It was Yogi Berra who once said to trust your instincts, to keep trying, and most importantly, act. For years, I have been traveling to the southeast corner of West Virginia, exploring its many one-lane roads and scenic byways and taking in all that the Mountain State had to offer. The desire to wanderlust was just too great.
Places like the old Sweet Springs School was evocative of that feeling. Nestled back on a farm with Moss Mountain looming in the background, the four-room schoolhouse had not been used in years.
Several years ago, I ventured inside and found it was packed with treasure from years past. Old school books, adding machines, and furnishings were scattered. After the school closed, it was used as storage for the farm.
Around the bend, along the Virginia state line, lay the closed Sweet Springs Resort. Sweet Springs was a springs resort, sanatorium, hospital, and nursing home in rural eastern West Virginia. In use from 1833 until 1993, the complex was host to Martin Van Buren, Pierce, Fillmore, among many others, and was the subject of the documentary “Return to Old Sweet.”
The resort came about in the early 1800s when its reported healing waters attracted city-dwellers from Washington D.C. and other nearby towns who would make the journey to the remote area via train and buggy. Doctors claimed the waters cured everything from arthritis to depression. By 1833, Sweet Springs Resort had been founded.
In 1839, a 90,000 square-foot building, designed by William B. Phillips, was constructed. Local lore claims the building was designed by Jefferson, although no notes from Jefferson’s meticulous records mentioned Sweet Springs.
Over the years, five brick guest cottages were constructed, along with a ballroom, a brick bathhouse, and several slave cottages. The guest cottages became known as the “Five Sisters” and were developed by General John Echols, Senator Allen Taylor Caperton, and Oliver Bierne in 1852. The cabins were planned to be built in a semi-circular plan, but only half were ever completed.
Sweet Springs did not operate during the Civil War, and it struggled to regain its popularity afterward. It closed for several years, beginning in 1928, and went into receivership in 1930. The then-685 acre resort was sold to the state as a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1941. After tuberculosis became more manageable and cases dropped, the complex was converted into the Andrew Rowan Memorial Home for the elderly.
Two three-story dormitories, designed by Henry Elden & Associates and constructed by the Kuhn Construction Company, were completed in 1974. The Andrew Rowan Memorial Home closed in 1993. The state gave the property to Monroe County, which planned to convert the property into an addiction treatment facility. The county borrowed $1.3 million from the Bank of White Sulphur Springs, although the plan never came to fruition. The county defaulted on the loan.
The West Virginia Division of Culture and History designated Sweet Springs, one of West Virginia’s most valuable and endangered historic resources in 2005. Vacant and deteriorating, the Division was concerned with the spring house, which was in a state of collapse.
Warren D. Smith, was the owner of Fredericksburg’s Chrismarr Realty and a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stumbled upon the Sweet Springs site in 2002, but the private owner of the dormant resort refused to sell until 2004. Smith founded the Sweet Springs Management Company began to bottle and sell Sweet Spring’s water under the Sweet Sommer label. The water was noted for its fresh, smooth taste, and it’s natural carbonation. Its waters were ranked among the top 10 at the International Water Tasting Festival.
Smith requested bids in 2007 to stabilize the bathhouse and to develop a phased reconstruction of the structure. The state also leased 625 adjacent acres to Smith, who planned on constructing a golf course on the site, along with skiing facilities, stables, a shooting range, gardens and orchards, a vineyard, and other resort amenities.
The latter plans never came to light as Smith died in 2010.
Despite years of working with Smith and his team on documenting Sweet Springs, it was not until 2015 that I was able to visit the interior. On November 12, 2015, Sweet Springs Resort was auctioned to Ashby Berkley for $560,000 – and so the next chapter of Sweet Springs begins.
Elsewhere in the state lies the remains of another abandoned estate. The Morris Memorial Hospital for Crippled Children is a historical hospital complex and was built in phases from 1936 to 1941 by the Works Progress Administration for children stricken with polio.
The “U”-shaped building, crafted with a cut limestone exterior, consists of a two-story central section with a domed and louvered cupola and a two-story porch, and 1½-story “Y”-shaped wings. Initially, the sides featured narrow metal casement doors leading from an exterior concrete terrace to a patient’s room. Both wings were initially set aside as open wards but were later enclosed.
The hospital included five wards: two for females, two for males and one that served as an isolation ward. Additionally, there were 32 private rooms.
The east wing features two gable wings that housed the therapy room with weights and a whirlpool, and a large room with two brine pools and a pool fed by an on-site 1,000-foot well. An x-ray department, operating rooms, and a laboratory rounded out the wing. A “T”-shaped wing from the east wing featured a two-room school and a 2,000 volume library. Attached to the school is a corridor that connected to the boiler house that consisted of two boilers that provided steam heat. A 60-foot brick smokestack led the exhaust out.
Morris Memorial Hospital was mostly self-sufficient. In addition to the hospital, the property featured a large dairy barn that housed up to 30 milk cows, 85 acres for pasture, and a 25-acre orchard and garden.
Early treatments for polio involved water therapy via brine pools and whirlpools, exercises, immobilization, and the use of moist, hot cloths to the affected appendages. Polio cases peaked in 1952 at nearly 60,000 reported cases that year. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk worked on developing a vaccine for polio, and after extensive field trials, the vaccine was considered a success in 1955.
Morris Memorial Hospital began to treat fewer patients as a result of the vaccine and closed as a children’s hospital in 1960 after treating nearly 10,000 patients.
In 1961, the city of Milton leased the property to the Morris Memorial Nursing Home. The nursing home was operational until February 2009, when it closed due to low patient numbers.