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Transcript of interview with Robert Conte, January 20, 1992, for the film "West Virginia."

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: Okay, Bob, how did an incredible place this get here?
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BC: Exactly my question when I came here. It's the water. The water explains why there is a resort. By the water, I mean the White Sulphur Springs, the sulphur water. We saw the spring house in the middle of the ground that marks where the water is coming out, but people came here to take the waters, to drink or bathe in the waters as a medicinal agent. The first recorded time was right at the tail end of the 18th century in the 1770's, and that's really one of the constants in the history of this place. It's still in use today in our mineral bath department, 214 years later.

Q: It must have been quite a bit off the beaten path in the late 18th century?
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BC: Right, way off the beaten path. There was really very little white settlement up here. Incidentally, we're counting from white settlement. This was Shawnee Indian territory. We know that they used the water, but we don't know how. So we're counting from the first recorded time that a white settler, a certain Mrs. Anderson, came here to bathe in the water. So there were very few settlers, and the folks who were coming here were essentially coming over an old Indian path that had cut through the mountains here.

Q: Tell me how we know the Shawnee -- what'd they use it for?
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BC: We just really know that from stories of the earliest settlers, and there may have been some rich wools? and there seemed to be a use of the water as a medicinal agent too. But there aren't any records and really other than stories referring to it, that's about as much as we have on it. So that's why we're a lot more comfortable saying, "Well, we know that this is from first-hand accounts that this Mrs. Anderson used the water. That she felt better, that she told her friends. They came; they felt better."

Q: Tell me the whole story from beginning to end of Mrs. Anderson's cure.
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BC: Mrs. Anderson lived close by. It's hard to say, but probably right along the Greenbrier River, five or six miles from here, and she was suffering from rheumatism which was a common frontier complaint. People living out here on these damp dirt floors got rheumatism. So presumably she heard from the Shawnee I would guess that if she bathed in this funny smelling but miraculous water that would help her rheumatism. So the story is she was carried by litter because she couldn't move. What they would do is take an old log, hollow it out, put the water in the log. This water is cold, so you need to heat it, and they would do that by putting hot stones in the tub, remove the stones, put Mrs. Anderson in, so she had a warm bath in sulphur water, which is very buoyant and very relaxing.
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Apparently this eased the pain in her joints, and she continued to do this over a period of a couple of weeks which what would have been the norm a century ago, to bath for at least two weeks. She also drank the water, and it relieved the symptoms of rheumatism. So the story is that she then was the first PR and sales person. She went out and told her friends, and they said, "Well, I'm going to try it." Things get off to a very slow start. As we say, it was very much in the far western frontier. So, for thirty years, well into the beginning of the 20th century, it's a very local phenomena. ...

Q: So it's a very sparsely attended and the word starts to spread and development period.


Q: After Mrs. Anderson's cure, what happened?
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BC: The catalyst to take this kind of frontier health outpost to a resort is access. And that's a road. So the old James River in Kanawha Turnpike, really one of the first major roads into what's now West Virginia, connects the James River to the Kanawha River, essentially Richmond to Charleston, and getting over these mountains was not an easy task. There weren't that many east-west roads over the mountains. So it comes right by the front door. People can come up by stage by the late 1820's. Very quickly within a decade this evolves into a fashionable resort. People coming for the waters; people coming for the mountain scenery. They're coming in the summertime, incidentally. It's only open in the summer then, and coming for social life because this was the place to see and be seen I suppose, as we'd say in today's parlance? Southerners, first of all -- clearly a southerner were folks predominately Virginia and the Carolinas -- ...

Q: Would you start that over again in a complete sentence? I forgot to tell you that. It was southerners ...
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BC: Okay. It was predominately southerners who were coming here, specifically from Virginia, the Carolinas, and even Louisiana, coming up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and then the other way on the turnpike from the Ohio river, so it clearly was dominated by folks from the south. There were a number of resorts in the north, but there were very few resorts, especially in this undeveloped period, in the south. Even though many southerners traveled all the way up to say, Saratoga Springs, this was a lot closer for them to come up here take the waters, like you have done at Saratoga, and it very quickly developed into where the aristocracy of the old south gathered in the summertime. So you had business people, you had politicians coming here to court that southern vote, you had romance in the air -- introducing your daughters to my sons -- all that sort of thing. In fact, the 1830's which was an economically flush period, was really one of those times where I think much of the reputation in the subsequent century and a half were set in about ten years from the late 1820's to the late 1830's.

