BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Whether you are a recently departing high school junior from the West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts or a Canadian traveler driving south on Interstate 79, Buckhannon is a picture-perfect town in a natural bowl ringed by wooded mountains and outdoor adventure.
On our visit, we started with the outdoors and Audra State Park, situated along the boulder-strewn Middle Fork River. Middle Fork is part of the complicated Monongahela River family that includes the Tygart, Buckhannon and Right Fork of the Middle Fork rivers all in the Upshur County neighborhood. The water eventually ends up in the Ohio. Most of the area’s river miles boast modest whitewater rapids. Kayaks and canoes can be rented for folks who don’t bring their own.
Audra is what can be labeled a “rustic” park, less manicured and overseen than most. The campground has nearly 70 sites mere inches from the wooded riverbank. The bathing beach is unsupervised. The bonus feature that earned Audra state park status is Alum Cave, a long overhang of chiseled rock with a boardwalk.
Next we headed for the West Virginia State Wildlife Center. Arriving in midafternoon, we could barely distinguish sleeping mountain lions, floating otters, curled-up bears and bison from their perches, pools or fields. Our hot tip: Go early in the morning while the animals are fresh and alert. Kids will love the more than two dozen species of native critters, birds and snakes. (Someday I’ll discover why anyone would think a groundhog is worth watching — let alone name it French Creek Freddie.) Walking paths at the center are well maintained.
Eating is always at the top of our list. I had yearnings for the famous ground-meat pepperoni rolls of The Donut Shop. Their drive-through had an impressive line midafternoon when we stopped soon after arriving in town. I also sampled the doughnuts they claim are the best in the state. Not to start an intercity war, but I am skeptical, especially after my recent discovery of JR’s Donut Castle in Parkersburg.
The hot-spot restaurant and center of the downtown entrepreneurial arts empire is C.J. Maggie’s, open daily on Main Street and specializing in American comfort food ranging from hand-cut steaks and barbecue to salads and pizza. Another favorite dining and nightspot is 88 Restaurant and Lounge, where dinner is served daily and sandwiches all day long. The Market Bistro uses locally grown ingredients and unique combinations prepared fresh; it’s open every day but Sunday.
One of the notable pilgrimage points of the farm-to-table movement in West Virginia is chef Dale Hawkins’ Fish Hawk Acres, a family of farms where many regional chefs come to kibitz and buy supplies. Monthly Hawkins farm dinners include a tour of the property. Floral Acres is the largest pick-your-own blueberry operation in West Virginia, with 3,200 bushes. Fans mark the opening date with a red circle since the blueberries generally sell out the first day.
Art is becoming a force for energizing life in Buckhannon, particularly downtown, where several blocks are being developed by art entrepreneurs into performance, studio and retail spaces.
Festival Fridays take place downtown in Jawbone Park from the end of May through early September, highlighting local art and music in an epic weekly art party. A volunteer–developed venture, Jawbone is home to the Upshur Farmers Market and special events. It is also site of the county’s first public art. Local sculptor Ross Straight enlisted the help of other sculptors and a foundry to complete a 650-pound bronze of noted Delaware Chief Buckongahelas. Legend holds the town was named for him. The poignant work shows a grief-stricken Buckongahelas cradling his murdered son Mahonegon in his arms.
Extending from Jawbone two blocks to Main Street is one of the newest arts clusters, branded Traders Alley and evolving into designation as an arts district. Architect Bryson Van Nostrand’s labor of art love, the area is already home to Van Nostrand’s Lascaux Micro-Theater, a movie parlor with a weekend bill of foreign, art and documentary movies.
Recently opened in the next-door basement of a more than century-old building is 3/4 Café with an artisan menu of food and drinks and the Deliciux Candy Machine, a vending machine specifically refurbished for the café and filled with exotic candies from Thailand, Japan, Italy and Finland, among others. The next space in the line of basements that open onto their own ground-level micro alley is sunken to provide surround seating for local music and performances.
Art shopping has a wide range. Ron Hinkle Glass is a special art treat — a combination factory tour/art gallery featuring one-of-a-kind hand-blown glass. The Stitching House has fabric art made with long-arm machine quilting as well as a full selection of quilting materials. There are also supplies at Dough Re Mi — musician supplies along with the specialty baked goods. The shop’s specialty feature is “puffins,” a delicious cross between popovers and muffins. Most days there are musicians trying out their new strings by serenading customers of the bakery. A block away from West Virginia Wesleyan College, it’s a popular stop for faculty and students alike.
Artistry on Main is a regional artist co-op with a full array of media from wood-turned items and furniture to jewelry and iron sculpture. My treasure was a pen made from Upshur County wood. I was distressed to look at the list of counties represented by pens and not see Morgan. When I returned home, I set aside a foot-long chunk of dogwood from a favorite tree and began considering how I could get it back to Buckhannon and wood artist Greg Cartwright.
Antiquers and fans of collectibles have two major destinations: Buckhannon Antique Mall, just out of town, and, in town, the Shops at 46 Main.
Hollow sycamore, or Victorian home?
We passed up Pringle Tree Park where a third-generation hollow sycamore commemorates the three-year living quarters of a pair of mid-18th-century siblings. Deserters from Fort Pitt then, they are revered today as the area’s first permanent settlers.
Instead, we had the pleasure of staying at the newly reopened Governor’s Inn B&B, where the ambiance is a 19th-century sanctuary with a kitchen staff of 20 (there really are only two). Guest and public rooms are gracious and comfortable.
Inn owner Charla Reger says, “I live to serve. I want to anticipate what people want and provide it.” Every inch of the Inn and every bite of food proves she does what she says.
Breakfast was a multicourse affair that would delight foodies of all stripes. Everything is made from scratch in-house, including the sorbet and various sauces. Beginning with a creamy panna cotta with pineapple cherry sauce, the meal also included a potato and bacon casserole, sausage mini pies and the B&B’s signature blueberry vanilla pancakes.
When Charla asked what our favorite dish was, my husband replied, “the fresh cantaloupe” as he stuffed a couple of sausage pies into his pocket. I reported the raspberry sorbet that came with the grilled peaches; it satisfied my childhood fantasy about ice cream for breakfast.
Charla’s taste treats never stop — a plate of homemade cookies is always available on a side table, plus coffee makings and a small refrigerator supplied with drinks. An easy couple block walk from downtown, the Governor’s Inn is soon opening an outdoor café.
For more information on the Buckhannon area, visit VisitBuckhannon.org or call 304-473-1400.
Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of “Way Out in West Virginia,” a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta recently released the second printing of the coffee-table photo book “West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare.” Both books are available around West Virginia and from WVBookCo.com.