Back in Time
At a West Virginia resort, there’s old-school fun all around
I’m surrounded by people wearing funny noses. It’s a rainy night in August, and I’m unexpectedly playing my ukulele at a sing-along at Capon Springs and Farms in High View, West Virginia. My great-aunt, Paula Goldman, and I are vacationing for a few days with her friend Alice Masters, who has been coming to Capon since 1953—every year but one, and missing that year, she says, was a mistake. Now, Alice’s children and grandchildren are here from both coasts. Many of the other guests, who also have been coming for generations, have become Alice’s friends. That tradition of reuniting comes with many others, including a Tuesday night sing-along.
After strumming a few nursery rhymes with the makeshift band, I hear someone call “Old MacDonald!” A man hands animal noses and random masks to children and adults, another tradition. We sing the usual verses (“With an oink oink here, and an oink oink there”) and ad-lib for the animals who don’t live on the farm, like the crocodile and the monkey. Strumming mindlessly, singing and laughing, I look over and see Paula, with her pink seersucker capris and perfectly styled white hair. She’s wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask, comically hunched over and doing a pretty good phantom walk.
“With a phantom mask here, and a phantom mask there, here a mask, there a mask, everywhere a phantom mask,” we sing, although I’m laughing so hard I can barely get the words out. Paula sits down, and we move on to the shark.
Growing up in Montgomery County, I never went away to summer camp, but I can’t imagine it gets any better than Capon Springs. A tidy and postcard-perfect resort with inviting green lawns and games such as croquet and shuffleboard, Capon Springs materializes like a mirage in the mountains of West Virginia and feels a bit like Snow White, with music piped from the trees before meals (I half expected to see sprites).
In 1932, Lou Austin, a Capon Springs Water distributor who wanted access to the famous spring, bought the 19th century resort, which had fallen into disrepair. Today, the 4,700-acre property is decidedly of another time: Guests make reservations and check in without providing a credit card, rely on the honor system for convenience store items, and still have the option of paying by personal check upon their departure. Meals are served family style and without alcohol (savvy guests bring flasks to enjoy cocktails on their porches), and the dining room is a necktie-free zone. Cellphone reception is limited, and the rooms are modest, without electronics. Families often return the same week year after year, and it’s common for guests to become lifelong friends.
“This is kind of a safe haven—even more so in what seems to be an emotionally charged world,” said Jonathan Bellingham, the marketing and recreation manager. “It’s the concept of returning to a kinder, gentler era.”
I first discovered Capon accidentally while driving home from Thomas, West Virginia, about a decade ago. I’d expected to be on the highway, but my GPS sent me through the middle of the property and onto a dirt road. The same thing happened again several years later, but by then Paula had introduced me to Alice, whom she’d met playing bridge in the ’90s. Alice, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who now lives in Bethesda, happened to mention her family vacations there. She invited Paula and me to join her on a future visit, and we made plans to go during the Masters’ family reunion week last August.