by Phil James
“Summertime,” wrote Gershwin in his lullaby, “and the living is easy.”
In earlier times, the affluent retreated from the stifling summer heat of the cities and the disease-prone low-country. From the mid-1850s, Virginia’s western mountains and springs were the summer destination for many. Traveling via batteau, private carriage, public stagecoach, and, later, rail, these early vacationers fueled the infant industry of recreational travel and leisure: travel—simply for the sake of adventure; and leisure—simply because one could.
Families of the planters from Virginia’s Tidewater region, joined along the way by Richmond’s social elite, passed through central Virginia and the wind gaps in the mountains of western Albemarle County. Many were en route to luxury spas and resorts advertising a multitude of “entertainments” accompanied by spring waters whose natural elixirs proclaimed the powers of rejuvenation and healing.
Black Rock Springs, west of Sugar Hollow, just over the mountain into Augusta County, was proclaimed as early as the 1830s to be “superior to all the spas of Europe.” Its rustic location found special appeal with Shenandoah Valley residents as well as others east of the Blue Ridge.
More easily accessible but modest accommodations could be had along the way at the White Hall home of George Brown and his daughter, Mollie. Formerly a tavern and stagecoach stop, the Browns’ early 19th-century-constructed home found good favor in 1907 with young sisters Grace and Eliza Heyl from Norfolk. Accompanied by their mother, they were sent to the mountains from their home in Norfolk’s Ghent section to preserve their health during the hot, steamy months. Their daily leisure activities included the excitement of exchanging postcards with their father and other family members.
In 1894 Albemarle County’s mountain resort Summer Rest greeted its first patrons even as a decline was being experienced by many of the region’s 19th-century retreats. Quite unlike the business profile of the earlier elitist resorts, its “mission” was to provide relaxing, affordable summer accommodations to working-class women from the Richmond area.
“Summer Rest was built by the Episcopal Church as a place for working girls like secretaries to have a reasonable place they could come for some summer vacation,” recalled the late C. Purcell McCue of Greenwood. “So they came up on the train. Somebody locally was employed who had an automobile to meet the train and get them over there and take them to different places.”
In the early 1890s, Miss Grace Evelyn Arents, the noted philanthropist from Richmond, became aware of the need of her town’s single working ladies to have a place where they could spend a restful retreat away from the rigors of the busy city. And during those economically depressed days it was especially important that they could afford the costs associated with an extended stay. Miss Arent’s devotion to the work of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and her designated monetary gift led to that group’s establishing the Summer Rest facilities in western Albemarle County near Greenwood Depot.
For decades, postcard messages attested to the success of Arent’s vision and also to the care which Richmond’s “working girls” received while they enjoyed their mountain retreat. In 1906 J.M.M. wrote to a friend in Petersburg: “A beautiful place & so restful. About 1½ miles from the station.”—Another wrote in 1914: “This is a beautiful place and we like it fine. Took a long walk yesterday. Everything is grand. This is the hotel [referring to the postcard’s view]. Write to us. Love to all, Lelah. Summer Rest, Greenwood, Va.”—Written in 1910, “I am enjoying the fresh air and good water so much, expect to come home strong and fat. I am feeling better already. Florence”
During the pre-WWI heyday of the postcard craze, Summer Rest’s postcard offerings also provided a handsome historical record of that area. Their numerous picture postcards highlighted various views of the Summer Rest façade and porches. These were accompanied by scenes of local fruit orchards, Humpback Mountain, the railroad tunnel entrances constructed by Claudius Crozet’s workers, “the station for Summer Rest” and the hotel at Greenwood—each card preserving for posterity a glimpse back at a bygone era when convenient rail travel and comfortable, homey accommodations combined to meet the travel needs of many.
The property’s guest register eventually recorded the inclusion of men and married couples. In 1940 they hosted Episcopal Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge Frederick W. Neve’s “Conference of Mountain Workers.” A watermelon feast, games of horseshoes and camaraderie enjoyed on the hotel’s covered porches and tree-shaded lawn made for a festive, relaxing occasion.
For guests, leisurely mornings were complemented with birdsongs from the trees and bushes dotting the spacious lawn. These gave way to hikes and picnics or an occasional trip into the ’burgs of Charlottesville or Waynesboro. Afternoons might include letter writing, reading a book chosen from the hotel’s library, or a peaceful nap. Evening entertainments sometimes included inviting “eligible” guests from the neighborhood to participate in a cake walk or dance or to simply enjoy polite conversation while a record played in the background. And always—always—delicious meals!
Advertising in 1946, fifty-two years after hosting its first guests, Summer Rest promoted itself thusly: “Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Quiet, Restful, Beautiful Scenery. All Modern Conveniences. Room and Board by Week. Single room. Two in room. Three or more in room. Cinder block cabins. Shower baths.”
Summer Rest and its congenial staff played host to many weary city folk for three-quarters of a century. Only a few got more “rest” than they had bargained for, far away from the bright lights of the big city, as one succinctly wrote in a letter in 1917: “Believe me this place has its correct name. This is the only place I have ever been that I could rest. Nothing to do. Lots of love, Ruth”
Many, however, found the repose they came seeking, and returned year after year: “Don’t you wish you were here! Go west my boy. Go west.” — “I am waiting patiently for your letter. I hope you … will write me soon and tell me … all about your dear self.”—“Wish you could be here with me. Having a grand time.”
Today, near western Albemarle County’s Newtown community, a road named Summer Rest Lane is situated alongside I-64. The final closing of Summer Rest around 1965, followed by the excavation and construction of the interstate in the late-1960s and early ’70s, contributed to the removal of most of the old retreat’s facilities.
Reflecting on his 1895 stay at George Brown’s White Hall hotel/boarding establishment, the Rev. D.G.C. Butts penned these words: “Hospitality and good food and freedom from care ruled the household, and everybody felt at home.” It is probably safe to say that the vast majority of the guests at old Summer Rest would have echoed those same words. Oh, that we could all pen a postcard home with a similar sentiment from our vacations today.
[All accompanying images courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection.]