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Elkins: a tiny town with Branson-sized dreams

By By Marta Tankersley
Staff writer
Folks explore the wilderness during a scheduled stop on a Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad's Mountain Rail Adventures excursion. (Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad.)
Photo courtesy of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad The coal-powered Shay engine usually crosses the finish line at the Great West Virginia Train Race in Spruce before the more powerful diesel engine because it was designed to pull heavy loads through mountainous terrain, John Smith president of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad said.
Photo courtesy of the Gandy Dancer Dinner Theatre Live entertainment is provided during the Branson-style show at the Gandy Dancer Dinner Theatre in Elkins.
The new menu at the 1863 Grill includes SoCal inspired flavors from executive Chef Jason Flek. (Photo credit: Photo by Marta Tankersley)
Freshly renovated, the 1863 Grill offers diners a relaxed atmosphere and an updated lunch and dinner menu to accomodate tourists as they enjoy all Elkins has to offer. (Photo credit: Photo by Marta Tankersley)
Passengers Tonya Wagoner, Shane West and Joe Newman of South Carolina are all smiles after "experiencing nature as it was intended" aboard the Durbin & Greenbier Valley Railroad out of Elkins. (Photo credit: Photo by Marta Tankersley)
Family owned and operated, The American Mountain Theater's Branson-style music and comedy show draws about 37,000 to Elkins annually. (Photo credit: Photo courtesy of American Mountain Theater)
For a quick summer cool-down, try fresh-squeezed lemonade - practically straight from the Sexton Kids' Lemonade Stand - at the newly renovated 1863 Grill in downtown Elkins. (Photo credit: Photo by Marta Tankersley)

Popular tourist destinations dot the West Virginia countryside, from skiing in the winter to white water rafting and zip lining in the summer, not to mention outdoor camping, ATV trails and a host of activities designed to be “wild and wonderful.”

What you may not know is that just about two hours north east of the capitol city, in historic Elkins, there is a movement to create a “Branson-style” family entertainment haven.

In fact, if you were to make the easy drive — it’s all four-lane highway — there are a few things you would not want to miss, the least of which are the two live performance arts theaters and train excursions.

About 325 bus-loads of tourists come through Elkins annually, said Brenda Pritt, executive director of the Randolph County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

Throughout the summer, hotel occupancy is pretty much at capacity, increasing the population of the city from 8,500 to 10,000 during special events.

Just last weekend, for the annual July 4 celebration, Elkins hosted “one of the largest antique car shows in the state,” Pritt said.

“Six hundred antique and hot rod cars cruise into our city park, there are fireworks and the Colgate National Talent Show.

“Normally you’ll see 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered downtown listening to music, buying food and watching the fireworks. It’s just a real good hometown feel.”

The city wants to capitalize on its easy access, wilderness landscape, historical significance and the unique mix of family activities available.

“As I toured last weekend’s Independence Day antique car show, I was excited by how many people were visiting Elkins for the first time,” Mayor Von T. Broughton said. “My vision for tourism is to turn one-time visitors into repeat visitors.

“I want everyone who rides the Durbin-Greenbrier Valley Railroad’s excursion trains to know they can take in great Branson-style shows,” he said.

Live performance theaters

Meggan Sexton, vice president of operations at the American Mountain Theatre — a live music and comedy variety show — credits her aunt, Susie Heckel, an Elkins native, with the spark of genius and inspiration that led to the founding of the theater in 2004. She also points out that Branson, Missouri — “a small town in the Ozark mountains that started with a couple of family shows,” and is “not any bigger than we are in Elkins,” — has blossomed into a popular tourist destination with “over a hundred theaters and theme parks.”

Local entrepreneurs hope to replicate that success in Elkins.

The AMT, Gandy Dance dinner theater, Mountain Rail Adventures’ Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, hotels and restaurants all work together to draw visitors into the city by offering vacation packages that are marketed locally and online.

You can do dinner and a show for as little as $58 per person, or a three-night, two-show, two-dinner stay with a four-hour scenic train ride and lunch for $380 per person.

While Sexton admits the AMT cast of performers are all related — herself a singer — she said there is no shortage of talent.

“It’s a family affair,” Sexton said. “But don’t let that fool you.

“We are extremely high caliber professional musicians. We all just happen to be family members, as well.

“We have three former RCA recording artists, another spent 22 years at the Carolina Opry in Myrtle Beach, and I’ve yet to see an instrument he doesn’t know how to play. We have Brad, who’s worked at Dollywood with the Statler Brothers, and two younger guys who have degrees in music performance.

“This is our eighth season, and we have covered everything from Dolly Parton, to ZZ Top, to Michael Jackson, to Michael Bolton to Ricky Skaggs. So, you get a little bit of something for everybody and it’s a lot of fun.”

Opening in June 2011, the Gandy Dance Dinner Theatre, also family owned and operated, serves a “full plated dinner” during their variety show, CEO of Direct Marketing Sales G’na Stephens said.

“We have music from today all the way back to the ’50s and a Christmas show that starts right after Thanksgiving.

