August 15, 2014

There’s no place like Homestead, Virginia’s fabled resort

For more than two centuries The Homestead has withstood disaster and economic decline... and still offers elegant relaxation.

“Yep, I’ve seen a lot of changes,” says 88-year-old Virginia Strasser.

She has worked behind the scenes at what is now The Omni Homestead Resort & Spa deep in the Allegheny Mountains for 62 years. Strasser is one of an exclusive club of employees who have been on the property for more than half a century, and she considers the grand old hotel her home.

Guests who visited as children are now bringing their own children and think of those employees as family.

Woody Pettus, 74, who is the main dining room’s longest-serving maitre’d, is one of five generations of Pettuses who have worked at The Homestead. It is the consistency of certain staff members who remember how things used to be that keeps a sense of continuity going at what some see as the cradle of Southern hospitality.

It first welcomed travelers in 1766 as an 18-room hostelry. The founder, Capt. Thomas Bullett, died in the Revolutionary War. His family continued operating the place until Dr. Thomas Goode purchased it in 1832. He promoted the value of the hot springs and “taking the water” as a cure for a host of ailments and installed pipes to divert the hot spring water to pools.

The Georgian-style resort was acquired by the Omni group last year. It sits on the sacred hunting grounds of the Shawnee tribe, but it is named after the homesteaders who settled the region and helped to build it.

One of the modern-day perks of a stay at The Homestead is the daily tour conducted by historian Keene Byrd. After Goode died, he says, some investors, including M.E. Ingalls and J.P. Morgan, took it over. That was in the early 1880s.

A fire in 1901 destroyed the hotel, but the Casino Building built in 1895 was spared and still stands (it is now the pro shop for tennis and golf and a popular lunch spot). Also saved from the flames were the cottages on cottage row and the spa. Rebuilding commenced immediately, and by 1902 the great hall as it is known today was completed.

The East and West wings were finished in 1914. In a stroke of bad timing the iconic clock tower was completed in 1929 just as the stock market crashed. Still, for more than two centuries The Homestead has withstood disaster and economic decline.

Tradition is a mainstay

“I remember when the children ate in the Children’s Dining Room, which was off the main dining room,” recalls Pettus. Parents would eat and dance to the live band free from parental duties at least while dining.

Arthur Bryan, who has been at The Homestead for 42 years, chimes in with, “They also had the tray races on the Casino lawn.” That started in the 1940s and continued until 1965. “They had to stop because of the betting,” he said.

A lot of things have changed since the days of “butter girls” and “tray dances,” but the old ambiance still hangs on even with modern amusements such as the addition of a water park with slides and a lazy river and a miniature golf course.

“The Homestead is old-school, family, traditional,” explains Travis Braxton Jr., activities supervisor. Croquet, tennis, archery, archery tag, paint ball, canoeing, shooting, riding, hiking and, of course, golf. There are two world-class courses at The Homestead; the Cascades and the Old Course, which has the oldest continuous-use tee box in the United States and has never been altered. Sam Snead said the greens on the 18th hole rolled truer than anywhere he ever played. Winter options include skiing, snowmobiling, tubing, ice skating and more.

When the day is done there are several dining options. The main dining room is more formal (no jeans or spandex allowed), where such dishes as freshly caught Allegheny Mountain trout and Chateaubriand of Beef are served. The casual set can head to Sam Snead’s Tavern in town or the more upscale Jefferson’s Restaurant and Bar in the hotel (Don’t miss the deep-fried meatballs).

The spring waters

What makes The Homestead special are the spring waters – naturally heated to a soothing 104-degrees Fahrenheit – that Native Americans believed had healing powers. Thomas Jefferson came in 1819 to take the cure for his rheumatism and stayed for 22 days. Twenty-two sitting presidents, various dignitaries, captains of commerce and royalty have all visited The Homestead.

In the early 1900s, The Homestead was part of the “springs circuit,” a route traveled by affluent people from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

During World War II the U.S. government asked The Homestead to serve as an internment center for 363 Japanese diplomats, businessmen, press and others. They were held for a year.

The European-style spa and spa garden includes the hot spring that Jefferson soaked in, as well as a small lap pool. The famous indoor pool, which is filled with chlorinated spring water, is much the same as it was when then-New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a dip with Fay Ingalls, the hotel’s owner at the time. Modern amenities have been added, such as the Aqua Thermal Suite and a range of luxurious spa and anti-aging treatments.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed 30 days, but he had a habit of leaving without paying his bill. He tried to slip away and stiff the hotel, but Fay Ingalls would have none of it. He chased after him, boarded the Windsors’ private train car and presented him with the bill. It was the duchess who paid.

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