Travel to Elkins
A thriving artist community, a vibrant liberal arts college, and an eclectic mix of business and tourist attractions make Elkins a picture perfect small town.
Written and Photography by Nikki Bowman
There’s an excitement and energy in Elkins— not the frenetic buzz of big cities, but rather a communal sense that the town is finding its place. Walk past the Train Depot and you’ll see long lines of people waiting to board the Tygart Flyer or the Mountain Explorer. Across from the Town Square, you’ll notice several large tour busses with out-of-state license plates parked at The American Mountain Theater. On Davis Avenue, more than 50 motorcycles line up outside Beanders for lunch. And if you listen closely, you can hear banjos playing from the campus of Davis & Elkins. These are the sights and sounds of a town on the verge of great things.
Surrounded by the scenic undulating peaks and valleys of the Monongahela Forest, Elkins is breathtaking in the fall. And the cultural landscape is equally stunning. An unparalleled creative community has transformed Elkins into a hub for performing and visual arts. It is the epitome of small town America that is easily accessible to surrounding major economic hubs, yet far enough away to escape suburban sprawl. Its 8,000 residents enjoy low cost of living and high quality of healthcare. “Elkins is an example of the sustainable town that the entire nation is striving for. And we already have it,” says Ellen Spears, former director of the Elkins-Randolph Chamber of Commerce. “We have this wonderful walkable downtown district with several large tourist attractions. Now, we just have to capitalize on it.”
Historically, Elkins has always capitalized on its assets. Founded in 1890 by U.S. Senators Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins, it became a booming railroad, coal mining, and timber town. Davis, a keen businessman, was the first Democrat in West Virginia to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and he was a Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1904. Elkins, who was Davis’ son-in-law, also had an esteemed career. He served as Secretary of War from 1891 to 1893 before being elected to the U.S. Senate from West Virginia in 1895. Davis and Elkins brought the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railroad to Randolph County and subsequently created the Davis Coal and Coke Company, which became one of the largest coal companies in the world, transforming Elkins into a bustling industrial town. Reflective of the prosperity, several areas in Elkins have now been designated as historic districts containing National Historic Landmarks.
In the early 20th century, luxury passenger trains pulled into Elkins daily. Today, thanks to John Smith, trains once again frequent the town. “I just didn’t want to see them pull up the tracks,” says John, who retrieved washed-out tracks from the river after the 1985 flood. “But before we could bring a train into Elkins, we had to build a bridge. That wasn’t an easy undertaking, but we got the funding.”
John is the owner of Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, an excursion rail company comprised of four trains that is keeping West Virginia’s locomotive heritage alive. “In our first year without any type of publicity, 5,000 people showed up to ride our train,” he recalls. “This year, nearly 30,000 people have enjoyed it. Even with the economy, we haven’t seen a slow down.”
The New Tygart Flyer leaves the newly restored train depot in Elkins for a four-hour round trip through breathtaking mountain scenery to a remote waterfall. A lunch buffet is provided (tickets begin at $40 per adult). The Flyer was such a success that John decided to add a new train to the mix. The beautifully appointed Mountain Explorer Dinner Train provides a more refi ned four-course dining experience for passengers ($68 per person) as they enjoy watching evening descend on the peaks and canyons of The Monongahela National Forest and Cheat River. “Before airplanes, dining service on trains was top shelf, and that’s what we are trying to recreate. All our recipes are original menu items from the 1930s to 60s,” he says. “On our trains, you can go 25 miles an hour and drink wine without spilling it.”
“Getting this train into Elkins was a collaborative effort,” John says. “People wanted this train here. And for good reason, it brings money and people to the town.”
Branson in the Backyard
Another big draw in Elkins is the one-of-a-kind American Mountain Theater—or “Branson in your Backyard,” as owner and producer Kenny Sexton aptly promotes it. Nearly 40,000 people this year are expected to attend one of the live shows that showcase country, bluegrass, pop, patriotic, and southern gospel music. “What we do in this one show is Branson-quality. The only difference is that Branson, Missouri is an established tourist town and there’s a 100 different competing shows. Here we have an inexpensive mountain getaway that is unique to West Virginia.”
