I've been to a lot of places in my life which are trying to make a go of drawing tourism to their town. For many towns in West Virginia, doing this successfully may be a matter of life or death in the coming years. Tiny Thomas, West Virginia, population 562 and located high in the Potomac Highlands and just south of the Maryland border is a town that is doing everything right.
When it comes to trying to pull in today's tourists, I have a few boxes on my checklist. First and most importantly: be authentic. Take whatever it is you have and own it. Push your strengths unapologetically to the front of the stage and show them off to the world. Thomas is doing this on several fronts. On the forefront of this, in fact the reason I was there in the first place, is the Purple Fiddle. The Purple Fiddle is a music venue first and foremost, which highlights the regional music of Appalachia: predominantly bluegrass, mountain music and folk. Their decor pays homage to the space they occupy (a former grocery), but the owners have transformed it into an intimate music venue, restaurant, bar, guest house, hostel and meeting place. The menu had room for improvement in my opinion, but the beer selection and music were outstanding. On top of that, the Fiddle is consistent, with live music every Friday and Saturday night as well as some weekend afternoons and weeknights. They have a website and update it regularly. They have a social media presence. They offer free internet. These things are really important. Being an "off-the-beaten-track" place is wonderful, but it's only good in a business sense if people can find you. The Purple Fiddle is an outstanding venue, a pillar of tourism in the community and an all-around great place to be.
Beyond the Purple Fiddle, other businesses in town are taking advantage of the historic infrastructure of this one-time booming coal town. The spaces are being re-imagined, but many of the original storefronts are in use. Galleries, shops and restaurants are occupying these spaces. While this can sometimes be more expensive than new construction, everyone loves historic buildings. Not everyone loves strip malls. In addition, if you leave multiple abandoned buildings on your main street, it gives an air of decay. It feels unsafe. Getting people in those buildings is essential. Thomas is getting there.
In addition, there is a riverfront trail which will take you past many remnants of the coal-mining days from coke ovens to the mines themselves. A handful of historic markers have been placed throughout the town to help paint a picture of the Thomas of yesteryear. All of this helps share the history and culture of the area with people who are from elsewhere. It shows that they are proud of their history and willing to share it. It gives a peak behind the curtain.
Thomas has an air of inclusivity to it which is apparent almost to a fault. If you want to attract tourism you have to want to attract tourism and be welcoming to all-comers. We've all been places where we arrive excited to be away from home and work only to feel the negativity emanating from the people we meet when we arrive. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Thomas' first and lasting impression was that all are welcome. In a small town in rural West Virginia, that is a goal which takes vigilance. I know that I am a white man and I know that it is the off-season, but I really felt like the people I interacted with were going out of their way to make me feel welcome. They even had signs on the street to reinforce my belief - even the trash cans had a kind word to share. It felt to me as though the town had gotten together and decided a way forward and they were all trying to live out that ideal. It was noticeable.
Beyond the small downtown area, Thomas is rightfully proud of the landscape it occupies. Nearby Blackwater Falls State Park, with its namesake waterfall and dozens of miles of hiking trails, and the slightly further Canaan Valley State Park with hiking in summer and skiing in winter are wonderful places to pass the day. Thomas is the perfect base to explore these areas, or you could take advantage of the lodging options in the parks and head into town for some nightlife and music. Either way you are sure to be happy you came.
Furthermore, Thomas and the nearby parks provide a variety of lodging options. From camping to dorm beds right above the Purple Fiddle to cabins, lodges, b&c (bed and cocktail) and a handful of airbnbs, Thomas seems to have you covered, no matter what your budget. Noticeably missing are the big chain hotels which would only disrupt the historic nature of the town and I hope never arrive. I love that when people stay in or near Thomas their accommodation dollars either go right into the pockets of the citizens running small businesses, or in the case of the parks into the State Park coffers.
Thomas passes my criteria for a fantastic weekend getaway with flying colors. It embraces its past but lives in the present and is hopeful for the future. The people and places are welcoming, there are a variety of places to stay, to play and to get away from it all. Thomas isn't a secret, but it is far enough off the beaten track to still feel like one. If I were you, I'd go out of my way for a visit. I did and I was very happy I did. I will be back and I can't wait to see the progress they will make between now and then. Thomas, keep being the best version of you that you can. It doesn't go unnoticed.