The Smoke Hole Lodge is a truly rustic retreat located in West Virginia's Smoke Hole Valley, an expanse of central Appalachian forest that contains some of state's finest examples of ecological variety and natural beauty. Its owner, Wheeling resident Edward W. Stifel III, whose family has held interest in the land for over 80 years, recently took a step to ensure that this natural resource will be protected for future generations in the Mountain State.
The West Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has purchased an easement on the 1,126-acre property that will restrict activities such as logging, mining and development. The terms of the agreement - which are permanent and will not expire when the property is purchased by another owner - also allow the Conservancy to practice certain ecological maintenance techniques that will aim to preserve this natural resource in the years to come.
Steven J. McCormick, president and chief executive officer of the Nature Conservancy's national organization, said the agreement is appropriate since Stifel is already the land's "best steward." Stifel's family first began its interest in the land in 1926, when Stifel's grandfather, Edward W. Stifel Sr., formed "The Smoke Hole Club" along with two friends, Alex and Clint Campbell. The club purchased land for use as a fishing camp on the south branch of the Potomac River. "It's considered to be the finest smallmouth bass stream in the state," Stifel explained.
Over the next 20 years, the club accumulated more land in the surrounding area and by 1941 the Campbells had sold all their interest in the property to Stifel Sr. "The piece of property we have the easement on, that is entirely of their doing," said Stifel.
The property contained a small one-room school house, which was eventually expanded into a larger two-story guest home for Stifel Sr.'s family. It included a kitchen, three bedrooms and several bathrooms.
"My first experience with Smoke Hole was when I was a child," said Stifel. It was in 1940 that Stifel - then 6 years old - first visited his grandfather's property in Grant County.
"Thereafter," he said, "I was privileged to spend many weeks and weekends there in the next several years." Stifel said his experience at Smoke Hole helped develop in him an interest in the outdoors that has remained with him throughout his life. "I fell in love with the place," he told representatives of the Nature Conservancy.
It was after his grandfather's death that Stifel began working at the property in earnest, repairing the house on which his grandfather and father had worked before him.
"It was just a labor of love," said Stifel. "That word (love) probably says more about what our family feels for this place than any other word I can describe." In 1968, Stifel's grandmother appointed him to manage the property. In 1977, he assumed some ownership of the Smoke Hole property and subsequently purchased the remaining land from a cousin and an aunt. "I didn't start running it commercially until 1980," he added.
On Nov. 5, 1985, however, the home his family had built was destroyed. "That entire house was taken in 1985 by the flood," said Stifel's mother, Elizabeth Miner of Wheeling. "Eddie lost everything; the house and all the furnishings." Stifel planned to rebuild but did not yet envision a commercial lodge. "I was basically going to build (a house) for the family again," he said.
But soon many of Smoke Hole's former patrons convinced him to open it up to guests again. "During the past two decades I had it open for guests. I had hundreds of guests down there," he explained.
"During Christmas week in 1985, I was invited to a party. It was supposed to be a Smoke Hole reunion party for some of the local people who had been guests there," recounted Stifel. "There were about 35 people there and they each brought a gift to be used in the new lodge. That kind of swayed me into re-opening it." In April 1986, Stifel broke ground on the new building. The Smoke Hole Lodge was built by five local laborers and craftsmen, in addition to Stifel and a foreman. One and a half years later, it was completed in September 1987.
The lodge was constructed out of western red cedar, with native poplar floors on the first story and floors of knotty pine on the second. The retreat is free of many modern distractions such as televisions, telephones and, yes, electricity. The building is heated with wood; gas lights illuminate the first floor and kerosene lamps are used on the second story. The guest quarters include one five-bed dormitory, one four-bed dormitory and five two-bed guest rooms. Each room has its own accompanying bath, complete with hot and cold running water.
To better accommodate guests, Stifel added a staff that included a cook, a housekeeper and a utility person. The lodge operated on a season encompassing the six months between May 5 through Nov. 5.
The building was full most weekends, Stifel remembered.
Stifel has since retired and the building and its surrounding land are now up for sale. "I stopped taking in guests in 2000, and we just run it strictly as a cattle operation, which is what it is being used for now," he said. "It's important to know that originally there were two sides of the operation. We raised registered angus cattle and we took in guests." Now, Stifel says he is pleased that the Nature Conservancy will be allowed to share in the spirit of love that the land has engendered with his family and others. He said the land is home to two Native American burial grounds and that he once received a visit from a Native American woman who stopped on the porch of the lodge to meditate.
The woman, he said, described feeling spirits in the Smoke Hole. "I've never felt this any other place," she said.