The Old Victorian Inn
Mildred Ruffner and Cindy Newton are fictional characters from Laura Boggess’s novel Mildred’s Garden. The Old Victorian Inn and her proprietor Doris are very much real characters. If you ever find yourself in Alderson, West Virginia, we hope you’ll stop by Old Victorian Inn (or “Old Vic” as Doris likes to call it). You won’t be disappointed.
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When Mildred Ruffner and Cindy Newton decided to open a bed and breakfast, they called on the rich hospitality community in their home state of West Virginia to educate them. “Why, if I can help you avoid the mistakes I made when I opened my inn,” one helpful proprietor told them, “I’d be more than glad. It takes a village, you know.” Mildred and Cindy arranged to visit and tour several bed and breakfasts near or around their proposed site to see what they could learn. What follows are some notes from Mildred’s journal detailing some of the things they learned on their visits.
Name of bed and breakfast
Alderson, West Virginia, known as “the Gem of the Hills.” Founded in 1777 in the Greenbrier Valley of southern West Virginia, this little town is bisected by the Greenbrier River, from which it gets its name. Thus, curiously, half of the town is in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and the other half is in Monroe County, West Virginia. The Old Vic is situated on Railroad Avenue across the street from the Alderson Train Depot and Museum, a fully restored 1896 train depot still in use by Amtrak. Alderson is well-known for its Independence Day celebration, for great fishing, and for a love of history. It is also home of the first federal women’s prison in the United States.
The Inside Scoop (Our story at Old Victorian Inn)
“I’ve never been to Alderson before. Can you believe it? The only thing I know about Alderson is that’s where Martha Stewart went to prison.”
“I think Squeaky Fromme did some time there too, didn’t she?” I was only half listening, concentrating on maneuvering the tiny country road we were traveling.
“Squeaky who? Oh, Mil, you’re gonna want to take this next left.” Cindy was studying the maps app on her phone. “At least we have cell coverage here in case we get lost. I was a little nervous about that in Helvetia.”
“I don’t think a tour of the prison is on the itinerary, but from what I read online, there’s plenty of stuff to do in Alderson. I’m kind of sad this is the last stop in our bed and breakfast tour. But honestly, every other B & B I talked to this week was booked up until Christmas. We were lucky Doris had a room tonight. So many people have been taking advantage of the outdoors this past year and a half. These little mountain towns in West Virginia are the perfect places for a getaway.”
“Agreed.” Cindy was taking her navigational duties seriously. “Turn left onto this bridge up ahead, then another left. The inn should be just ahead, on the right.”
I saw the train depot first, a mustard yellow building in the distance. The inn was on the right, just before the depot. I slowed down to a crawl to study the stately old white house. Someone was lying on the sofa on the front porch, a book in her hands.
“I bet that’s Doris,” I said, turning on the blinker and swinging the pickup truck into a small parking lot on the side of the building. We grabbed our overnight bags from the jumpseat and started up the ramp leading to the huge, wrap-around porch.
“This porch is epic!” Cindy whispered to me. “Maybe we should go in this side door? So we don’t disturb that person out fron…”
Before Cindy could finish her sentence, a voice called out from the front of the porch. “I hear someone walking on my porch…”
Her tone was playful and relaxed and I couldn’t help smiling.
We followed the voice along the gray painted wooden planks of the porch until we found ourselves standing in front of its source: a white-haired, tall, slim woman standing barefoot in front of a floral-patterned cane-backed couch, fingers marking her place in a Jack Reacher novel.
“I’m Doris,” she said, extending one hand while maintaining her place in the book with the other. “And you are?”
I could see Doris was a take-charge kind of lady, in the nicest of ways. “I’m Mildred Ruffner—we spoke on the phone? And this is my friend and business partner, Cindy Newton.”
“Welcome to the Old Victorian Inn, Mildred and Cindy! Or the Old Vic, as I like to call her.”
Doris showed us upstairs to The Red Room, ours for the night. On the way up the staircase, Cindy and I oohed and awed at an artful stained-glass window in the landing. The late afternoon sun was casting a golden glow through the many-colored panes.
“Original to the house,” Doris confirmed.
The Red Room was in the turret. Cindy and I gravitated to the rounded windows that formed the tower-like structure. The view looked out past a large maple tree and over to the train depot across the street. The room was anchored by a comfy looking queen-sized bed with a mahogany headboard, flanked by two side tables boasting lamps of red-glass with upholstered red fabric shades. Other splashes of red complimented the white-walled room—an oriental rug with dramatic red designs, red-painted brick around the fireplace, chairs upholstered in fabric with threads of red.
