Berkeley Springs, WV, October 7, 2011 – Looking for something different—and inexpensive—to do this holiday weekend? Why not take advantage of the wonderful Indian Summer weather that’s been forecast just in time for the Columbus Day holidays, and head on out to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia for the town’s 38th Annual Apple Butter Festival? It’s fun for the whole family—really.
Activities range from Saturday morning’s opening day parade down the town’s main drag commencing at 9 a.m. and sponsored by Citizens National Bank. Get there early and enjoy the parade. (Trust this reporter. He’s enjoyed a weekend house right in Berkeley Springs since October 2000.)
No, it’s not Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it’s small town America at its best. The parade usually features bright red fire trucks from local volunteer fire departments, which kids everywhere tend to enjoy with great gusto. Local high school marching bands also strut their stuff, and there are generally a few surprises as well including car- and tractor-towed floats that, while lacking the spit and polish (and cost) of Rose Bowl extravaganzas, make up for it with whimsy and local color.
After the parade, the festival itself opens, with plenty to do for people of all ages. From face painting and other activities for kids, more adventurous adults and teens can also join in the hog calling contest, the beard-growing contest (you have to have started that one in advance), and even turtle races. There’s also plenty of music coming from the town’s band shell throughout the festival.
Be sure to come hungry: there’s also plenty of food—including on-site barbecue pork and chicken; “butterfly” potatoes (addictive); Italian and Polish sausage sandwiches; and other assorted treats.
And this is above and beyond favorite local restaurants, including the pub and restaurant at the downtown Country Inn; Tari’s Café and Inn; the newish Ambrae House; and—honest—one of the best restaurants in the extended metro area, Lot 12 Publick House. All, including the spectacularly sited Panorama at the Peak, which is just a few miles outside of town, will be open during the festivities. (Don’t forget to make reservations.)
Find more restaurants and eateries here.
For arts and crafts fans, booths are set up in Berkeley Springs State Park (of which more anon) to peddle a considerable variety of handmade products. The Morgan Arts Council’s Ice House art gallery will be open, featuring locally made arts and crafts of extraordinarily high quality.
If your artistic tastes tend more toward the elegant, be sure to visit one of the area’s best arts and crafts shops, Mountain Laurel, for a selection of goods that will rival some of the artier shops in DC—except that you won’t have to endure those hideous big city markups. It’s not for nothing that Berkeley Springs has consistently been honored as one of the top 100 small arts towns in the U.S. Other shops featuring unique local goods will be open as well. Check out this link to discover just some of them. Also here.
If you’re looking for bargains, many booths located outside the main booth area in the park will be set up running north from the central town square, featuring anything from knick-knacks to collectibles, to clever toys and household decorations, to plain old flea-market style junque. Total official and unofficial booths will number in the neighborhood of 200, although sadly, in the last couple of years, our current miserable economic times have cut into that total a bit.
Meanwhile, by no means should you forget the town of Berkeley Springs itself, formerly and still known as the Towne of Bath. George Washington really did sleep here. A lot. That was back in the days when this area—like all of West Virginia—was still a part of what eventually became the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Our first president was impressed by the eponymous springs that served to make this town justly famous in those early colonial days, as even then, people came to bathe in the healthful waters of the warm springs that gush from the side of the mountain that hems in Berkeley Springs’ tiny downtown. The original spring still flows in the open in the rear of the state park, and next to it is a small open bath area known as “George Washington’s Bathtub” although it’s not entirely certain that the future president actually took the waters in this precise spot.
The mountain also conceals cold springs as well which still serve as the town’s source of water. Bring a jug and take some home for free from the State Park’s always-flowing pump.
Legend has it that this land’s original owner, Lord Fairfax (sound familiar?) decreed that the healthful waters derived from this source should always be free to residents and visitors in perpetuity. More recently, some historians have debunked this story as a myth, but who really cares. It’s a swell tale, myth or no, so like the story of St. Christopher, it’s a good one, so why not continue to believe in the spirit of the story anyway?
The warm springs themselves have been one of the main reason people have flocked to this little town over the years, in spite of the fact that it’s no longer terribly well known nationally as a spa. The state constructed Berkeley Springs State Park—West Virginia’s tiniest—right downtown, and built up unisex and couple’s (Roman) baths right onsite. Early structures date back to the colonial era while the park’s main bath house—recently modernized and renovated—was actually built back in the 1930s as a WPA New Deal project.
Compared to DC, enjoying the State Park’s baths and taking the waters is a spectacular bargain when compared to similar services in DC, or practically anywhere else. An added surprise—you can get inexpensive massage treatments there as well, also bargain priced.
Moreover, massage duties are handled tastefully by masseuses and masseurs who are actually licensed West Virginia State employees—unique in the U.S.—virtually guaranteeing the quality and reasonability of the spa’s services. For times, services, and appointments, check out the Berkeley Springs State Park website.
