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Hotel With A Past: The Omni Homestead Resort

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There are many hotels that claim to have a history. But The Omni Homestead Resort actually made history. The Homestead is the first resort in the United States. In fact, it started in 1766—10 years before America even became a country. It’s on 23,000 acres in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains in Bath County, Virginia, and it’s a proud member—one of the first—of the Historic Hotels of America.

It all began in 1764, after the French and Indian War. Colonel George Washington gave a 300-acre land grant to Captain Thomas Bullitt to reward him for his services. What did Bullitt do? He brought his militia to the hot springs in what is now Bath County, Virginia. In 1766, the first hotel on the property, the Homestead, was constructed and named for the homesteaders who camped out in the area and built the hotel. What really brought the location national recognition was in 1818 when Thomas Jefferson spent three weeks soaking in these pools to help alleviate his rheumatism. Now, the 18th and 19th century structures are named after him.

Julie Langan knows all the legends and stories. She’s the director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “These are the oldest and most authentic bath houses in the entire United States,” said Langan. “They continue a tradition of therapeutic bathing that started in Europe and goes all the way back to the Roman times and still operating today.” The men’s bath house is the oldest of the two, and nothing has been changed. “These bath houses haven’t been improved,” Langan continued. “There aren’t fancy bathrooms, there’s no air conditioning, they are the real deal. They’re rustic.”

“It’s a national treasure,” said Langan. “But what really, to me, is so special is how authentic it is. This is how it was built and this is how it’s always been. So you’re going back in time every time you come here and take these waters. It’s like you’re stepping a couple hundred years back in time. And most of the time they weren’t wearing clothing while they were taking these baths. That’s why there’s a men’s and a women’s.”

The centuries-old tradition continues at the Jefferson pools. But that’s not the only historic activity they’ve kept alive at the Omni Homestead. The history is everywhere you look at the Homestead, even here at the shooting club, which dates back to 1933.

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The Homestead’s Old Course has its own special history. It may look like many other golf courses you’ll find across the country, but this Tee can boast something no other course can. It’s the oldest continually in use golf Tee in the United States. The Tee also boasts visits from U.S. Presidents Truman, Taft, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush. These days, the course is still in full swing.

But part of the Homestead’s history includes a fire that nearly destroyed the entire resort. It happened in 1901 when a blaze raced through most of the property. One of the few buildings that remained standing was the casino. It was built in 1893, and today the building serves as a restaurant. It’s not a real casino, but historians will tell you that more than a few fortunes have been won and lost here over the years in legendary—supposedly friendly—gentlemen’s card games.

Where did the fire start? In the pastry kitchen, of course. But by 1902 it had been all been rebuilt. The Homestead wasted no time rebuilding it, and today, 114 years later, the original brick ovens are still up and running. If you’re lucky, Executive Chef Greg Barnhill will be making donuts using a recipe that’s been around since 1902.

Unlike the donut recipe, the donut bread pudding recipe may not date back to 1902. But you know what does? The oven it’s cooked in. Every day, the bakers at the Homestead turn out 1,000 donuts and can make up to 2,000 donuts on a busy day. Plus, 10 to 15 pounds of that go toward donut bread pudding every week. So trust me, nothing goes to waste.

Consider this: if the donuts have a heritage that dates back more than a century, the rest of this historic hotel is well worth visiting.

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By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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