The Martha Washington: Appalachia’s Hidden Gem

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Photo: The Martha Washington Inn & Spa, Appalachian Magazine

Written by Jeremy Farley.
You may follow The Martha Washington on Facebook at Facebook.com/TheMarthaWashington or visit their website at www.TheMartha.com

Established in the 1700s as a final stop along the Wilderness Road, the settlement of Abingdon, Virginia, has been entertaining travelers longer than the United States of America has been a sovereign country. The historic brick buildings and taverns that line US Route 11, the town’s Main Street, bear record of the area’s rich past — a history that local leaders have taken great pains to protect and preserve through the years.

The reason for their stays has changed drastically over the centuries, but even some 250 years later, Abingdon is still thriving thanks to the travel industry.

Today, visitors to this charming and quaint Southwest Virginia community aren’t looking to make final purchases before crossing through the Cumberland Gap, but instead come seeking something just as valuable: peace of mind and an escape from the pressures and realities of life. Fortunately for them, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands offer endless acres of this very commodity.

In this region of the state, visitors can choose from any number of lodging accommodations, ranging from yurts to cabins to hotels and guests to this mountainous enclave can even lose themselves in a live performance at Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia; not to mention the incredible feeling that accompanies dining inside a building that predates the American Civil War by several decades.

All of these things are wonderful, but when it comes to selecting the perfect getaway, hands down, the flagship luxury hotel in Southwest Virginia is The Martha Washington Inn & Spa.

Visitors to this 63-room inn enjoy the unique opportunity to step back in time to an era of excessive luxury, without sacrificing any of the modern day conveniences we have come to expect in the twenty-first century.

My wife and I recently stayed at The Martha Washington and though we have spent many nights at a countless number of resorts, B&Bs and hotels, thanks to Appalachian Magazine, very few are comparable to this Appalachian gem.

Our stay began with us taking Interstate 81’s Exit 17 and within a few hundred yards from the highway, we were no longer lost in the web of massive billboards and chain restaurants which sadly serve as the landscape of the average Interstate town. Abingdon is different. The downtown area is protected as a historic district, which ensures no ugly billboards or chain stores. The brick sidewalks, stone curbs and red bricked buildings have a way of transporting one’s mind back to a forgotten and largely unknown time period — an era just about all of us seem to hunger for from time to time.

As one of our readers so wonderfully described it, “Abingdon is not one of those places where you go to learn history, but rather, where you go to feel history.”

Simply driving onto the property of what was originally built in 1832 to serve as a home for Congressman Francis Preston and his family, I could feel my senses being altered — I was traveling through time.

As the main doors opened into the lobby of the historic inn, I could again feel my mind being rushed back to another era: This time to the antebellum period when the building served as Martha Washington College, an higher learning institution devoted entirely to women which operated for seventy years until the hardships of the Great Depression forced the Appalachian women’s college to shutter its doors.

During the Civil War, the college served as the training ground for a Confederate unit known as the Washington Mounted Rifles and after a number of fights and skirmishes between Yankee and Rebel forces, the girls of the school treated the battle wounded, it was also during this time period that the building attained the nickname, “The Martha.”

As is the case with just about all old and historic buildings, the Internet is rife with tales of jaded lovers, murdered Confederate soldiers and past students who now frequent The Martha Washington as ghosts. To be quite honest, we never felt anything spooky or of another dimension while we were there; however, the unmistaken energy that accompanies being in a place where so much history has occurred is undeniable — it isn’t every day that one gets to sleep in a place which was the family home of a 1700s Congressman, antebellum women’s college, Civil War hospital, and famous hotel whose guests include Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, President Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor.

As we made our way to our room, number 305, we gazed up at the grand chandelier. Winding our way up the staircase and through the halls of the pristine building, every step unveiled a little more of the place I had only heard about my entire life.

From having stayed in too many resorts and inns to begin to count, I must say that the one thing that impressed me most was the artwork, which literally lined every hallway. The wall hangings offered an insight into the community in a way no other inn I had previously visited has even come close to doing. Every hallway told a different story of the building, community and nation; caricatures of previous Barter Theatre actors and actresses who went on to become household names, original paintings depicting various events in American history and photographs of the Appalachian Mountains in all their glory as well as faded black and white pictures of Virginia women attending college long before World War I adorned the walls.

The wanna-be historian that lives inside me would love to bore the reader with nuggets such as why the place was named after Martha Washington (it is located in Washington County and the Town of Abingdon was named after Martha Washington’s ancestral home in England, just in case you were curious!) or how the Inn & Spa was purchased from coal barons by private owners in 1995 and over the course of the past 18 years has seen millions of dollars in private-capital invested into the facility to modernize the look and feel of the place, but the truth of the matter is this: Everything about The Martha Washington is “better felt than tell’t”!

When asked about the future of the historic property, General Manager Christopher Lowe, says The Martha Washington looks to continue upon the progress made over the past decades: becoming more inclusive for families — they now have an indoor swimming pool, as well as a putt-putt course.

“In recent years, we’ve worked hard to attract a new demographic of visitors to The Martha Washington and things like the pool as well as allowing kids under the age of thirteen to dine for free have been big helps and we’re pleased that a new generation of travelers are falling in love with The Martha Washington,” he said.

Modernizing facilities of any historic building requires a delicate balance, especially in a community that values history as much as Abingdon does; however, the changes made at The Martha Washington have been well received and were necessary.

“The Martha Washington is a place that a lot of people visited twenty or thirty years ago and maybe haven’t been back since — I think they would be very pleasantly surprised at how we’ve retained and protected our history, while at the same time added luxuries such as a hot tub which features water falls, tennis courts, exercise rooms and a spa,” added the General Manager.

On our way out of town, we stopped by the Abingdon visitor’s center and spoke with Amanda Livingston, who oversees marketing the community.

Livingston said The Martha Washington serves as one of the town’s most recognizable icons.

“Community leaders have invested in it and The Martha Washington has become a part of who we are as a town. Proms, weddings and high school reunions have all been held there — it’s a special place,” said Livingston.
Livingston said that tourism is the lifeblood for Abingdon and credits destinations such as The Martha Washington and Barter Theatre for being such a major source of government revenue that the Town Council hasn’t had to raise property taxes for several years.

“People come to Southwest Virginia to escape, seeking out a slower pace, but at the same time, they want amenities and The Martha Washington fits very well into this experience,” she concluded.

It’s rare to read an article written about Abingdon, Virginia, and Barter Theatre, which is located directly across the street from The Martha Washington, not serve as the primary focal point of the piece — which given Barter’s fascinating history and incredible level of professionalism is much warranted; however, like all of Southwest Virginia, Abingdon has a lot to offer and The Martha Washington is in our opinion, the crown gem of this magnificent region!

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