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Capon Springs and Farms

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Various dates. Both sides of Hampshire County 16, 0.2 miles southeast of the intersection with Hampshire County 16/1

Almost alone of West Virginia's remaining spa resorts, Capon Springs and Farms, the operation's corporate name, continues to function in the same low-key, family-oriented manner it always has. Visitors still come to rest, eat heartily, “take the waters,” and socialize. The setting is superb, especially if approached—as it seldom is anymore—from the east via Hampshire County 16. This dirt and gravel road, the route of an early approach, crosses Great North Mountain, the boundary between West Virginia and Virginia. It then descends from Bear Ridge through deep hardwood forests into a green, open glade surrounded by comfortable clapboard-covered buildings. White-painted siding and green shutters and roofs characterize the ensemble, as they have for more than a century.

Capon, as with many spas, was discovered by happenstance. In 1765 Henry Frye found the springs while hunting. He returned the next year with his invalid wife, whose condition improved after she took the water, and Frye's Springs soon developed. By 1787 Joseph Watson owned the property, and in December, after he died intestate, Virginia's General Assembly acquired it and established the town of Watsonville. In addition to standard clauses regarding lot sizes and building restrictions, the act of establishment granted to the trustees and their successors one half-acre lot at the spot “from whence the water issues, supposed efficacious in certain disorders … to and for the use of such persons as may resort thereto.” In 1833 historian Samuel Kercheval, whose description is one of the earliest, noted “seventeen or eighteen houses erected without regard to regularity and a boarding establishment capable of accommodating fifty to sixty visitors which is kept in excellent style.”

In 1849 entrepreneurs John R. Richards and J. N. Buck of Baltimore, along with a Mr. Blakemore of Philadelphia, purchased twelve lots from the trustees and soon erected the Mountain House. Said to have cost $75,000, the gigantic structure measured 262 feet by 190 feet, stood five stories tall, and contained 168 guest rooms and a dining room that seated 600. The Mountain House was similar to, but larger than, its contemporary rival at Berkeley Springs, the Pavilion Hotel. Daniel Webster, who presided at the hotel's dedication in June 1851, took the occasion to announce his 1852 bid for the presidency.

Concurrently with the privately built Mountain House, the Commonwealth of Virginia erected a public bathhouse on the other side of the lawn. On July 11, 1850, the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser enthusiastically described the facilities: “The Trustees, under the authority of the State of Virginia, are rapidly progressing with their extensive works … Each Bath Room will have a comfortable Dressing Room attached, and be supplied with Cold, Warm, Shower and Plunge Baths.” When West Virginia became a state, ownership of the bathhouse and springs was transferred from the Old Dominion. Privately held components changed hands in the 1870s when William H. Sale, a former captain in the Confederate army, purchased the Mountain House. Sale added a swimming pool (1879), several “cottages,” and the Annex (1887) adjoining the Mountain House to provide additional guest rooms. In 1905 the state auctioned its properties, which then became part of the privately held operation. In 1911 the Mountain House burned to the ground, but heroic measures saved the Annex, which has served ever since as the main building. In 1917 a new owner attempted to augment the resort by bottling and selling water from the springs. By 1932 he was in debt and the property had to be auctioned. Louis Austin, former Philadelphia distributor for Capon Springs Water, purchased Capon Springs, and his heirs continue the operation.

Capon Springs stretches along a gently rising, shaded greensward between steep, forested hillsides, with Hampshire County 16 forming the main road through the resort. The spring is at the upper (southeast) end, where Hampshire County 16 descends from Bear Ridge, while the main entrance is now at the lower (northwest) end of the complex. Capon Springs was listed on the National Register as a historic district in 1994. Listings begin at the former Annex, reached from the main entrance, and proceed generally in a counterclockwise direction.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.
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S. Allen Chambers Jr., "Capon Springs and Farms", [Wardensville, West Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WV-01-HM9.

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