A small dot on West Virginia’s map is well on its way to becoming a destination.
Wardensville is probably not what you’d expect, assuming you expected anything. This town of less than 300 people, 100 miles from Washington, D.C., is arguably not on most West Virginians’ radar—but it should be. “The idea is to make this a destination,” says Mayor Barbara Ratcliff.
Anyone traveling from D.C. or Baltimore to, say, Lost River—a community in the Hardy County mountains that’s long been popular with D.C.’s gay population as well as anyone seeking respite in the woods—has to drive the two-lane through Wardensville. There’s currently no other route. It’s how Paul Yandura, chair of the new Main Street initiative in Wardensville, found the place. “This is the first thing in. This is the first thing you see,” he says of traveling from D.C. to his vacation home in Lost River for years. Folks may one day bypass this small town, Barbara says, as plans are in the works for a freeway, though likely a decade or more away.
In the last five years Wardensville’s Main Street has begun to transform with shopping, dining, and even great art. “We need to be a reason to get off the freeway,” Barbara says. Paul’s store, Lost River Trading Post, opened in 2013. An art gallery, the Mansion on Main, opened in early 2015, as did an Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College venture called New Biz Launchpad. In February lights went up on the rooflines of many Main Street businesses to attract even more attention downtown. “This town has been ignored for so long, but the bones are here,” Paul says. Buildings that used to house liquor stores or bars are now gift shops and spaces for entrepreneurs. There may be only a couple hundred residents, but they have access to a gym, yoga, and the arts. The town even has fiber optics. “There’s a lot of energy and excitement here,” Barbara says.
Barbara has been a large part of moving the city forward, being elected mayor in 2014 as part of a largely new city council. Originally from San Diego, she’s lived in Wardensville for 15 years. “It’s just beautiful, and the people are really nice. You don’t get this feeling in a big city.”
Paul has similar sentiments, having lived in D.C. for more than a decade. He worked for the Clinton administration, but after years in politics, it was time to escape. He and Donald Hitchcock, longtime partner and Trading Post co-owner, have played a crucial role in reviving Wardensville after years of traveling through on their way to Lost River, less than 20 miles away. “The more I came out the more I was like, ‘I have to find something else to do and stay out here,’” Paul says. They purchased a 1940s feed store on East Main Street to create Lost River Trading Post. Then they bought the house next door—now one part home, one part real estate office.
Today when people drive State Route 55 on the way to outdoor adventure at Lost River State Park or a weekend at the luxurious Guesthouse Lost River, they’re struck by an attractive facade inviting them to explore Paul and Donald’s Trading Post. They stop in for killer coffee or baked-from-scratch pastries and fall in love with the 5,000-square-foot store and art space. It’s like stepping back in time, only brighter and friendlier. “People are trying to re-create the old time, and we can do it authentically,” Paul says. Inside, you’ll hear ’40s music playing, in keeping with the building’s history. “It’s like a stage set and it’s supposed to be.”
Everything at Lost River Trading Post is American-made. You can shop the offerings of 150 artists, from jewelry and handbags to wooden cutting boards and hand-painted axes. There’s also a huge craft beer selection, West Virginia wines, and regional coffee. Behind the store’s main room you’ll find the Grasshopper Gallery, where even famous artist and recluse Robert Singleton has shown his paintings. “He is a world-renowned artist who lives in the hills over here. He kind of hid for 20 years. He became so big he ran away from New York,” Paul says. On the other side of the gallery is another large retail space offering all things old—from weird antiques to metal signs and lights. “People know when they come in here they aren’t going to see what they see in Target,” Paul says.
But the Trading Post isn’t the only place to shop local. In the back of the Wardensville Pharmacy is WV Hands, offering all West Virginia-made items, from Blenko glass to quirky, handcrafted clocks. “It’s a little hidden gem I don’t think people even realize is here,” Paul says.
More to Explore
Many West Virginians don’t realize what’s in the area at all, Paul says. Those who do simply want to see Lost River, and Paul is happy to show them around, as long as they check out Wardensville, too. “They have no idea this is here,” he says.