Kenny and his wife, Beverly, owned a similar theater in Branson before moving to Elkins to help Beverly’s sister, Susie Heckel, do the same. What they created is a state-of-the-art music, comedy, and variety show that is second to none.
“We knew that if this was going to work, we needed to establish Elkins as a tourist town,” Kenny says. “ We are an evening attraction and we needed something for people to do during the day before the show. So I met with John Smith about bringing the train into town, and he jumped on board. We aren’t in competition. We complement each other. You’ve got to have more than one draw to attract tourists.” Even during the recession, the American Mountain Theater is packing the house. “Watching this grow in the middle of this bad economy makes me feel humble and blessed,” Kenny says. Sixty percent of tickets are purchased from people who live out-of-state.
By all accounts, the enthusiastic toe-tapping and knee-slapping response is well deserved. The production value is top notch, a perfect combination of folksy charm, fabulous music, and comic relief. “The shows are incredible,” says Ellen Spears, who has attended several productions. “One minute you are laughing your head off, and then the next minute everyone is crying. You experience a wide range emotions and then you leave with a smile on your face.”
Realizing that package deals appeal to today’s time-crunched, budget-conscious travelers, Kenny began creating his own. A two-night package includes a ticket to the show, two nights lodging, two hotel breakfasts, two dinners, and a ticket to ride the New Tygart Flyer with lunch included—all that at only $229 per person. “People just love the package deal. We’ve done all the work and they just need to show up,” Kenny says. “But we also customize packages. Just give us a call and we’ll create what you need.”
Community of Culture
Elkins is a thriving artists’ community. The cultural offerings and enrichment opportunities are unparalleled for a town its size. Artists at Work Gallery (329 Davis Avenue), is a cooperative gallery of artists and craftsmen that live in the Elkins area. From baskets, prints, and textiles to jewelry, pottery, and soap, tourists will want to pick up a one-of-a-kind locally made product. Artist Kadra Casseday of The Blue Door Studio is one of the artists showcased at the gallery. “I’ve found that people around here truly have an appreciation for talent in art, music, and writing.”
Next door to Artists at Work, is the The Old Brick Playhouse. Founded in 1992, it offers exciting artistic enrichment programs for children. Its touring company has performed in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region and abroad to a cumulative audience of over 1.5 million students. Another gem is the The Randolph County Community Arts Center. Located in the former St. Brendan Catholic Church, it has been transformed into a beautiful and functional space for exhibits, lecture series, and instructional classes. Created to fill a need for arts education and artistic performances in Randolph and surrounding counties, Executive Director Beth King admits that it has grown into so much more. It is kicking off a concert series in October, a Family Series will launch in December, and it will be hosting a popular Holiday Artist Market featuring local artists. “We love our community and work very hard to provide a full range of arts and music performances to help make Elkins the great place it is,” says Beth. “I do not know of many small towns with the artistic diversity that Elkins offers. Or one that can boast of such a cooperative and supportive arts community.”
By some accounts, the crowning cultural gem of Elkins is Augusta Heritage Center. Housed at Davis & Elkins College, it is an internationally acclaimed program that seeks to preserve traditional folklife and folk arts of not just Appalachian culture but other regions as well. Through intensive weeklong summer workshops from Bluegrass Week to Blues Week to Cajun and Creole Week, it brings together master artists, musicians, dancers, craftspeople, enthusiasts, and novices of all ages. Classes are offered on a wide range of traditional arts from hammered dulcimer to blacksmithing to papercutting.
“People who participate in Augusta become like a family, and each year they return to reconnect,” says Executive Director Joyce Rossbach. One event that is an unforgettable homecoming is Augusta’s annual Old-Time Week and Fiddlers’ Reunion from October 25 until November 1. This event brings legendary Appalachian musicians for performances, demonstrations, and lessons.
