The notion of a museum in Berkeley Springs State Park celebrating the springs had been around for decades. The late E.T. Andrews, founder of today’s sand mine, made the most serious attempt in the mid 1930s, discussing a proposed museum with state officials, The late local historian Fred Newbraugh dreamed of a museum. So did Betty Lou Harmison and the late Jessie Hunter. So did many others.
In 1983, the idea finally took root, growing out of a threat by state officials to lease out the springs commercially. It was July and the Chamber of Commerce launched a media campaign to “Save Our Springs.” Chamber officials suggested that one way to enhance use of the park was to establish a museum.
Once the word was spoken, things began to happen. Friends of the Museum was formed and a delegation headed to Charleston to make an impassioned plea to legislators to keep the park and springs public. Legislators loved the idea of a locally-developed museum. They especially loved it when the delegation reported that the previous day, then Governor Jay Rockefeller appeared in Berkeley Springs with a $100,000 grant for a new Senior Center in the Community Services Building. Suddenly, as if by magic, the second floor of the historic Roman Bath House was available for use.
The Chamber of Commerce took the lead in establishing a museum planning committee and a public meeting was held in October 1983. An interim board was formed, and a name and theme selected. In spite of initial resistance from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), state level administrators of the park, local folks moved ahead planning the museum. By late March of 1984, there was new leadership at DNR and they quickly agreed the museum was a good idea. Use of the second floor was granted.
During 1984, scores of people got involved. The Museum of the Berkeley Springs was incorporated and more than $11,000 raised. Professor Charles Hulse of Shepherd College created a museum plan. A successful application was made to WV Historic preservation for renovation. There was a grant for exhibit development and a series of public lectures. A Christmas tea was held.
Renovation work was completed in 1985. Lectures were held. On September 6, 1985, the renovated facility was open for a celebration. The date was 200 years after a fateful meeting in Berkeley Springs between George Washington and James Rumsey. The first exhibits debuted in February 1986. One depicted the history of the springs; the other, the life of steamboat inventor James Rumsey.
Over the years, other exhibits followed: Delights of Berkeley Springs and Sketches by Porte Crayon in 1987; When Tomato Was King in 1988. The Geology exhibit was finally completed in 1989 along with one on two centuries of bathing costume. The exhibit on Hotels, Inns and Ordinaries followed. Temporary exhibits have included the Apple Butter Festival, Civil War and Bands of Berkeley Springs. More renovation included restoring windows and shutters. The exterior was painted an authentic 19th century color. Within a few years, all the buildings in the park were painted by the state to match.
In 2003, the museum faced a crisis. The Chamber of Commerce once again stepped up and a public meeting was held to re-inspire the community. The restoration of the museum organization was successful. The Yule Tea was restored and held for a decade at Berkeley Castle.
Through the nearly 30 years of the Museum of the Berkeley Springs’ history, the doors have been open for visitors and local residents to experience the unique resource of the warm mineral springs and understand how this magic water shaped the history of the surrounding town and countryside. Often more than 20,000 visitors pass through in a year.
Today, there are more exhibits including major ones on Founding the Town and History of the Bath Houses. An 800-pound silica crystal showcases the rare geology that makes the springs what they are. There are professional staff: an Executive Director and docents. In 2005, the Virtual Museum came online making the story of the springs available to the world 24/7. The museum serves as the interpretive center for the western segment of the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway. A series of lectures in 2013 highlighted the Sesquicentennial Year of West Virginia’s formation.
The existing Board of Directors includes three founding members: Beth Peters Curtin, Betty Lou Harmison and Jeanne Mozier. The Chamber of Commerce remains a strong supporter, joined by Travel Berkeley Springs and the extensive tourism community. More than 200 people are connected via a virtual newsletter and more follow museum activities on Facebook.
There is a place for everyone in the museum and the history it showcases. Join us now.