West Virginia may not be the biggest state in the country, but it does have a lot of small towns that I’ve never visited before despite living here most of my life. Weston was one of those. I’d driven past the exit a hundred times on the interstate but had never had a reason to stop. All I knew about Weston was that they had the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, and that a few people I knew had gone there for paranormal things around Halloween. Last week, I had the opportunity to really visit Weston and to see just how much it had to offer. I loved every minute of the day, and I have a feeling I’ll be back to Weston to see what else is there that I missed this time. But if you’re looking for a great WV day trip, you may want to move Weston up on your list!
Much of Weston does revolve around the Asylum, and I actually think it’s an excellent stop in the town. While I personally will never be going on a paranormal tour there, the historical tour I took was stellar and something that I would highly recommend. Following the tour, we attended the tail end of a Civil War themed tea before rushing along to see a reenactment of one of the most important moments in West Virginia history: A bank robbery! (More on that later) We then popped into a boutique, Curated, where I did some Christmas shopping, and headed to the Glass Museum to visit that and the traveling exhibit Crossroads from the Smithsonian. My day in Weston ended with a delicious meal at South Texas Barbecue Company and a final walk through town just admiring the buildings as we went back to the car. It was a packed day to be sure, but I have a newfound appreciation for the town of Weston and am excited to share the trip in more detail below!
Because I only spent the one day in Weston, I’m breaking this post up into short sections talking about a few different places and their histories. You can use the links below to jump down the page or just read the whole blog post. And if you’re reading the whole thing, you may want to grab a coffee because this is a long one!
- Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
- The Bank Robbery that Created West Virginia
- Crossroads and the Glass Museum
- Some Weston Small Businesses
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
As I mentioned, before my trip to Weston, this was the only thing in the town that I knew about, and I imagine that a lot of other West Virginians have the same knowledge base that I did (that is to say, basically zero). I had previously only known about the paranormal tours, and I hadn’t wanted to visit because that seemed disrespectful to me. Though I knew very little about the Asylum, I knew enough that I viewed it more as a place with a tragic history than as a fun, ghost-hunting spot. (This podcast was really the extent of my knowledge about its history.) While I still don’t love the idea of the paranormal tours, I do understand better now that they provide a large amount of funding for the restoration and upkeep of the asylum grounds, and given how much I enjoyed and appreciated the historic tour, I’m willing to accept the ghost hunters who pay for that work to be done.
Walking into the asylum, I was ill at ease to say the very least. The building is beautiful but imposing, and thinking about the number of people who were wrongfully committed there, who drove the same road, and who walked up the same stairs and who didn’t get to leave after just a few hours…that was a bit overwhelming. But when we began out tour (shout out to Kurtis, who was an excellent guide!) I had my ideas about the asylum challenged and I began to see it differently.
Opened in 1864, the asylum was originally meant to house only 250 people. This followed the Kirkbride Plan, which very basically theorized that a building itself could have a positive (or negative) impact on the people who lived there. Asylums built according to this plan incorporated long hallways and rooms with an abundance of natural light. Patients at these institutions would be largely free to roam around and would be provided with a variety of activities and jobs like playing chess or working in the greenhouses. This was thought to be restorative at the time, and honestly I can see the appeal of the idea. I definitely think it would be healing to stay in a place like this – at least, if it had gone according to plan.
Though the asylum was meant for only 250 patients, it quickly went over capacity and reached a total of 2,400 patients in the 1950s. Funding was a major problem since government support for mental health facilities dropped considerably between 1864 when the asylum was opened and the 1950s when it was at peak capacity. As to the overcrowding, about 2/3 of the patients at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum were wrongfully committed (compared with 1/10 nationwide). Women especially were committed at high rates for pointless reasons; while a man’s case went before a review board, all it took to commit a woman to an asylum was the signature of a man. This meant that if you had a troublesome daughter or a pregnant mistress or a nagging wife, it was easy to get rid of her.
