By Barbara Elliott
For generations of West Virginians, Watoga State Park has been a haven for summer family vacations and reunions, spring fishing trips, camping on brisk fall nights, or enjoying a roaring fire in a snug cabin on a wintry night. The venerable park, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depths of the depression, opened in July 1937. A birthday party is planned for July 1, 2017 to celebrate Watoga’s 80 years as the flagship of West Virginia State Parks. In preparation for the big day, the old girl is undergoing a bit of a facelift.
As with any senior citizen, Watoga was showing its age when Jody Spencer was named superintendent last year. To add to the challenge he faced in managing the 10,100 acres of Watoga, Spencer retained responsibility for the Greenbrier River Trail, which he had served as superintendent for 14 years. Furthermore, due to the budget constraints all state agencies are experiencing, Droop Mountain Battlefield and Beartown State Parks were added to his plate upon the retirement of long-time superintendent Mike Smith.
Fortunately, Spencer is not one to be daunted by such circumstances. He immediately set to work addressing one of the most troublesome issues facing the park: the swimming pool. The situation reached a crisis last year when the state was faced with the possibility of having to close pools in the parks because they were so expensive to maintain. If Watoga could not increase usage of the pool, it would have to close.
“Watoga was world-famous for having the coldest swimming pool anywhere. People from 30 years ago remembered it. Our Parks and Recreation Department offered swimming lessons, but they had to put them at end of summer because the pool was so cold,” he says. “We decided to save the pool and recreation area that goes hand-in-hand with the pool. The recreation area was not staffed or open last year due to a decline in useage,” Spencer recalls.
Enter the Watoga State Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2015 to provide volunteer and monetary resources to support the park. John Goodwin, president of the foundation’s board, fell in love with Watoga the first time he visited with his wife, Margie. Her extended family has pretty much taken over the park’s cabins for a massive family reunion each year for the past 54 years.
“The park was something different for all of us,” she remembers. Most were living in cities. When I was a child, the parents would be in one cabin playing cards and the children would be in another making fudge and popcorn and playing games. We used the swimming pool like crazy, even as cold as it was. We’d be there when it opened and stayed all day. We went swimming in the river, floating in rafts, took day trips to Beartown and Lewisburg. It’s just been a very special way to stay in contact with cousins.”
A retired coach and athletic director, Goodwin became concerned when he saw the decline in the recreational facilities at the park over the years and the loss of activities such as archery, shuffleboard, and volleyball that had provided hours of enjoyment for generations of visitors.
“Not all families are geared to hiking and fishing. To attract new people, we need to offer a variety of things, and they have to be in good enough shape, Goodwin remarks. “I took photos of areas that needed improvement and sent them to the state, but there just wasn’t enough money.”
Goodwin volunteered to rent a cabin and fix things up on his own. Then he discovered there was a group of like-minded people who were talking about forming a foundation to support the park. To the amazement of the locals, he drove from his home in Ohio to attend the first meeting. He soon joined the board of the fledgling organization and this past spring was elected president.
Although still in its infancy, the foundation, working in concert with Spencer and his staff, has accomplished a lot in a short period of time, starting with addressing the pool crisis. They have raised funds to purchase 16 solar panels that were recently installed and to add a water slide to make the pool more attractive for families. They also plan to purchase an insulated blanket to cover the pool at night so that it will retain heat.
Between the foundation’s efforts and a lot of work on the part of the park staff, many areas of the park are undergoing a renewal. A committee of volunteers is helping maintain the 40 miles of hiking trails within the park and on the Greenbrier River Trail, which runs past Watoga on its 77-mile course from Caldwell to Cass. ”Any rainstorm, windstorm, or snow can drop limbs or entire trees. It is very important that volunteers step up,” Spencer says.
The park’s naturalist and activities programmer, Chris Bartley, in addition to planning daily activities during the summer season, has taken on the task of restoring the Brooks Memorial Arboretum. This leafy gem features 10 miles of hiking trails and more than 60 different species of trees. The project includes replacing old signs, clearing trails and planting new trees.