Q: How did it get associated with presidents?
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BC: Beginning right then. Martin Van Buren starts coming. If you needed to meet the wheelers and dealers in southern society -- you remember especially before the Civil War, power in the Congress was in southern hands and southern congressmen. The presidents were coming to talk to the congressmen and meet them on their own turf. Andrew Jackson and Tyler, Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan -- these are all pre-war presidents who came here and you could meet who you needed to meet. In fact, more than the presidents, Henry Clay is really the politician who seems to me symbolizes the influence of this place because he came, and he was a legendary speaker, both in a public and a private sense. He was here almost annually for thirty years persuading people to, in a direct way, to see things his way.

Q: In a way it's always served that role as a destination spot, not just for society, but to get something accomplished ? ?
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BC: Yes, it's sort of a concentration of power and money, but in a resort atmosphere. I mean that's what makes it -- there's lots of concentrations of power and money, but here it's done while folks are away from their normal life. Back then, you know you sat under a big oak tree and sipped a mint julep and watched the passing parade. Nowadays, you play golf together under big oak trees and with perhaps a mint julep at the halfway houses along the way. But that's another theme that's certainly running through the history of the place.

Q: Then the war breaks out in 1861 and everything changes?
BC: It sure does. One of the ironies is a lot of money had been poured into this place three years before the war building a new hotel, upgrading the cottages, really making major improvements. One of those curious things to me is that the season begins in 1861. The season didn't begin here until late June because folks were coming here to escape the heat and humidity in the low lands. You know, it's been months since Fort Sumter; it's been a month or so since Manassas and yet people come up again, predominately southerners, as if -- 'well, it's summertime; we go to White Sulphur Springs, you know.' It lasted till late August of 1861 when troops retreating from the Kanawha Valley, Confederate troops, occupy the grounds.
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You have this kind of bizarre juxtaposition -- a fashionable society and Confederate troops fleeing and entering the grounds. That ended the season. The season -- the actual book is in the WVU library, the register book, and it ends on August 21, 1861 when everybody goes home. What it then becomes is a hospital and a headquarters for the next two years for Confederate troops.

Q: And the war ends and reconstruction hits the south. What the Greenbrier's role then?
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BC: When I look at it, it's almost, in some ways a poignant role. Those years are symbolized by the fact that Robert E. Lee was coming here in 1867, '68, and '69. So, as another historian once quipped, "The confederacy was reborn again here each summer." So you had -- again that same sort of clientele, that southern clientele -- but with reduced means -- the dressing wasn't quite as lavish as it had been before the war -- gathering up here. I guess to me it points out how important leisure, social life, is despite the devastation of the war. Folks are coming back up.
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One of again those juxtapositions is this is happening, Lee and the old Confederacy is kind of re-gathering here in the summertime, the same year, 1869, that the railroad arrives. And the railroad is then going to transform this because more people from a lot larger region of the country, particularly in the north and west, can start coming here in those post-war years.



Q: Okay, Bob, so tell me how the latter half of the 19th century at the Greenbrier changed the southern ? ?
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BC: The railroad started bringing people here, so for a hundred years that's how everybody is getting here, by rail, and really puts it on the national map. The railroad has that impact and the major impact is that the railroad then buys this place in 1910. It buys it because really despite the fact that people ...

Q: Just a second, say that again. Substitute 'the Greenbrier' for 'this place' where ever you can. Tell me, the railroad comes and the Greenbrier starts to change.
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BC: So the railroad comes and the Greenbrier really begins to change because people from a much larger area can get here. This is true for a hundred years. The railroad comes right across the street from the Greenbrier. Eventually that railroad buys the Greenbrier. That railroad is the C & O, the Chesapeake and Ohio. They buy this place, because in fact it was beginning to decline financially at the tail end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The railroad had a vested interest. They came here on their rail, so it bolstered passenger traffic, which was certainly its high point at the beginning of the 20th century.
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What the railroad does is really cause -- the only word I can think of is a renaissance. I mean, they save it from oblivion. They build a new hotel, which is the center of the Greenbrier Hotel today, new bathing facilities, and they build a golf course. The nature of the place takes a change, not a dramatic change because people are still coming for the waters, but I think the addition of golf, tennis, and the fact that it then becomes a year-around resort, very much brings it into the 20th century and sets the beginnings of what we see at the Greenbrier today.

Q: Also during this time period the Greenbrier begins to be associated with coal ? ?
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BC: Right, right. You know, I thought once the railroad buys a property, somehow the Greenbrier becomes part of West Virginia. It was still part of Virginia it seems before 1910, but it becomes part of West Virginia because the railroad that buys this hauls coal. Those railroad people would like to meet with the coal people; the Greenbrier becomes a logical place to do that.


