Once a swank resort destination, Monroe County and its county seat of Union are now appreciated as a quiet remove from the bustle.
When explorers from Virginia crossed the forested mountains westward in the middle 1700s, they didn’t bushwack. “They came in on horseback, with pack horses, and they followed pre-existing trails,” says Fred Ziegler, president of the Monroe County Historical Society. The ones who crossed in the southernmost part of Virginia found surprising expanses of flat, clear grassland. The forests had been burned by Native Americans to make meadows that would attract deer and bison. “And there was a main trail here between the Ohio River and Shenandoah River valleys,” Ziegler says. “My belief is, springs near that trail were what attracted the initial settlement at the place that became Union.” That might explain why the seat of Monroe County feels like a place that makes sense right where it is.
Occupying West Virginia’s southeasternmost curve, Monroe County on the map resembles a triangle tilted onto its left point. A major mountain ridge runs southwest to northeast along much of that southern boundary with Virginia: Peters Mountain, the longest mountain in the Appalachian chain. “There are lots of incredible views, primarily because of the way Peters Mountain dominates Monroe County. It’s pretty spectacular,” says Robert Conte, who’s lived outside Union since the 1970s.
And those springs. A defining feature of the landscape and history of this part of Appalachia, springs flow all over Monroe County. Sweet, freshwater springs invited settlement, while salt, sulfur, and other mineral springs served as focal points for fashionable springs resorts that brought people, money, and progress into the county.
But after two and a half eventful centuries that saw fighting between the natives and frontierspeople, European settlement, wealthy visitors to the resorts, the Civil War, and decline of the resort economy, Monroe County’s 20th century was fairly quiet. The area is not much touched by the comings and goings of today’s modernity. “My relatives in other places are constantly going, ‘Oh my god, it’s sprawling all over the place,’” Conte says. “This place is like the exception to the rule. I don’t think the population of Union or the county has changed much in a hundred years.”
A visitor from just about anywhere will appreciate the pastoral peace that Conte, Ziegler, and 15-year Mayor Caroline Sparks point out: no traffic lights, no fast food restaurants, not even a supermarket. “Monroe County is the birthplace of 4-H. This is a place where kids still have a yard, and we still parent,” says Sparks, whose father and uncle were mayor before her. It’s a place with great soil for raising crops and animals, and no industry. “You have to create your own paycheck, create your own niche. It’s like a step back in time.”
History, Built and Preserved
Settlement of the area got going in earnest in the late 1700s as colonial expeditions pushed the natives westward. The 1786 Old Rehoboth Church just east of Union—the oldest Protestant church building west of the Allegheny mountains—served as one anchor for the pastor’s month-long Greenbrier Circuit. Michael Erskine built a log cabin on his land north of town at about that same time. That property later became Walnut Grove, the homestead of the wealthy and influential Beirne family, and is in private hands today.
When Monroe County split off from Greenbrier County in 1799, the Virginia Assembly chartered Union as the county seat. The name is said to have come from the “union” of regional militia troops that mustered in Royal Oak Field on the south side of town, an event that continued every spring and fall right up to the Civil War.
Visitors stopping by the Monroe County Historical Society Museum on Main Street will find an impressive collection of Native American, settler, and Civil War artifacts and can pick up a walking tour brochure. The tour points out dozens of the town’s hundreds of historic buildings, which include quite a few from the earliest 1800s: an 1804 log structure that housed a tavern and rented a feather bed for 12.5 cents a night, an 1810 log house that belonged to wheelwrights, and an 1815 log structure that housed a female academy.
In those days, the stagecoach roads between the most popular springs resorts in the area—Salt Sulphur Springs a couple miles south of town, Sweet Springs 20 miles east, and White Sulphur Springs 25 miles north, in Greenbrier County—converged at Union. Among residents wealthy visitors might have met was Hugh Caperton, ancestor to our 1990s West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton. Hugh Caperton was elected sheriff of Monroe County in 1805. He later represented Monroe County in the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a successful planter and merchant, and he built the grandest house around on the north side of Union, near Walnut Grove. Elmwood, Caperton’s Greek Revival-style brick house dating to the 1830s, with its wide, columned veranda and balcony, is under restoration in private hands today but is easily admired from the road and may soon open to the public as an event venue.
“It was a town of many inns, taverns, and hotels,” in the pre-Civil War years, reads the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Union Historic District, “being an active stop for tourists on their way to and from the springs.” Prominent people enjoyed the local hospitality: Martin Van Buren stayed at Walnut Grove during his presidency in the 1830s, and Kentucky Congressman and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay visited Caperton’s Elmwood often. The walking tour highlights a concentration of well-preserved Greek Revival-style structures from the period at the top of Main Street.