Davis & Elkins College
Thanks to Augusta, when you walk around the campus of Davis & Elkins in the summer, you’ll hear people strumming guitars on the veranda of Halliehurst or you’ll see artists carrying canvases and paintbrushes to the gazebo. But in the fall, the campus is bustling with students. “Academically, this is a place where there is a legitimate and intentional blending of liberal arts and professional arts,” says President Buck Smith. “The best preparation for making a living is a foundation in the liberal arts that prepares you for making a life. And that’s what we do at D&E.
When Buck—everyone calls him “Buck”—came out of retirement after serving as president of Bethany College to accept the position as president of Davis & Elkins, he ushered in a new sense of enthusiasm and purpose. It is easy to see why. An energetic and passionate leader, he has a knack for igniting excitement and inspiring students and employees to live a purposeful life. The team he has created at D&E has tripled enrollment in one year. “When I accepted the job, one of the first people I called was Kevin Wilson. I had worked with him at Bethany College when I was president there. He joined us at D&E, and he has lit a fire. His whole admissions team is amazing.”
The stats speak for themselves: D&E is welcoming its largest entering freshman class in more than 60 years. “We have a personal approach to recruitment,” says Vice President for Enrollment Management and Chief Operating Offi cer Kevin Wilson. “And that personal attention is carried throughout the student’s entire educational experience.”
The newly instituted Highland Scholar Program is receiving rave reviews. Highland Scholars are students graduating with a 2.5 or better GPA from high schools in the immediate seven-county area, and they are able to attend D&E at the same cost as tuition and fees at West Virginia University. “This means every Highland Scholar will receive an annual scholarship of nearly $15,000,” explains Wilson.
Buck is proud of the Highland Scholar Program, which has garnered national attention for its uniqueness. “Last year 16 students came here from local high schools. This year the number was 91. There are parts of West Virginia that are economically depressed. Many folks have not had the opportunity to get a college education. We are giving them the option,” he says. “Our goal at D&E is to help people discover possibilities and then empower them.”
Buck’s “out-of-the-box”-type thinking is reinvigorating the 105-yearold institution. “Davis & Elkins is one of West Virginia’s best-kept secrets,” Buck says. “But it’s time that the secret got out. We are doing some amazing things here.”
One of the best-kept secrets on D&E’s picturesque campus is tucked away on the third floor of Halliehurst. Known as the Darby Collection, it is an incredible collection of American, European, Inuit, and Native American artifacts dating back to the Stone Age, donated to the school by H.M. Darby, a local builder. Only a small portion of the treasures is on display. According to the Smithsonian, the collection’s more than 200 Spanish, French, English, and American powder horns, dating from the early 1600s, is one of the finest in the East Coast.
Also located on the campus are several architectural masterpieces. The campus itself was once the summer estates of U.S. Senators Henry Davis and Stephen Elkins. Graceland, Davis’ magnificent home, is now part of The Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism and serves as an on-campus inn and training ground for students of the hospitality management program.
The exquisite Halliehurst mansion is constructed of native hardwoods and stone and was patterned after a castle in the Rhineland admired by Elkins’ wife, Hallie, on their honeymoon. The upstairs now houses the administrative offices of the college. Across from Halliehurst, theIcehouse is a cylindrical stone structure built in the late 1800s by Senator Elkins as a place to store ice in the summer. It was refurbished in 1969 and is now a campus pub and coffee house. And one of the most unique repurposing projects on campus is the Broiler House Theater. What used to provide steam heat for the campus is now an adaptable space for campus theater productions and concerts.
Shop Until You Drop
Elkins is blessed to have a leading liberal arts college within its perimeters, but its historical downtown district is an attraction in its own right. “We are fortunate to have a beautiful downtown and two major tourist draws. We need to get people to cross the street and discover downtown Elkins,” says Ed Griesel, president of the Downtown Elkins Promotional Committee. “Our businesses are owned and operated by good, hard working local people. They care and they are committed to providing the best service you’ll find anywhere.
