HOT SPRINGS, Va. -- “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. Mrs. 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, roughly 250 miles from Pittsburgh, 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 Dr. 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. Once used for sports, 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.
Next, the East and West wings were finished in 1914. Three years earlier M. E. Ingalls had become the sole owner of the hotel and the first of four generations to run The Homestead. 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.
”I remember when the children ate in the Children‘s Dining Room, which was off the main dining room,“ recalls Mr. Pettus. Parents would eat and dance to the live band free from parental duties at least while dining. ”Then there were the Tray Dances,“ he says, smiling. ”It was in the Crystal Room and these guys, Norman Lacy was one, would dance with trays piled high with candles, plates, coffee pots and glasses on top of their heads. It was something,“ he notes.
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.
Jimmy Cauley, the shooting instructor who ran the Gun Club until 1992, worked at The Homestead for 60 years and remembers shooting with the Ingalls family. “In those days it was all families, and people would come and stay for at least two weeks. Now we have more conventions, but then those people come back with their families.”
“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. The winter options include skiing, snowmobiling, tubing, ice skating and more.
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. Others who followed include Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, William Taft, James Madison and James McKinley, to name a few. Twenty-two sitting presidents, various dignitaries, captains of commerce and royalty have all visited The Homestead.
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.
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., who also enjoyed the waters at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and Bedford Springs in Bedford, Pa.
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 from 1941-42.
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. They were polar opposites politically, but Mr. Ingalls was a gracious host. Modern-day amenities have been added, such as the Aqua Thermal Suite and a range of luxurious spa and anti-aging treatments.
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 Lobby Bar offers cocktails and conversation.
Every historic hotel has its stories of mysterious spirits wandering about.
“Years ago a guy in housekeeping said he saw what looked like a 7-foot-tall bellman,” says Todd Rice, the front desk agent. “We have had several people who work here see things or hear things.”
In a more recent encounter: “A month and a half ago a fellow checked in to room 1210,” he said. “He came back and said a woman was in the bed, so we sent someone up with him, and there was no one in the bed. It was perfectly made,” he says. “It‘s funny some people come and want to be checked into a room with a ghost.”
It’s not the ghosts leaving fingerprints all over the brass in the elevators, which is something that would have Fay Ingalls rolling over in his grave. But some refreshing and a little brass polish should have the place looking like the antebellum queen it truly is.
IF YOU GO
Where: The Omni Homestead Resort & Spa, 7696 Sam Snead Highway, Hot Springs, Va., 24445. 1-540-839-1766; www.omnihotels.com or www.thehomestead.com
Rates: The 2,000-acre resort, a National Historic Landmark, offers 483 rooms. All have been modernized to include Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Rates start at$180 and B&B rates start at $224. A special Weekday Adventure rate using the promo code Pittsburgh starts at $164. Resort fees and taxes are additional.
How far: The Homestead is approximately a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh, following Interstate 79 south to U.S. 33 east.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.