Americans probably think of Colorado and other Western states when they think of the mountains, but of course, there are ample mountains in the South as well. Lewisburg, West Virginia, is a perfect example of a mountain town—and one that would probably be perfectly at home in Colorado or Wyoming were it not for its Southern charm. Like the cowboy towns of the Rockies which are now known as favorites with skiers and snowboarders, Lewisburg has humble origins in farming and timber in a region still rural and known for its agriculture. Yet due to the nearby Greenbrier Resort—one of the nation’s finest—Lewisburg is now also a vacation destination itself. In fact, the town serves as a gateway to West Virginia from Virginia for those entering the region by car—and this sleepy little mountain town also boasts the longest runway in the state.
Why the longest runway? Because the Greenbrier, as well as being a world-class resort, for decades was the home of a secret bunker—codename “Casper”—for the relocation of Congress and other government leaders in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington. Therefore, the airport had to be able to land the largest of military transports and Air Force One if required. The bunker itself is now declassified and open for tours, but for years it operated in secret with its above-ground operations office disguised as a television repair shop. While many Greenbrier staff members and even local folks knew of the bunker’s existence and real purpose, it was kept a bona fide state secret and only after the end of the Cold War made public.
Like the Greenbrier, Lewisburg has early origins and has played a pivotal role in the region since its days as Fort Savannah in the 1770’s. Andrew Lewis, before becoming the American Revolutionary general we all know him as today, was a young surveyor and pioneer who mapped out the area and discovered a spring in what is now downtown Lewisburg, opening the way for a military outpost and community to be established there.
Lewisburg became the county seat of Greenbrier County by natural virtue of being the largest and oldest city in the county (and region) and then flourished also as the location of the Greenbrier Military School founded in 1812. In 1974, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine went into the old campus buildings of the Greenbrier Military School, with the first class of osteopathic medical students graduating in 1978. This medical school and the general genteel nature of the historic town allowed for an economic base that increasingly leaned towards tourism and upscale retail and restaurants. With the Greenbrier resort in nearby White Sulphur Springs, the potential for tourism was high, and today much of Lewisburg’s economy is predicated on this tourist trade.
For Lewisburg, the movement towards tourism could not have come at a better time: Lewisburg had by tradition
depended on the railroad, but from the 1950’s onward, evolving trade and transport technologies meant that the concept of a regional center with rail access and a downtown gave way to malls, Walmart, and eventually the Internet. So the ability to reposition retail as an arts and tourism focus was apt.
The arts community in Lewisburg has grown into one of the most exciting and diverse in the entire region, and of special interest has been its success in fostering bluegrass and Celtic-revival music. The Irish Pub on Washington Street, Wild Bean, and the Sweet Shoppe have become informal centers for performances of these styles of music and have thus contributed the type of small venues with frequent performances that are necessary for the growth of a music scene.
The Trillium Performing Arts Collective, Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Lewis Theatre, and Carnegie Hall—which brings in a variety of national and international performances—have all formed the core of the performing arts scene in Lewisburg while a variety of galleries and local artists provide a comprehensive visual arts aspect. Thus, the remarkable thing about the arts in Lewisburg—and the tourism associated with the arts—is the diversity and true ability to offer that coveted “something for everyone” many small communities seek via the arts. All of this, more or less, was established over the last thirty years or so to become what it is today.
Yet it isn’t the arts alone, nor the Greenbrier, which draws tourists: with the rustic nature of the region and the Greenbrier River, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, and winter sports a bit further north are also all attractions. Besides, many people like to get out of the city—be that city Washington or elsewhere—and just experience a slower pace of life in the country. Beyond Greenbrier County is Monroe County, a very rural and historic county filled with beautiful pastoral scenes and rich history in its county seat of Union. The farmlands and rugged forested areas of these two counties together offer a great deal to explore for the visitor, including several national, state, and local wilderness protected areas. If anything, eco-tourism looks to be a real growth area for the region which should be welcome to everyone.