Davis Avenue and Third Street are the main thoroughfares through town and are dotted with an eclectic mix of shops. Mainline Books is a charming independent bookstore that is a treasure trove of bestsellers to regional interest books. There’s a comfy couch in the back where you can grab a book and settle in. Also on Davis Avenue, The Elkins Sewing Center is a bustling, high quality shop that sells fabrics, notions, sewing machines, and quilting supplies. With classes for children, baby shower parties where you make the gift, national Husqvarna Viking educators leading classes on their Rolls Royce of sewing machines, it has become a destination for experienced sewers and novices alike.
Around the corner at 117 Third Street is Hopscotch, a darling children’s store with an assortment of clothing, toys, accessories and gift ideas that will bring out the kid in everyone. Right next door, Third Street Trading is the go-to place for Vera Bradley, unique gifts, and quality houseware items. Talbott Frame Shop at 220 Third Street and nearbyGood Energy Foods are always filled with customers. Located on Randolph Avenue that skirts the town, Che’Bella is an upscale boutique with everything from designer jeans to pageant and prom dresses. If you like to treasure hunt, then you’ll enjoy Granny’s Attic. Visit 107 Randolph Avenue for a seemingly unending collection of everything from Eastlake furniture to Flow Blue china to stoneware to collectibles. But if you want to make your own gift, then visit Ceramics with Class where Elaine Griesel will set you up with your choice of ceramic, and you can paint until your heart’s content.
Mountain State Forest Festival
Each year downtown Elkins paints itself in festive fall colors in anticipation of the much-acclaimed Mountain State Forest Festival. This annual nine-day festival packs the town and then some. Begun in 1930, it is a celebration of the natural beauty and preservation of our state’s resources. More than 100 festivities are held throughout the city. From parades, carnival, and lumberjack competition to Irish road bowling, muzzle loading, and arts and crafts, it is jam-packed with family fun entertainment.
The highlight of the festival is the crowning of Queen Silvia—the deity of the forest—a young woman chosen by festival officials who exemplifies pride in the state’s agricultural heritage. Her court is made up of two maids of honor from Randolph County and 40 princesses from around the state. The pageantry is something to behold. The elaborate costumes of the court are unique each year, and the theme is a tightly guarded secret—only unveiled during the coronation when the queen and her court majestically descend from the hillside of Davis & Elkins campus.
Dining and Lodging
For the size of the town, there’s a level of culinary sophistication that you would expect only to find in larger metropolitan areas. El Gran Sabor, an authentic Venezuelan restaurant, offers an incredible menu of tostonés, cachapa, arepas, and fajitas. Located across from the Iron Horse on 413 Kerens Avenue, live bands play every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, making it a favorite among locals. The Kissel Stop is a darling spot for everything from scones to paninis to frappés. Owners Sandy and Jay Kissel moved to Elkins from Florida. “We used to visit three or four times a year and it just got harder to leave. Besides getting married, it’s the best decision we ever made, says Sandy. “We just love the people here, the seasons, and the quality of life.” The Kissel Stop is conveniently situated at 23 Third Street near the Train Station.
Right around the corner from the Kissel Stop on Davis Avenue are local hot spots CJ Maggies and Beanders, where you can get good food and even better spirits. Other favorites are 301 Coffee Shop, formerly known as Unexpected Treasures, and MeeMeez Café. An Elkins institution that is known for its hamburgers and breakfast menu isScotty’s. It recently moved into a building across from the Davis Memorial Hospital at 430 Randolph Street.
For fine dining, choose The Mingo Room at Graceland Inn, which dishes out the best views of Elkins along with a four-course dinner menu or more casual lunch menu (see story on page 34). Exquisitely furnished, the Inn is an elegant retreat with 11 bedrooms and private baths.
Elkins is growing, but it’s maintaining the quaintness and charm that makes it so endearing. It is a town that must be experienced. Come witness it firsthand. The conversations you have will become your most priceless of souvenirs.