Going with the flow in rural Virginia

At Warm Springs, bathe the way folks did a century or more ago

Short Hop

March 07, 2004|By Bethanne Kelly Patrick | Bethanne Kelly Patrick,Special to the Sun

Drive south on Interstate 81 into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and bucolic stretches of highway turn too quickly to congested urban sprawl, while antebellum homes sit cheek-by-jowl with unattractive modern structures.

But be patient. After you pass Staunton and head west into what locals call "the valley," you will find Warm Springs, a place where progress nicely coexists with natural beauty.

Warm Springs, the Bath County seat, is five miles north of its better-known sister city, Hot Springs. Those liquid designations are no coincidence. For many years, Bath County was the hub of an important social circuit for genteel Virginians, who would "take the waters," progressing from hot spring to hot spring, including Rockbridge Baths, Healing Springs, Hot Springs and Warm Springs.

The underground mineral springs at these locations, a naturally occurring geologic phenomenon, range from 77 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, most of the baths are closed, their locations are privately owned or their waters diverted. At Hot Springs, guests at the popular Homestead resort can take tub-bound mineral baths in an upscale setting.

But at Warm Springs, you can still bathe the way folks did a century or more ago at Jefferson Pools, so named for Thomas Jefferson, who spent three weeks there in 1818 soaking in the mineral springs.

Jefferson Pools, owned by the Homestead resort, are old-fashioned and no frills. Pull into the tiny gravel parking lot just outside town and you'll see two sagging wooden shacks, one designated "Gentleman's Bath" and the other "Ladies' Bath." A small registration building contains a reception room and a gift shop. A one-hour session in the baths costs $15.

Quiet, please

Warm Springs resident Rita Rector has been the ladies' bathhouse attendant for nearly a decade, passing out plain white towels and reminding everyone to keep their voices low.

"A lot of people come back every year," she says, "although some local people come every week."

Rector also hands out calico "rompers" to women bathers, which are rickrack-trimmed garments for those who prefer not to soak in the nude. Male bathers do not have the same option -- for them it is birthday suit or bathing suit.

Rector likes to show visitors a winch-operated platform that once allowed an arthritis-plagued Mrs. Robert E. Lee to be lowered into the baths in privacy.

Privacy for modern visitors consists of curtained rooms. After changing, bathers descend into the warm pool, its bottom lined with ancient rocks.

The water's constant temperature of 98 degrees is comfortable year-round, and a winter soak has the unexpected benefit of steam rising off the pool, reminiscent of Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon.

I visited during "family time," a daily one-hour window from noon to 1 p.m. when the baths are open to everyone and children are pretty active. This is a relatively new concept, and not everyone is happy about it.

"It's just not what the baths are about," says Margo Oxendine, who grew up in Warm Springs and is director of the Bath County Historical Society. "Everyone goes there to be still. I hope things don't change much more."

Very little else seems to have changed in Warm Springs, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains near the West Virginia border. The town, with a population of 275 (all of Bath County has about 5,000 residents), has a fine-looking Greek Revival-style court-house, built in 1914, a library fashioned from a former bank building and a number of law offices -- impressive for a county without a single traffic light.

This is a rural area. Of the county's more than 350,000 acres, 89 percent are forest, and nearly 170,000 acres are part of the George Washington National Forest. After my time in the baths, I explored the area around Warm Springs, driving toward West Virginia to see 12-mile Lake Moomaw and Gathright Dam, which are mostly surrounded by forest.

Soon I became lost (a kind local man steered me back toward the main road), but I saw wonderful scenery, including family cemeteries that are beautifully maintained.

Inn at Gristmill Square

In Warm Springs, I was staying at the Inn at Gristmill Square. The inn was once part of the town's old mill. I was in the Oat Room, a comfortable suite with twin beds and a sitting room furnished with pleasing second-hand finds. Each morning, I was brought a basket filled with fresh breads, juice, coffee and a newspaper ("New York or Richmond?" the innkeeper asked).

The inn also has a restaurant, the Waterwheel, which serves excellent dinner and brunch -- a good thing, because dining options in Bath County are limited.

One evening at the Waterwheel, I had a ragout of wild mushrooms in cream, and local brook trout encrusted with cornmeal and served with sauteed black walnuts. Dessert was profiteroles with homemade butterscotch and chocolate sauces.

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