Spencer points to other improvements that have accomplished by the staff. They include renovation of the recreation hall to remove outdated games and add a kitchen, making it a welcoming venue for parties or reunions. The park office has been moved into a much larger space in the administration building that was formerly occupied by a restaurant that, though fondly remembered by many, closed several years ago. The former office space now houses a small museum featuring artifacts from the CCC. Although the new location is a decided improvement over the former museum site in a hard to reach building with no heat or air conditioning, Spencer says that he hopes further refinements can be made and more CCC artifacts collected from local residents.
Spencer is also reaching out to the local community to get area residents more connected to the park. For example, the Wild Edibles Festival, sponsored by the Pocahontas County Nature Club, was held at the park for the first time last spring and the Pocahontas County Arts Council is planning an Art in the Park event over Labor Day weekend. To give local children a glimpse of the great recreational resources available in their own back yard, the park hosted students from Pocahontas County’s three elementary schools and two middle school classes for a blow-out field trip on May 30.
“One of the concepts we’re trying to embrace is providing activities for a larger audience,” Spencer says. “We have a lot to offer the naturalists—birds, wildflowers, etc. We need to attract a younger crowd. We have added Wi-Fi at the pool, in the recreation hall, at both bathhouses at Riverside Campground and at the office. It was once a thing of pride to come here to unplug, but today people rely too heavily on connection, and young kids are used to that. If they need Wi-Fi at a vacation location, we have to provide it.”
Goodwin agrees, adding, “Nature is a big part of the park. But we need to make it something for families. Jody and I agree that we need to add attractions that will blend in, not destroy the natural beauty.”
To that end, disc golf and laser tag have already been added to the recreational menu, and Spencer hopes to bring back archery soon. Chris Bartley has hidden geocaches in some of the more remote corners to give people a reason to visit. The foundation is raising funds to build a putt-putt golf course and already has received significant individual and corporate donations to help defray the cost. Although the initial plans call for a nine-hole course, Goodwin is determined to see it expand to 18 holes, and he is also committed to bringing back shuffleboard. On a more ambitious scale, the foundation has applied for a federal grant to develop mountain bike trails.
Goodwin notes that the problem with fundraising is that because the area is sparsely populated and not affluent, there is only so much you can do. The foundation held a raffle last spring to raise funds for the pool improvements and has solicited funds from friends of the park. But the event that promises to become a major revenue producer is the Mountain Trail Challenge, a half marathon and 5-K race that starts and finishes at the Beaver Creek Campground. The event was held for the first time last year, and the success of the inaugural race bodes well for the future. Goodwin and Spencer credit that success to the efforts of David Elliott, the former foundation board president who spearheaded the event, and race director Cully McCurdy.
“I’ve never seen a race go off so well,” Goodwin remarked. “I was elated to see how well the race went and all the positive comments we got. There were no negative comments. We had 118 participants in the first year. We really didn’t expect that. For it to go as smoothly as it did was kind of a shock. Everyone said they’d be back and bring friends. The challenge we have now is can we pull it off as smoothly as we did last year. I’m hoping for 200 runners this year.”
Spencer adds that although the race did not make a profit in its first year, the park benefitted because the event was so well attended. People came from across the state and as far as away as Chicago and Washington, D.C. Many, including some from the local area, had never visited the park before. Quite a few, after seeing the beauty of Watoga, said they would come back and camp there next time. More information about this year’s race, scheduled for August 12, can be found on the foundation’s website,www.watogafoundation.org.
In addition to the challenge of upgrading the park to attract a younger audience, Goodwin also is concerned with nurturing a new generation of volunteers to continue the work of the foundation.
“A while back we advertised a work day for the Jesse’s Cove Trail and 18 young people showed up. I encouraged them to become involved with the foundation. We need to get families to build memories, but there will be no memories unless there is something to do. Our job is to provide the opportunities for them,” he says.
Asked to sum up magical appeal of Watoga, Spencer points to the elegant craftsmanship of the CCC log cabins and stonework enhanced by the beauty of the natural surroundings.
“For the employees, the appeal of Watoga is the same as for the people who come to stay,” he reflects. “Even though you punch in, it is a fantastic place to be. Our employees will post pictures of their day on Facebook. I can’t imagine someone in a high rise in a city doing that.”
Goodwin’s answer is even more succinct: “It is like heaven to me.”