A Call to Help Preserve the Past and Future of Sweet Springs

Water, history and future at risk as State threatens to terminate lease with Sweet Springs Resort Park

An Open Letter to the People of West Virginia, Greater Appalachia and West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt

Ashby Berkley

SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. – Six years ago, Ashby Berkley rescued the Sweet Springs Resort, which had fallen into disrepair after 30 years of sitting idle and empty. In fact, the property, which closed as a resort in 1928, has been underutilized and neglected much of the last century.

I know this because Mr. Berkley has asked me to write a history book of Sweet Springs Resort and the surrounding community. Through my research and countless hours there, it is clear that there are many reasons for its decline during the past century – and even before.

What is equally clear is that Mr. Berkley has begun what others before him were unable to do. Yet, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture has threatened to terminate its lease with Mr. Berkley, which he signed after buying the Sweet Springs property. The lease is for 650 acres of the wooded slopes and farmland of Peters Mountain adjacent to the property. Mr. Berkley says that the lease is essential for fulfilling the educational mission of Sweet Springs Resort Park.

The State intended to terminate the lease on Sept. 16, but negotiations with the State are ongoing, according to Mr. Berkley. You can read more about the dispute in an article by West Virginia Public Broadcasting here.

I am writing to ask you to support Mr. Berkley. It is needed urgently. Should the State of West Virginia break the lease and take the land back over, its most precious resource – the springs flowing out of Peters Mountain – will be at risk.

The ancient utterances of earth’s elements – especially water – have lured people to Sweet Springs since prehistory.

Water from the spring below bubbles up to the surface at the pool at the Sweet Springs Resort Park Bath House

The waves of discovery and popularity of the healing waters speak to their endless, almost inscrutable qualities.  These include more than just written accounts. Oral history, shared by the Indigenous inhabitants and later the earliest European pioneers, supports these accounts as well. Indeed, the telling of stories about the water of Sweet Springs is a common occurrence still. Today’s guests to Sweet Springs Resort Park are just as curious about the ancient waters as were the first visitors.

Then, of course, there are the buildings, including the first frame house west of the Alleghenies – built ca. 1780s by William Lewis; the first Court House and Jail west of the Alleghenies, a brick structure that was utilized from 1795 – 1807 as a Virginia District Court, representing the counties of Botetourt, Green Briar, Kanawha, and Montgomery; and, most famously, the hotel designed by Thomas Jefferson and built after his death, ca. 1833.

The Lewis House on the grounds of Sweet Springs Resort Park
The first Court House & Jail west of the Alleghenies on the property of Sweet Springs Resort Park

Restoring such properties is not new to Mr. Berkley. He directed major restorations of the Pence Springs Hotel & Mineral Springs Historic District as well as the Riverside Inn. He was contracted by the State of West Virginia to teach hospitality and has served on numerous economic development and tourism boards.

Meanwhile, when the State had control of the property, first as an unsuccessful Tuberculosis Sanitarium from 1941-43, and then a more popular retirement community for about 40 years, “improvements” were made to the hotel and property by the State in 1947, 1949 and 1972-75 which forever changed its historic roots. The State closed the home – and property – in 1991.

It seems clear to me that Mr. Berkley can be trusted to be a good steward of the land and fulfill his lease. But it takes time, considering he has a century or more of neglect to overcome.

Should the State break its lease, it will derail carefully arranged plans to benefit Monroe County, the region and indeed, all of West Virginia.

The Jefferson Hotel on the grounds of Sweet Springs Resort Park, built ca. 1833

I have personally participated in two educational forums on community sustainability at Sweet Springs Resort Park, and have also been working with Mr. Berkley to offer additional programming that will help it to continue to fulfill its mission. Should the State break the lease for the Andrew S. Rowan farm property, it will derail those plans.

I am a native West Virginian. As a native son that has put roughly a million miles on my car traveling The Mountain State, I know there is no place else in the state like Sweet Springs. It must be preserved. The architecture; its unique history in antebellum America, in particular the South; and, most importantly, its many natural springs of some of the purest water in the world, make this a true state treasure.

So, I ask that the West Virginia Department of Agriculture find its way to honor the lease so that Mr. Berkley – who has proven successful throughout his life in preserving and promoting that which is most important in Southern West Virginia – be afforded the opportunity to hold up his end of the bargain.

You can sign the petition to support SSRP here. Or, you can write Commissioner Kent Leonhardt at:

West Virginia Department of Agriculture, 1900 Kanawha Blvd., East State Capitol, Room E-28, Charleston, WV 25305-0170.

© Michael Barrick, 2021. Barrick splits his time between West Virginia and North Carolina. He is the owner of Grassroots Appalachia and the Appalachian Chronicle.

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