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North Hills Monthly

A Small Town Full of Surprises: Elkins, West Virginia

Jun 01, 2015 11:33AM ● By Vanessa Orr

A view of Davis & Elkins College from the Graceland Inn.

There are a lot of surprises to be found in Elkins, West Virginia, including a stunning Victorian inn that used to be a fraternity house, a Branson-style show featuring everything from gospel songs to celebrity impersonations, and a California chef serving up Kansas City-style barbecue. And that was even before I took a train ride with people wearing chicken hats.

I took the three-hour drive down to Elkins to spend Easter weekend in the small mountain town, which I mention as a way to explain the rather colorful attire that was worn on the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad’s first train ride of the season—the Cottontail Express. A trip especially designed for children, the hour-and-a-half ride featured the Easter Bunny, face painting, lots of games and even an Easter parade through the cars, much to the delight of the elementary school-aged population.

The New Tygart Flyer also offers a four-hour roundtrip during which riders can enjoy spectacular scenery, including a visit to the High Falls of Cheat, an 18-foot high, 150-foot wide waterfall deep in the mountains. Upcoming trips for a more adult audience include a Wine Train June 12 and a Bluegrass Bash on July 4. The railroad’s second train, the Mountain Explorer, also offers four-course dinner trips to the High Falls on certain Saturdays during the summer as well as a monthly murder mystery excursion.

The scenery in this town of roughly 7,000 people is breathtaking, whether you’re watching it from the parlor car of a train or wandering among the Victorian mansions of Davis & Elkins College. On a visit to the campus, you can tour Graceland Inn, which was originally the home of U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, who established the town with his son-in-law and business partner, U.S. Senator Stephen B. Elkins.

The mansion, which was built in the 1890s as a lavish summer home, was used for 30 years as a fraternity house before being closed in 1971. Restoration began in the mid-1990s, and guests can now admire the original Tiffany stained glass windows and indigenous hardwoods used throughout the interior in this nationally recognized historic building. Halliehurst, a Victorian mansion located next door to Graceland, also holds that designation, and was built by Sen. Elkins for his wife. 

While it’s hard to pull yourself away from a tour of these stunning homes, a must-stop while on campus is the Stirrup Gallery, which contains more than 10,000 items ranging from prehistory to the Civil War. While this gallery is a little difficult to find, it is absolutely worth the trouble—where else can you hold an ivory narwhal tooth or an armadillo basket, or view more than 800 items of original Indian pottery dating from 100 BC? Most of the items in the gallery are the legacy of collector Hosea M. Darby, a successful architect and builder who gave his home and collection to the college in 1943; visitors can see everything from his 100-gun firearm collection to carnival glass, effigy pots and a human vertebra punctured by a spear tip, as well as one of the top five collections of powder horns in the United States and one of the top 20 Roman coin collections in the nation, donated by alumnus and trustee Bill Sudbrink.

What is especially amazing is the fact that much of this collection was stored in closets and empty rooms on campus until Gilbert “Bud” Rexrode, a retired Elkins pharmacist, the late Dorothy Lutz and Mark Lanham, a retired Marine who attended Davis & Elkins College on the GI bill and is now the coordinator of special collections, offered to help track it all down and amass it in one place, making it accessible, for free, to the public.

Of course, a visit to West Virginia isn’t complete without music, and if you’re spending an evening in Elkins, you have to visit the American Mountain Theater, which is now in its ninth season. A Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner, the show is an eclectic mix—at the Premier 2-Hour Show that I attended, songs ranged from a Glen Campbell medley, to gospel songs from The Sexton Trio, to impersonations of The Monkees, Little Jimmy Dickens, the Mamas and the Papas, Crystal Gayle, James Brown, Willie Nelson and more. The show is a true family affair—produced by Kenny Sexton and his wife, Beverly, the cast features three of their children as well as Musical Director Denny Franks’ two sons, in addition to other talented cast members.

Just a few blocks from the theater is the Isaac Jackson Hotel, a boutique hotel partially owned by the Sexton family, which was recently remodeled to include 61 elegant rooms designed by George Conti, that offer a view of mountains as well as the town of Elkins. This is a great place to stay to be within walking distance of the city, and the hotel offers very reasonable dinner-and-a-show packages, as well as Music in the Mountains weekend escapes. The Isaac Jackson was previously the Elkins Motor Lodge, but has since undergone an amazing transformation, which includes a complete remodel of the 1863 Grill, which is located adjacent to the hotel.

The restaurant is led by Executive Chef Jason Fleck, who is originally from California but spent more than 20 years honing his craft in country clubs, wineries and on upscale charter boats before settling down in Elkins. While the homemade onion rings and queso dip are big favorites, as is sushi night every other Wednesday, Chef Fleck is probably best known for his Kansas City-style barbecue—which, by the way, is so massive that it barely fits on the plate on which it is served.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also add that you have to try the homemade cinnamon rolls, either for dessert or for breakfast—locals come to the restaurant specifically to take home some of these melt-in-your-mouth delicacies.  

To find out more about Elkins, WV, contact the Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau at For more trip ideas, visit or call 800-CALL WVA. To learn more about any of the businesses featured in this article, visit:

1863 Grill:, 304-637-1863

American Mountain Theater:, 800-943-3670

Davis & Elkins College:, 304-637-1243

Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad:, 866-714-0012

Graceland Inn:, 304-637-1600

Halliehurst:, 304-637-1243

Isaac Jackson Hotel:, 304-636-1400

The Stirrup Gallery:, 304-637-1980