When Paul and Donald opened their own small business in Wardensville, they were banking on traffic from D.C. to stay afloat. “We thought it would just be the weekenders from Lost River who would be our business. I would say that’s 20 percent,” he says. “Tons of people around here want a better experience. They accept what’s here, but they also yearn for a higher-end experience.”
Paul says it’s all about atmosphere, and that’s clear from the booming business at both the Trading Post and Lost River Brewing Company. “This restaurant is the reason we’re here,” Donald says as entrees of rice noodles, fish and chips, and rib eye arrive at one of the brewpub’s packed tables. Local Wally Myers owns the brewery and runs the successful business with help from his sons, Adam, who brews, and Daniel. The family runs another restaurant on the Chesapeake Bay, where they get all of the restaurant’s seafood. “The first year I was here people would come in and say, ‘Softshell crabs and oysters?’ I said, ‘I bring them up every week.’ Still do,” Wally says.
Lost River Brewing has six beers on tap, from the popular West Virginia Common—an easy drinking light-bodied beer with floral notes—to the pale ale. You can also find its beers on tap everywhere from Morgantown to Huntington.
Visitors and locals alike also love an old-fashioned meal up the street at favorites like the Kac-Ka-Pon Restaurant or Star Mercantile. For a meal like Grandma’s, the Kac-Ka-Pon is known for made-from-scratch pies—try the coconut cream—and more. Then there’s Star Mercantile, also known as The White Star, where locals slide into one of the original red booths for breakfast. Star Mercantile dates back to 1935 and has been a general store, apartments, and even a raucous bar. Now it’s part diner, part gift shop—with everything from handbags and jewelry to kitchenware and décor. In summer its deck opens for music.
Barely off the beaten path, the racing-themed Quarter Mile Diner is one-of-a-kind. The restaurant serves up everything from pizzas to fish tacos, but it’s really famous for the Nitro Burger—a charbroiled beef patty that is beer-battered, deep-fried, and topped with barbecue sauce, bacon, cheddar cheese, and bacon coleslaw.
Fortunately, being nestled in the valley below the mountain that forms the Virginia-West Virginia border—as well as lying along the Cacapon River—means you have ample opportunity to work off all those good eats kayaking or hiking. You can access the Great North Mountain Trails from many points in the county, and you’ll find trail maps and more information at Wardensville Visitor Center. The area is also home to two public lakes—the 44-acre Warden Lake and 17-acre Rock Cliff Lake—both of which allow boating and fishing with proper licenses.
Keep the excitement alive with a visit just over the county line to Capon Crossing Farm for Bluegrass in the Barn, held monthly. Dates for early 2015 are already set—including March 14, April 11, May 30, and June 20. While the music attracts hundreds of people from all over, you can also enjoy brisket, chili, and drinks on the 555-acre farm. Year-round, folks stop by to buy grass-fed beef or visit the small market for jellies, salsa, and more.
Back in town, hear the sounds of Waites Run as it snakes through the 50-plus-acre Wardensville Town Park, also home to a swimming pool and facilities for volleyball, basketball, baseball, walking, and, of course, picnics. Waites Run is stocked with trout from March through May and is known for its great fly-fishing. Nearby, visitors in the know will find the private home where George Washington stayed when he surveyed the land in Wardensville in 1749.
Paul says more business is on its way, thanks in no small part to the New Biz Launchpad, which gives entrepreneurs the space and training they need to get off their feet. “It’s easy to start a business here and it’s cheaper than anywhere else,” he says. “In this town there are no excuses.” In late winter 2015, several new businesses were in the process of considering opening in town.
Paul and Donald have big plans for the future, from dreams of getting a viewing deck over the Cacapon River across from their store to opening a farm-to-table restaurant one day. This past Valentine’s Day they hosted a pop-up restaurant at the Trading Post, and they hope to see more of those. More immediately, visitors this summer will find a farmers’ market outside the store, part of a partnership with local high school students. It’s all part of a larger effort to help the small city thrive.
“We really want to get people to stop, and then once they stop, figure out a way to get them to stay, shop, and then hopefully want to move and live here,” Paul says. “We’re already seeing that as real estate agents. Before this was just kind of a place to stop and get gas before Lost River. Now people are saying, ‘I want to get closer to Wardensville.’”