You can go for the higher-priced spread, of course. The Country Inn, right next door to the Park, offers higher-end spa treatments as do several private spas sprinkled throughout the town. (Check out this link for more.) You can also stay the night at the Inn or at a number of local B&Bs.
Many of Berkeley Springs’ older buildings are gone now, robbing the town of some of its former quaintness. Historically, fire has been a periodic threat in the town. Businesses and a huge old ramshackle tourist hotel burned down in the center of town in a major mid-1970s conflagration.
And even the century old downtown Morgan County court house burned down in a spectacular fire just a couple of years ago. A magnificent new structure just replaced it at its old downtown location. It opened not too long ago and provided a significant uplift to the downtown area, which had begun to suffer in its absence.
That said, there are still a few of the old buildings left right across from the Park, and adjacent to where two huge copper kettles will be filled to the rim with boiling, bubbling apple butter, made fresh throughout the festival over open fires, starting early in the a.m. and ladled into jars when it’s finished in the early afternoon.
And above all the action in the town and at the festival sits Berkeley Springs’ most unusual building, Berkeley Castle. Built by a wealthy industrialist around the turn of the last century, it was a gift for his much younger bride—who inherited it right after it was built, at which point her much-older husband suddenly passed away.
As is often the case, the young widow quickly squandered her fortune and lost the Castle, which gradually deteriorated over the years as it went through a number of hands.
Its most recent owner uses it as a private residence, but often donates the use of its public-reception space for local groups and events. It’s a remarkable site at night as it sits on its carved out niche high on Warm Springs Ridge, illuminated like some solitary Las Vegas Casino.
Berkeley Springs’ 38th Annual Apple Butter Festival will run from the end of the Festival Parade Saturday morning through 5 p.m. that afternoon; and then again Sunday from noon ‘til 5. Restaurants will be open for extended hours, but check ahead by visiting or calling ahead via the link we’ve already provided.
A note to those who, like this writer, enjoy adult beverages on their holidays. Wine tastings will be available from West Virginia wine kiosks located near the Park entrance. And of course, most restaurants offer a fine selection of beers and wines throughout the day. More or less. In an almost quaint peculiarity of West Virginia state law, alcoholic beverages can’t be sampled or served on Sunday until after 1 p.m. For those much over 50, that’s the way things once were, and it’s still comforting to know that at least in one quadrant of the universe, the Lord still gets a bit of private time on Sunday mornings.
The drive to Berkeley Springs from this writer’s primary residence in Reston, Virginia, is approximately one hour, forty-five minutes.
Best way for northern Virginia residents to get there is to:
Take the Toll Road/Dulles Greenway (and don’t forget your credit card if you don’t have an EZPass transponder on your windshield). The Greenway ends at the Virginia Route 7 Bypass in Leesburg, at which point you take the 4-laned highway all the way to Winchester.
Just before you enter the city of Winchester, hand a right onto I-81 North. At the very next exit (U.S. 522 and 11) get off at the ramp and hang a left.
Now it’s slightly tricky. When you turn, you’re on Rt. 11. Go straight, past a Sheetz to your left and another station (which looks like it’s becoming a 7/11) on your right. If you stay on the main drag, it morphs into Virginia 37 South, which is non-intuitive—but it’s actually a half-beltway around Winchester, and you’ll be less confused if you think about how directions work on the Capital Beltway.
Anyhow, stay on 37 once again until the very next exit, which is U.S. 522, and turn right.
It’s a straight shot from there, 4-lanes of sweeping curves and vistas until it drops down to two lanes at the WV border. When you get near town, follow the signs and traffic officers. They’ll keep you out of downtown proper and you’ll have to find parking in one of the neighborhoods. But not to worry, since you won’t have to walk very far.
(Special Great Recession bonus: Going through Winchester either coming or going, make sure your gas tank is pretty close to dry. Hands-down, these are the best gas prices anywhere in the Metropolitan DC area. Fillerup for 10-20 cents less per gallon than in northern Virginia, upwards of 30 cents less than in Maryland, and, if you’re lucky, up to 50 cents less than in DC. Don’t wait for West Virginia. The state’s gas tax is high, getting Berkeley Springs’ area prices up to around what you currently pay in northern Virginia closer to DC.)
Getting to WV from closer in: DC and Maryland residents might be better off heading to Berkeley Springs via I-70 North, getting off the interstate in Hancock, MD at the Hancock/Berkeley Springs exit to U.S. 522 South. Once you’re off I-70, Berkeley Springs is only about 10 minutes away once you cross the Potomac River. You’ll pass by the historic, though rather hideous outcroppings of the U.S. Silica Sand Mine, and very soon, you’re there, so slow down when you see the signs. The local constabulary can be a little zealous.
For more information on the Festival via phone, call 1-800-447-8797. For more info and a complete schedule of events, visit the Festival website at www.berkeleysprings.com/apple
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