Harmison has a hold on local history

March 20, 2007|by TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - Betty Lou Harmison celebrated her 81st birthday Monday, and earlier this month she was named the 2007 History Hero by the West Virginia Archives and History Commission.

Nominated by the Museum of the Berkeley Springs, Harmison has served on the board of directors and help found the organization in 1984.

"The history here is so compelling. I had to know about this town," she said.

Born in Bridgewater, Va., Betty Lou Lambert moved to Berkeley Springs with her mother in 1943. Her father died when she was 8, she said.

Her uncle was a Berkeley Springs pharmacist, and he was called to serve in the Navy during World War II. They came to stay with her aunt, she said, and she finished her last two years at Berkeley Springs High School.


She met Bill Harmison and married him before he left to be stationed overseas during the war, she said.

Bill Harmison had worked at the Park View Inn, a family hotel business owned by his uncle, Walter "Toad" Harmison, and Jenny, his wife.

Betty Lou Harmison attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and studied English and history, she said.

When her husband came home after the war, he returned to work at the Park View Inn for his aunt and uncle, and after his aunt died in the 1960s, Bill and Betty Lou Harmison inherited the inn.

She worked as a Morgan County school teacher, and did administrative work at the inn by checking in guests and preparing the payroll, she said.

The Park View Inn was rich in history, and she began researching it and the town, she said.

"I just did it for myself because I'm interested in history. I really wanted to know, and I felt it was important to preserve it."

She said she found boxes of documents and newspaper clippings regarding the hotel and life in Berkeley Springs.

She noted many of the historic buildings were lost to fire or were being torn down and replaced with modern buildings.

"People were busy living their lives after World War II, and many were not interested in preserving the past history," she said.

The original Park View Inn was owned by Walter Harmison and built across from the Berkeley Springs State Park on Washington Street where the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church Rectory stands, she said.

The hotel even had an annex for the overflow of guests, she said, on the property where Citizens National Bank (CNB) is now. It was a private home called Stoneleigh and was built about 1900. The property was owned by the Harmisons, she said.

In 1933, the new Park View Inn opened next to Berkeley Springs State Park on Washington Street, and is built on the same grounds where the old Strother or Berkeley Springs Hotel was built in 1847 and burned down in 1897, she said.

"Walter Harmison was a true innkeeper, and Jenny always had fresh flowers in the hotel that were bought from local country folks," she said.

All the food was homemade and that was the big draw, she said. "Mother's Day was the biggest day at the inn's restaurant, serving about 200 guests."

In 1937, the Park View Inn was expanded with two wings, she said.

Many famous people stayed at the hotel, she said, including labor union leader John L. Lewis, and author Pearl Buck was a guest in 1970 while on a West Virginia tour, Harmison said.

"I always had an interest in gathering information because no one put it together to preserve the hotel's history and its surroundings," she said.

Bill and Betty Lou Harmison sold the Park View Inn in the early 1970s to Jack and Adele Barker who renamed it The County Inn.

With her three children raised and the inn sold, she had more time for research.

In 1976, she wrote the original Town of Bath Walking Tour brochure that reveals the town history through the original land owners and historical building records beginning in 1777.

Harmison said she researched all the deeds and found photos and drawings from her archives for the brochure.

"Anything that could not be documented I could not use; I only used the backed-up research," Harmison said.

She was told by the West Virginia Antiquities Commission "we have more history than any town in West Virginia," she said.

Now working with the Bath Landmark Commission, she is helping to get the town listed as a national historic district.

Harmison's home was built where the old hotel's barn used to be. She said she dug up many artifacts while planting bulbs over the years.

She said she plans to write the history of the inn.

"I was immersed in history by living on the grounds and in this town," Harmison said.

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