Escapes: Its population may be tiny, but Thomas, W.Va., is popping

Nic Persinger/For The Washington Post - The Purple Fiddle in Thomas, W.Va., is a hip place to catch some live music.

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It’s almost 9 p.m., and TipTop coffee shop is hopping.

Waiters decked out in suspenders and bowlers serve up designer coffees, gluten-free chocolate coconut pie and prosciutto, Gorgonzola and caramelized onion pastry.

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If you go: Thomas, W.Va.

A few doors down, artists toil behind an antique desk at the White Room Art Gallery. Some of the eccentricities on offer include mirrors with snarling tentacles made from silver spoons and bike spokes, ceramic purple elephants in the shape of inflatable pool floats (cute, I promise) and an assortment of snarky cards.

Steps from there, girls in skinny jeans and cowboy boots twirl to the banjo twang of a four-man bluegrass band.

Adams Morgan? Columbia Heights? No. It’s Thomas, W.Va., population 586. Buried deep in the Allegheny Mountains, Thomas is a small town (just four by seven miles) with increasingly hip tastes.

In the past year, art galleries, antiques stores and a brick-oven pizzeria have sprung up on East Avenue, the town’s main drag. In a couple of months, a new bed-and-breakfast is slated to open.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” says John Bright, owner of the Purple Fiddle, a combination bluegrass venue, cafe and guesthouse founded in the old general store. “Things have changed dramatically just in the last year. The town has really attracted a lot of creative people.”

He imagines, in the very near future, three to four options for live music every night. Already, TipTop hosts an occasional singer-songwriter. And nearby Mountain State Brewing Co. has been known to bring in a band for a dance party or two. “We’re on our way,” Bright says, “to becoming a destination.”

It wasn’t always like this. By the late 1800s, just a handful of families had settled in Thomas. At the time, there was little besides log cabins. “Wild beasts could be seen and killed from the very house doors,” notes historian T. Nutter in his 1906 history of the town.

The discovery of coal in 1884 turned Thomas from pit stop to mountain cosmopolis, bustling with immigrants from all over Europe. At one time, Thomas’s main street boasted an opera house, a saloon and one of the first railway stations with electric lights. A statewide Italian-language paper was published here as well.

By 1915, more than 2,000 people lived in Thomas. But the local Davis Coal and Coke Co. faltered in the 1940s, and the last underground coal mine closed in 1956.

Even today, most of East Avenue has the feel of a frontier town at the turn of the 20th century. Squat brick buildings with wooden windows and gingerbread trim look out onto the mountainside across a wide main street. A cowboy or a crotchety sheriff wouldn’t seem entirely out of place.

Flying Pigs Breakfast and Lunchery, where I had breakfast, is nestled in one of these main-street haunts. The cozy diner is stuffed with tables and chairs that could have come from your mom’s kitchen. Linger long enough over the piping-hot chili or sweet potato pancakes, and you’ll feel as if the entire town has passed through for a bite. (The waitress, who serves the entire joint, will probably look as if she feels that way, too).

Afterward, I wandered down to TipTop, where I curled up in a cozy chair with a steaming hot cup of coffee and a book.

Next, I tooled through the antiques stores, stuffed with vintage clothing (anything from mod 1960s jumpers to 1920s overcoats and felt hats), records and dusty trunks and barrels. In Riverfront Antique and Thrift, I happened upon something that resembled a medieval torture device, with four giant hooks attached to a chain. In fact, it was designed to be hung with lunch pails, like a Christmas tree, and lowered down into the mine for workers.

Occasionally, the owner of Three Castle Antiques will host an impromptu wine tasting. If you’re curious, ask for a taste of the sweet red from the local wineries.

In the afternoon, I trekked out to White Grass (a 15-minute drive from Thomas), which boasts about 18 miles of groomed cross-country trails. I rented snowshoes for the first time. “You seem skinny enough for these,” said the young girl at the counter, handing me a pair of kid-size red contraptions. For the next hour, I crunched over boardwalks and around pine trees. Though Canaan Valley is famous for these trails, I saw nary another soul.

Finished with the snowshoes, I headed back into town for a peek into the White Room gallery, co-owned by four young local artists. Outside, guests are greeted by a hanging bicycle painted entirely white. Inside, the offerings are eclectic. Artist Nathan Baker, for instance, turns found metal objects into art. Massive chandeliers and wall hangings (some span three feet) are made entirely from silver trays, old silverware, sterling teacups and old metal mechanical parts.

Most days, you can chat up an artist working in the back room while you browse. Twinkly lights, candles and garlands lead to a second floor, where some of the artists live.

Back at the Purple Fiddle, I grabbed a pepperoni roll, some hot soup and a beer (served in a Mason jar, of course). The Fiddle, as it’s affectionately known, spans two big rooms with a porch out back, and there’s live music every weekend. In addition to hosting some hot bluegrass and country acts, Bright gets excited about bands such as Alash, Siberian throat warblers who have come four times.

By 10 p.m., the place is stuffed with college students, 20-somethings (many who make regular treks from Washington), families and older couples swaying to the maniacal sounds of fiddling. Christmas lights crisscross the ceiling; mismatched benches get pushed out of the way to create an impromptu dance floor.

At the end of the night, I climb the stairs to my bedroom in the hostel two stories above the Fiddle’s dance floor. In a couple of minutes, the band comes upstairs, too, for a round of pool in the common room before bed.

Erickson is an associate editor with the Atlantic Cities, an urban affairs Web site.

 
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