Q: How did the old White Sulphur/Greenbrier become associated with coal?
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BC: Well, via the railroad. The railroad is built by here shortly after the war is the C & O, which of course hauls coal, major coal hauler ever since. There's a natural link between railroad people and the coal people, and this is a place that they can meet, the rail and the coal people. For the coal people here is this resort, it's just on the edge, it's outside of the coalfields, so physically there's no mining of coal in this end of Greenbrier County, so you're close, but in a way a world away from the coalfields. Once you arrive here, then not only can you meet railroad people or other people that you do business with, but you're in this very cosmopolitan world; you're in this world that's populated by high society people who are coming here who winter in Newport, summer in Newport and winter in Palm Beach, and it's right really at your doorstep and a short right away by railroad. If you live in Itman?, not that many miles away is access to a very cosmopolitan society.

Q: I can't imagine a more dramatic contrast in the 1920's -- speakeasies of the Greenbrier world and the tent cities of the coalfields in southern West Virginia during the strike there.
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BC: Neither can I. I know. It is quite a dramatic. This has certainly crossed my mind, the airplanes flying over to Blair Mountain who flew not far from here. None of that seemed to have any direct impact on the operation of the Greenbrier, other than I'm sure the folks around here were from the operator's point of view trying to figure out what are we going to do about this and how are we going to respond to this.

Q: The 1940's arrived, and war breaks out. The Greenbrier undergoes another transformation. Tell me about that.
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BC: Perhaps the two most interesting stories, at least the current people, because this is in recent memory or the memory of our parents, is the use of this place by the government for two very different purposes during World War II. The Greenbrier was used to house enemy alien diplomats, that is German, Japanese and Italian diplomats for almost seven months after the outbreak of the war, after the United States became involved in WWII. So it was leased by the State Department, and these diplomats and their spouses and children were housed here while exchanges were worked out for American diplomats who were in Berlin, Tokyo and Rome.
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So you had again a very unusual situation now. The place is being closed, and this very grand hotel being used by people who were representing countries we were at war with. However, the State Department's thinking was if we treated those diplomats well here in the U.S. -- and I think the Greenbrier qualified -- then that might help the treatment of Americans overseas. The property was leased; there were security restrictions and there were security personnel here. Essentially it just went on until the State Department and the International Red Cross could work out the logistics of exchanging of the foreign diplomats for the American diplomats overseas. CONTE INTERVIEW, CAMERA ROLL 57, SOUND ROLL 7, TAKE 6

Q: Okay, its WWII, diplomats were here. Tell me the story of the young German girl.
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BC: I met a number of people who were children during this diplomatic episode, and the certainly most interesting was the woman who showed up here Easter in the mid-80's with the story that she had been here when she was five years in 1942. Her father had been a German diplomat in Mexico City.

Q: Start the story purely in the time frame of the 1940's. Not the middle level ... 'There was a young German girl'
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BC: There was a young German girl whose father was a German diplomat in Mexico City and they were brought up here with Germans from a lot of the Latin American countries, and so she spent Easter of 1942 here at the Greenbrier, which was celebrated just like any Easter, that is an Easter egg hunt out on the lawn. She went out there, she was five years old, and tried to gather eggs like all of the other children. When she did so, she didn't get any eggs because all the big kids got them. She was pretty disappointed, but when she came back to the table to turn in her basket, it turns out the Greenbrier people were there and they filled her basket full of eggs because they felt bad for her that she hadn't gotten any eggs. This happened to her as I say when she was five years old.
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I was speaking to her when she was 45, and for 40 years her memory of what Americans were was determined by that experience where the people had given her eggs when she hadn't been big enough to catch them. So she came back to the Greenbrier to witness the same scene going on 40 years later of the children out running around, picking up their eggs. One of the children who did not get any eggs because he was too small was my son, and the personnel did the same to him, filled his basket with eggs just like they had done to her in 1942.

Q: In just two seconds tell me what conclusions she drew about the Americans from that?
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BC: From that experience, she knew that Americans were nice people; they were nice, kind people because they had helped her out when she was a child and didn't get enough eggs.

Q: That leads me to one thing, that quality, that American quality of friendliness, that West Virginia quality of friendliness, serves as the key that this place, the Greenbrier's success?
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BC: It certainly is. One of the things that distinguishes us from other resorts is the people here, the service. It seems to me if you spend enough money you can build a nice golf course, a nice hotel. You can't buy friendly employees, and the Greenbrier is very aware of that and it very much concentrates on hiring locally because folks come down from New York and they're amazed how nice the staff is. You ask them to do something, and they do it cheerfully. Safety isn't an issue; we're out here in the mountains. It takes people awhile really to adjust, folks from urban centers, to adjust to -- this is for real, this is the way it really is around here.

Q: Tell me what the qualities of the Greenbrier in West Virginia are, those terrain? qualities that made this place special? ? ?
BC: Certainly the physical setting.

