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Sweet Springs

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19th century (various dates). East side of WV 311, .3 mile northeast of intersection with WV 3

Sweet Springs was among the first of antebellum Virginia's spas to be developed and was known almost from the start as Old Sweet. Observers and guests praised its many virtues, from its pastoral setting in a broad, level valley surrounded by low hills, to its food: a happily satiated visitor from London recalled “mutton equal to the finest in England.”

As at other spas, early visitors were lodged in log cabins, and it was from Sweet Springs in 1791 that Laurence Butler, a Virginian, wrote an English friend, telling how a “logg cabbin” was built (see the introduction to this volume). In 1804 another traveler noted that the accommodations were superior to those at White Sulphur. Families were provided with “cabins of two, three, or four rooms with furniture, individuals with loghouses, roomy or crowded, according to the increase of the company.” Old Sweet had a reputation for attracting fashionable society. Invalids were usually in the minority, and as early as 1808 a visitor commented that “all that are able, meet at the public table, to a plentiful breakfast, dinner and supper, where there is little appearance of ill health or want of appetite in the majority … music and dancing frequently crown the evening.” A later writer, noting that “there was a social taste to the Sweet Springs water,” concluded that it was the first of the western springs “to fly the banner of society above the banner of the invalids.”

The Lewis family of Lynnside were the developers and original owners of the resort. In the 1830s and 1840s Dr. John B. Lewis built a new hotel, raising Old Sweet's position in the springs hierarchy even higher. Even William Burke, owner of rival Red Sulphur Springs, had to admit: “Dr. Lewis has just now finished a house which for architectural beauty and accommodations is superior to any house built for the same use in the United States that I have seen.” Unfortunately, Dr. Lewis overextended himself. Jérôme Bonaparte, who visited in April 1846, noted that because Lewis's “will was stronger than his purse,” the resort had “fallen into the hands of the sheriff.” Another private owner, Oliver Beirne, purchased it in 1852 and soon built a huge new bathhouse facing the hotel. Unusual in design, it has been described variously as “similar to an old English Church,” “a stiff building, of a military appearance,” and one that “harks back in style to Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill revival of the Gothic.” At about the same time, Beirne built additional cottages and a new hotel building (now destroyed) that he planned as the centerpiece of a greatly enlarged complex. As evidenced in Edward Beyer's 1850s print of the resort, Beirne even planned a clone of the 1830s–1840s hotel at the opposite end of the group from its prototype.

The Civil War put such grandiose plans to naught, and as at the neighboring resorts, brought an end to the halcyon days at Sweet Springs. The property changed hands several times in the early twentieth century, finally closing in 1928. In 1941 the state of West Virginia bought it with the intent of opening a tuberculosis sanatarium. Instead, it opened in 1945 as the Andrew Rowan Memorial Home for the aged. A 1970s addition to the hotel carefully replicates its architecture, but state authorities gave little attention to the other structures during this period. The property was transferred to Monroe County in 1991 and continued for several years in operation as a home for the elderly. It was sold at auction in 1995 and is now in private ownership.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.


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S. Allen Chambers Jr., "Sweet Springs", [Gap Mills, West Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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