“We have a full house tonight. But I’ve made up the library in case an extra shows up. There’s a pull-out bed in there we use from time to time. We have one single driving in from New Jersey. If he’s okay with sleeping in the library, one of you can have The Aqua Room at the end of the hall.”
Cindy and I were planning on sharing the queen in The Red Room, grateful for a room at such late notice. We’ve been best friends since grade school and have shared a lot of sleepovers through the years. But I knew Cindy would be glad to have a bed to herself. I am not the most, shall we say—placid? sleeper.
After dropping our things in The Red Room and freshening up a bit, we joined Doris on the porch to enjoy the mild evening. I wanted to take some pictures of the inn before it got too dark. While Cindy and Doris talked about history and genealogy, I milled around the grounds. There was a patch of light purple asters in front of the house attracting bumblebees and butterflies. I followed a Monarch from bloom to bloom, trying to catch his best side.
When I rejoined Cindy and Doris on the porch, Doris was telling the history of the house. “It was built in 1902, we think, by the man who owned the lumber mill in town. He purchased the land from a descendant of the Alderson family for five dollars! I’ve seen the bill of sale. There used to be a hotel right down the street—there’s a picture of it on the wall in the stairwell—and he would bring businessmen into town and entertain them here to show them all that could be done with his lumber. All the woodwork in the house is original, made of lumber from West Virginia trees. This house has always been lived in—either as a single-family home, other businesses, or as the Russell Tourist Home for 45 years during the early 1900’s.”
“How long have you owned the inn?” I asked.
“For five years now. I grew up in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, but had family here. I went to WVU, studied home economics and did my graduate work in early childhood development. I got married in South Carolina. My husband was a chemical engineer for Dow Chemical and we moved around a lot for his work. I worked evaluating Head Start programs, so it was fairly flexible. We raised our family in Michigan and my son is still there. I had an elderly cousin here that my brother and I cared for. I traveled here almost every weekend, from D.C., then, for a while. So, I fell in love with this little town. My husband and I retired in 2002. But he got bored,” she chuckled. “So he went to law school. When he finished law school he volunteered for Legal Aid in Wheeling until he was offered a job in Beckley. So, we moved back to West Virginia. When he retired the second time we decided to move here.”
“How long have you lived in Alderson?” Cindy asked, sipping an ice tea that I somehow missed out on.
“So how did you get into the bed and breakfast business?” I asked.
Doris’s eyes twinkled. “A weak moment.”
We all chuckled.
“Really it was that something needed to be done with this house. It was becoming run-down and needed a lot of work. The town was trying to figure out what to do with it. So, as I say. In a weak moment we decided to take it on.” She smiled.
It was clear from her story that Doris and her husband were very unusual people. “Did your husband’s second retirement take?” I teased. “Does he help with the inn?”
“Oh. He passed away last year.” She said it quietly, without self-pity or shame—a truth she was still living into.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “He sounds like a remarkable man.”
“He was.” She looked out over the railroad tracks at a flock of geese flying over. “Taking care of this house has been a kind of therapy for me.”
“I imagine it has.”
The honking of the geese gradually receded into the distance and we were quiet a moment. Just then, the young man from New Jersey pulled up and Doris went inside to get him settled in.
I looked at Cindy. “Doris is pretty amazing.”
“And guess what?”
She glanced at her watch. “You’re getting hungry?”
I smiled. “How’d you guess?”
Doris had settled the New Jersey guest into the library and pointed Cindy to the Aqua room. After moving her things into the new room, we drove back across the river to a barbeque and seafood restaurant Doris recommended.
Stuart’s seemed like a great place to hang with the locals. The place hummed with activity, the buzz of voices drifting on the air from the outdoor patio. As we were walking into the place, a delivery truck pulled up in front.
“The Crab Man, Alderson, WV.” Cindy read. “Fresh crabs in West Virginia?” We looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “Sounds like we need to give it a try.”
We sat on the patio, overlooking the Greenbrier River, tired and relaxed from a long day. Cindy wanted some fried pickles as an appetizer and then we shared some blue crabs and pulled pork. It was good eats, made better by the view of sunlight fading slowly over the river.