As part of southernmost Virginia, Monroe County had some sympathies with the South. Leading up to the Civil War, lawyer John Echols, president of the Bank of Virginia branch in Union, served in the Virginia Convention that voted in May 1861 to secede. Even though West Virginia, including Monroe County, separated from Virginia in 1863 to side with the North, Echols served in the Confederate Army through the war, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. A crowd of 10,000 is said to have heard Echols speak at the 1901 dedication of the Monroe County Confederate Monument. John Echols 1846 House on Pump Street is one of the handsomest examples of Greek Revival architecture in town. Also, in a surprising Confederate connection, William Porcher Miles, designer of the stars and bars Confederate flag, summered in Union and is buried in Green Hill Cemetery.
The fortunes of the springs resorts changed forever with the war. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway began serving Greenbrier County about 1870, making “The White” appealingly accessible. Among the treasures in Union’s Carriage House Museum, visitors can see the 1880s-vintage omnibus stagecoach that carried resort-goers the 10 miles between the C&O’s Alleghany railway station and “The Sweet,” which survived into the 1920s. But “The Salt,” nearest Union and farthest from the railroad, never fully recovered.
A century later, idyllic Monroe County became a back-to-the-lander magnet. Among the comers were Conte, who moved with his wife from Washington, D.C., in 1978 and bought an old farmhouse south of town. “A fairly prominent Washington Post writer had come to Monroe County, and he’d talked to the Sandell family (who had moved from New York and New Jersey in the early 1970s to homestead). It was another hot Washington summer, my career wasn’t materializing, and I was 30 years old, so I said, ‘Let’s move to this rural location.’” They thought it would be temporary, but the beauty and the counterculture environment seduced them. Conte had the luck of landing the job of historian at The Greenbrier, and he’s there still. “It’s the best of both worlds. I have a good job and then I can drive back to the farmhouse, and it has that long, spectacular view of Peters Mountain.”
Monroe County celebrates its agricultural heritage with a Farmers’ Day celebration the first weekend in June, including a pancake breakfast, parade, live entertainment, and fireworks. A “Last Blast of Summer” living history Civil War re-enactment the last Saturday in August includes an evening Civil War Dance in costume.
But a visit to Union any time is a break from the pressure to shop. Pick up a copy of the Monroe Watchman, in continuous weekly publication since 1872, to read over lunch. For traditional fare, Kalico Kitchen gets good reviews for its Sunday buffet, and Korner Kafe, in the old department store and still showing the tin ceiling, boasts homemade yeast rolls. There’s also Queen’s Pizza and Subs for a quick meal. Top lunch off with something from Sweet Temptations Candy Shop, where co-owner Leah Lewis says her creamy peanut butter fudge is a best-seller, and the brittle looks good, too.
For a more leisurely lunch or for dinner, stop at Hall Tavern. Operating in a 1920 house built on the cellar of the original 1800 Hall Tavern, the restaurant offers everything from sandwiches to pastas to steaks and seafood. The deck, overlooking Main Street, is a local summertime favorite.
And walk the town. The Union Historic District includes about 180 historic structures in a walkably compact village. In addition to the sites mentioned above, don’t miss the Monroe County Courthouse and bandstand, the 1820 Union Academy, the five historic churches in various architectural styles, and the many log structures still in place.
For a great night’s stay, try Willow Bend Bed and Breakfast, where friendly proprietor Vips Alpizar serves guests her two-course breakfast on the gracious wraparound porch overlooking Turkey Creek in good weather. Byrnside Branch Farm offers a corn maze and pumpkin patch from mid-September through October. A 20-minute drive south and east sits Cook’s Old Mill, a beautifully restored 1857 gristmill on a bucolic pond that Ziegler and his wife maintain and open to visitors. For pick-your-own fun well into October, drive 15 minutes north to Morgan Orchard. Or rent a boat for the afternoon at Moncove Lake State Park, 20 minutes’ drive east of town.
And although it’s not currently open to the public, it’s possible to drive by the former Sweet Springs Resort in the far eastern corner of the county. An architecturally and historically fascinating property that is currently under restoration with plans for a conference center, it would be the biggest draw to the county in many decades. “That would bring more people, and of course that would hopefully translate into more business for the shops and maybe even more businesses here,” says Ziegler. Then, true to the preservationist nature of the community, he adds, “The main benefit is, it would save a wonderful building.”