Q: Start with a complete sentence.
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BC: The physical setting of West Virginia, again, separates us from other resorts. That's been one of these constants, that folks come here because it's just a beautiful setting. Golf is a major obsession here today. The reason I think it's so popular is because of the setting it's in. These are interesting golf courses, but it's in this wonderful mountain setting. They've got the mountain setting; you've got fresh water. Now, 200 years ago that was sulphur water to bathe in for your rheumatism; today it's fresh water that you can swim in; that you can drink here. It's got this friendly service, friendly, outgoing, that derives from the fact that these are rural or small town West Virginia folks who have long-term ties to the Greenbrier through family, and they see their past here and their future here.

Q: Just a couple of more questions.


Q: Bob, tell me about why it has been almost miraculous that the Greenbrier has survived?
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BC: You look at a place like this ... When you look at the Greenbrier and it is almost literally miraculous because this is some ways a dinosaur out of the old days when society came here and stayed for months at a time. I think what it still offers is an escape, and this is different than regular life. People come here for a shorter period of time than they did 50 or 60 years ago. But you can immerse yourself into this enclave in something that's simply different than you're going to find anywhere else. It survived because of good business sense of the managers, because of the availability of funds through the owners to keep a place like this -- it just eats tremendous sums of money to maintain it -- and they've been willing to do that and keep this on level of one of the finest resorts in the world, actually.

Q: What's special?
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BC: The setting. ... One of the things that's special about this place is the setting; it always has been from 1778. It's a beautiful spot. There are 'sweet views' as somebody once said in the 1830's in every direction. Those sweet views are still here. There's a water that's clean and pure. It's still the sulphur water, but it's also the drinking water; that's an issue for folks from cities and lots of other places. What's here is the friendly service from the local folks here who pamper. You know, service alone, people paying attention to you, how many people have had the experience of going to the store and the clerk doesn't listen to you. That doesn't happen here; people pay attention to you and respond to your wishes. You get what you want and do so in a cheerful manner.

Q: Is there a West Virginia quality to that ? ?
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BC: I think that's very much a West Virginia quality, and I think it's even more so and I think it's something that management realizes and cultivates very consciously, knows that that West Virginia quality distinguishes this, and wants to ensure that it stays that way, and that the best of the local population come here and provide that to our guests.

Q: Does the average West Virginia know that the Greenbrier is this fantastical place that is sort of up there, unattainable and unreachable?
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BC: Sure, sure. I've encountered that. Somebody once said, "Only in the cathedrals of Europe and in the Greenbrier do they feel they need to whisper." I understand that it is sort of an intimidating place, and that's true for many West Virginians. But I think if you talk long enough that you'll also find are that folks from the state are wildly proud that this operation, which can be compared to any resort in the world, is in West Virginia. It's a West Virginia product; this is something that thousands, millions of people maybe around the world maybe know about the Greenbrier because that's where they know about West Virginia because that's where the Greenbrier is.

Q: Tell me that point about --
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BC: I think though that even though some people are intimated, and I can certainly understand why it's an intimating looking place, and that's very true in West Virginia, that if you talk to West Virginians long enough ...

Q: ... Start with the quote.
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BC: Someone once said that they thought there were only two places in the world they needed to whisper, one the cathedrals of Europe and the other the Greenbrier. I know what they're talking about. It is rather an imposing place when you first come upon it, and certainly many other West Virginians feel that too, that it's almost unattainable. But I think if you talk long enough the obverse is the fierce pride the Greenbrier is in West Virginia. There are millions of people in the United States, North American, the world, who know that West Virginia is where the Greenbrier is. Something of this excellence, something that can be compared to any other resort favorably, quite well, is situated in this state; its operation and staff are from this state. That is something to be proud of.

... misc talk


Q: Okay, tell me again.
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BC: Someone once said there were only two places in the world where they felt they needed to whisper -- one was in the great cathedrals of Europe and the other was in the Greenbrier. That may be overstatement, but I think it gets to the point. This is rather an imposing, perhaps intimating place when you first come upon it. I think that's true for many West Virginians. They see this place; it's somehow maybe almost unattainable. But I believe the outburst of that folks are proud, fiercely proud that this place, the Greenbrier, is in West Virginia, that millions perhaps people in this country and around the world know West Virginia because that's where the Greenbrier is. It's a place that's in the state; it's a place that's staffed and manned by West Virginians; it's a place to be proud of.

Q: Tell me why West Virginians should be proud of the Greenbrier.
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BC: This resort matches up with any other resort certainly in the country, year after year after year in polls and in all the ways you measure these things, by awards giving. This is ranked as one of the finest certainly in North America. To keep up that quality, to keep up that excellence means somebody is working at it. This may seem fantastic to somebody who comes upon it, but the reason it survives is because there are a lot of people working very hard who are organized, who are paying attention to every detail behind the scenes. Like anything else, what makes this thing appear to work so effortlessly is a lot of effort, and that effort coming primarily from folks right here in the Greenbrier valley.

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