the Northern Panhandle, the Chambers General Store featured on page 25 celebrates 100 years of providing its tiny community of Bethany with everything from nails to health products. Heritage Farm Museum and Village, the state’s only Smithsonian Institution affiliate, is one of our most comprehensive heritage tourism destinations. Its Spring Festival, page 26, held each year on the first Saturday in May, is a blast. On page 51 we showcase Buckhannon’s A Governor’s Inn, a beautiful 1889 Victorian that has been lovingly restored as a B&B. Again, cultural heritage tourism at work.
And how about the Whipple Country Store in Scarbro (page 58), right outside of Oak Hill? This architectural marvel is steeped in history. Built by a coal baron, it was the community center, store, and religious center. Its unique octagonal shape and truss structure allowed for a guard to stand in one position and hear every conversation, a surveillance system of sorts that kept track of coal company employees.
Our charming towns wouldn’t be so charming if it weren’t for the historic buildings that line our main streets. Barboursville is more than just a mall exit off the interstate. When we decided to feature Barboursville, I knew exactly who should write the story. Randall Reid-Smith, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, is not only our grand poobah of culture, arts, and history; he is Barboursville’s biggest champion. He is deservedly proud of his hometown, and I hope you enjoy walking down memory lane and into the future with him on page 68.
Not only do we cover all of these historic hot spots, but we also share with you a story about the only undergraduate historic preservation program in the state (page 55). Keith Alexander, assistant professor of history and coordinator of Shepherd University’s historic preservation program, uses Shepherdstown as his laboratory. It is here that students learn the history of architecture, how to document and preserve artifacts, and how to restore historic buildings. I was surprised to learn that it is the only program of its kind in West Virginia. After spending the day with him, I was ready to go back to school. One thing Alexander said that bears repeating is, “We’re realizing the importance of preservation for tourism. People are attracted to places that are interesting, varied, and well-preserved.”
Let’s preserve our heritage,
Nikki Bowman, Editor