“In addition to that, we have murder mystery dinners that run four times a year that’s completely different each time they do it. And, we also have specialty shows like the one this month, ‘Elvis and Friends.’”

Stephens said the intimate theater and friendly banter back and forth with the performers quickly builds relationships with the audience.

“When people walk in the door, they come in as a guest, but they’re going to leave as family,” she said. “We try to make everyone feel like, when they walk in here, they are a part of us.”

Railroad days

Heavily wooded, Randolph County is the state’s largest and its main industry is lumber. That, and coal mining, gave rise to the establishment of the railroad there in 1866 by U.S. Senator Henry Davis, who, along with his son-in-law, U.S. Senator Stephen Elkins, founded Davis and Elkins College in 1904.

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Durbin and Greenbier Railroad only recently began staging from the 1908 depot, Naida Vonne Simpson, group sales manager said.

There are several train excursions that operate from April through December from which to choose.

Thursdays through Sundays the New Tygart Flyer, a vintage diesel-powered locomotive, departs Elkins at 11 a.m. for a four-hour trip south. It travels along 48 miles of mountain wilderness, through the 1,800 foot S Curve Tunnel that borrows a path under Cheat Mountain, alongside the Shavers Fork River to the High Falls of the Cheat River.

“You have about 45 minutes off the train, there by the waterfalls before you return by here,” Simpson said.

“We were able to experience nature as it was intended,” Joe Newman of South Carolina said. “It was good to get out, see the national forest and go to the falls. It was good to see the ‘wild.’”

The train has both coach and first class accommodations.

“The first-class car was built in the 1920s and served as the host car,” First Class Steward Jacob Currence said. “It’s where the railroad owner had his office and entertained guests.

“Nice things about first class is that there is more room, open windows and private restrooms,” he continued. “First-class passengers can explore the rest of the train, but we give them privacy here that they can’t get in coach.”

Lunch is served on the outbound trip and desert is served on the return trip. Entertainment is also provided. Today a flautist who specializes in Civil War era music was the featured performer.

Other days of the week, the Cheat Mountain Salamander takes six and nine hour trips. There is also a dinner train on select Saturdays.

“One Saturday each month, there is a murder mystery train with the cast from the Old Brick Playhouse,” Simpson said.

All destinations on the Mountain Rail Adventure schedule are inaccessible by automobile, MRA Marketing Manager Bonnie Branciaroli said.

New construction

The only thing holding Elkins back is the lack of hotel space, Pritt said. That fact inspired the Sexton family to partner with other locals to help solve the problem.

Just last year, they purchased the Elkins Motor Lodge, a 1950s era motel, and its adjoining tavern, where people in town used to go for special occasions.

The resulting new 1863 Grill and The Isaac Jackson Hotel were designed with the help of George Conte, “one of the most sought-after hotel interior designers on the East Coast, who happens to have roots in the Elkins area,” Sexton said.

Once it is completed, there will be 61 new guest rooms, a large banquet room and a conference room overlooking the city with a view of the mountains.

The 1863 Grill, now open for lunch and dinner, serves specialty dishes inspired by their new executive Chef Jason Fleck who brings more than 20 years of experience to the table, and veteran Chef Joe Kelly, who has worked there for more than 40 years.

Kelly’s signature ooey, gooey cinnamon rolls are a long-time favorite and will always be part of the dining experience at 1863.

The new menu features Kansas City barbecue, fish tacos, chicken Caesar salad and more.

Perhaps the most unique menu item is the Sexton Kids’ Lemonade.

The recipe comes from the lemonade stand they opened at a roadside flea market in the 1990s when they lived in Iberia, Missouri.

“Mom owned Bevie’s Barn in Iberia and one summer, us three kids sold lemonade by the glassful,” Sexton said. “It was hand-squeezed, hand-shaken and made one glass at a time, then we’d throw the whole lemon, pulp and all.

“We adjusted the recipe to make it in larger containers, and now we serve it at the 1863 Grill.”

Area attractions

In addition to the shows and trains, which draw “tens of thousands every year,” Stephens said, tourists can participate in a wide variety of activities ranging from a visit to the Monongahela National Forest, a stop in the tiny Swiss village of Helvetia, touring the Rich Mountain Battlefield Heritage Center where the Civil War comes to life, the picturesque campus of Davis and Elkins College, stock car racing at the Elkins Raceway, the Augusta Heritage Center for folk arts, shopping, hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, as well as more than a dozen annual fairs and festivals.

The City of Elkins is home to the nine-day Mountain State Forrest Festival, held in the fall of each year since 1930 — one of the oldest and largest festivals in the state.

It’s also home to one of the smallest annual spring festivals, in near-by Helvetia, called Fasnacht. This pre-lenten, one day festival has roots in the Swiss Winterfest and has been compared to Mardi Gras — and no wonder: it includes music, masks and a parade.

At midnight “they burn [an effigy of] Old Man Winter,” Pritt said.

Since Helvetia is such a tiny village, people who “come from all over sleep in the fire station just to be a part of it. It’s very unique.”

For more information on all Ellkins and the greater Randoloph County area has to offer, contact the CVB at randolphcountywv.com.


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