We didn’t linger long over dinner, eager to get back to the inn—both thinking of more questions we wanted to ask Doris. Upon our return to the Old Vic we discovered more guests had arrived—a couple from New York who were driving to North Carolina for a holiday. When Doris had them settled into the master bedroom she joined us for a cup of green tea on the porch.
It was Doris’s turn to ask us questions and we told her about our dream of having our own bed and breakfast.
“We’ve been working on the house for two years,” I told her. “It takes a lot of time to get things the way you picture them in your mind.”
Doris smiled. “Yes, it took us several months to get this place ready for guests. And that was working on it full time.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Very much. The wonderful thing about being in the bed and breakfast business is you get to meet so many people and learn about the world through their experiences.”
Cindy caught my eye and we shared a moment of quiet celebration for our own plans. “Thank you for sharing your story with us, Doris,” Cindy said. “You have no idea how much you’ve encouraged us.”
We said our goodnights and retired to our respective rooms. But I couldn’t sleep, my head so full of thoughts and dreams. I thought maybe a warm shower would help me relax, so I crept across the hall to our bathroom. Cindy and I had a bathroom to ourselves but I had to pass through a common area to get to it. As I crept across the sitting area, I was aware I was tiptoeing. It occurred to me that it is not necessarily a bad thing to be considerate and aware of others sleeping nearby.
The shower did the trick and I slept long and deeply—awakened only once by the shrill whistle of a train. I didn’t mind—to live in West Virginia is to always hear a train in the distance. I found it a comforting sound, reminding me of home.
The church bells from the nearby Baptist church told me when eight a.m. arrived. I got dressed and joined Cindy on the porch for coffee. Doris brought us some blueberry muffins to share—still warm from the oven.
“Just let me know when you’re ready to eat more. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
We joined the other guests in the dining room for a full breakfast. Doris had thick-cut bacon and eggs to order. There was a tall stack of pancakes, West Virginia maple syrup, locally made preserves, and more muffins. We sat near the young man from New Jersey. He told us he was driving to Texas to start a new chapter. He was leaving a close friend behind. “It’s quite emotional,” he said, large brown eyes moist. We wished him good luck and offered our encouragement. We were soon joined by a mother and daughter from Maryland who had spent yesterday shopping in the picturesque tourist town of Lewisburg and lunching nearby at The Greenbrier, a world-famous resort. Lewisburg “was lovely,” the mother said. And The Greenbrier “was amazing.”
Before checking out, Cindy and I walked down past the depot to the pedestrian bridge that crossed the Greenbrier River. There was fog over the river and the caws of noisy crows accompanied us from nearby trees. The sun had fallen into the river and a Great Blue Heron was trying to swallow it whole. The river was low and we stared down into its clear waters at the smooth stones making up the riverbed.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Cindy said, as we leaned over the rail of the bridge.
“Oh, I was just thinking of everything we’ve learned from this bed and breakfast tour.”
“That it’s all about generous hospitality. The way Lisa welcomed us into her world at The Brass Pineapple. How Kay thought of every detail at The Beekeeper. Even the ghost at The Preston County Inn was polite enough to let us stay comfortably. And now, Doris, and her wonderful porch-sitting company. This is going to be a life of giving, C. Are we ready for that?”
Cindy straightened up and looked down the expanse of the bridge. “I don’t know, Mil. It seems like, as much as it will be a life of giving, there will be a lot of receiving too. Remember what Doris said about the gift of getting to share in so many stories?”
“Yes. That’s true. But hospitality. We will have to work on giving the outrageous hospitality. It’s all about the hospitality.”
I paused and we looked at each other, smiling, then simultaneously said, “And the food.”
Cindy, laughing, pulled out her phone to take some pictures. As she held her phone up to capture the sun over the river, I heard a notification pop up.
“Hey! Mil! Did you know Sam Gillenwater is playing Mountain Stage next week?”
The Old Vic is close to the Greenbrier River, a perfect place to stay for fishing or kayaking. It’s also situated across the street from the historic C & O Amtrak rail station and museum, is within walking distance from the Memorial Bridge—a pedestrian bridge across the river, and several quaint shops downtown. A full, delicious breakfast cooked by Doris is included, as well as porch-sitting, good conversation, and bird-watching. Nearby attractions include the beautiful quaint town of Lewisburg, WV and The Greenbrier Resort.
Featured photo by Judy Dean, Creative Commons, via Flickr. In-post photos and post by Laura Boggess.
Special Tea for Your Visit
Special discount available for patrons until October 15, in honor of the release of Mildred’s Garden.