And despite the good ideas that contributed to the construction of the asylum, the plan was not without fault. Dorothea Dix, a social reformer who worked to improve mental health treatment in the 19th century, also held the belief, as our guide said, that mental illness only affected middle-class white people. Though People of Color were admitted to the facility, it remained segregated for most of the time it was in operation, and there was also a lack of understanding as to how social ills can impact mental health. While today it seems somewhat obvious that living with poverty or segregation would have a negative impact on someone’s mental health, that was not a consideration at the time.
The asylum was officially closed in 1994, over a hundred years after it opened. The location in Weston was chosen when West Virginia was still a part of Virginia (i.e., back when Richmond was in charge and thought that an asylum would be best placed in the mountains rather than close to one of the big cities in the east). It reached the initial capacity of 250 people almost immediately after it opened, and it only expanded from there until ideas about deinstitutionalization became popular around the 1960s. At this time, doctors were finally allowed to release patients who had nothing wrong with them, but the damage had been done and the asylum never really achieved the ideals of the Kirkbride Plan. It’s estimated that over 20,000 people were buried in the cemetery during the asylum’s run. This is all just a very brief summary, and there’s so much more you can learn about on a tour.
Thinking about it now, a few days after the trip, I think the asylum tour reminded me most of Gettysburg – a place that I didn’t expect to enjoy but from which I came away with newfound appreciation and respect. There’s a lot of tragedy here, but that isn’t overlooked or mocked. While I can understand people visiting here and thinking it’s creepy (and even wanting to look for ghosts), to me it was just a very solemn place that lends itself to contemplation not only of the history that happened here but also of modern stigmas and treatments. How do we think and talk about mental health, and how well do we take really care of those who have mental health problems?
It’s easy to think about the asylum in the same way we tend to think about mentally ill people – as more of a joke than as something to address with compassion. While we have come a long way from lobotomies and committing troublesome women to an asylum to get them out of the way, there remains a stigma around mental health, and the lack of funding that contributed to so many problems in Weston continues to be a huge issue that prevents many people from getting the care they need. The truth is, mental illness is more common than you may think, and people who struggle with it – whether they have anxiety, schizophrenia, or are dealing with depression after the death of a loved one – are all ultimately people who deserve respect and empathy. I was hesitant to visit the asylum, but I am honestly glad that Weston is continuing to tell this history and that they’re dealing with present issues as well through their Mental Health Round Tables. On a trip to Weston, I think this is a place you don’t want to miss!
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers several different tours (view them here), but the one I went on included all four floors of the main building and two auxiliary buildings. This normally costs $30 and lasts about an hour and a half. If you’re short on time or want to opt for the cheaper option, the $10 handicap accessible tour will take you through the first floor and give you a summary of the history. There are other tour options (such a tour of the Forensics Building where the “Criminally Insane” were kept or a five-hour tour of the whole campus) that may also be of interest depending on how much time you have and what you are most interested in seeing.
I was also lucky enough on this trip to attend the tail-end of a Civil War Tea. While I was only there for a few minutes, it was pretty great to see the women in their Civil War-era dresses and to enjoy the refreshments that were served. Also, it was cold in the asylum, and I really appreciated the warm cup of tea after the tour! It was a fun little event that I loved attending, and it tied in great with the next part of our day…
The Bank Robbery that Created West Virginia
The state of West Virginia was founded in 1863 and granted statehood by Abraham Lincoln. There actually remains some debate as to how legal West Virginia’s creation was, but given that it’s been 158 years, I don’t think we’re going to be forced back into Virginia any time soon. While most people (at least here in WV) know that we were created out of the Civil War, less well-known is the fact that West Virginia was originally funded with money stolen from the Bank of Virginia and intended to help build the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
The Weston Branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia had about $30,000 in gold at the time (over half a million dollars today), which was primarily meant to pay the laborers who were building the asylum. On June 30, 1861, that money was repurposed when union soldiers led by Colonel Erastus Bernard Tyler walked into town. Under Tyler’s command, Captain List and two armed soldiers made their way to the bank at around 5 am where they woke up the banker, Robert McClandish, and stole about $27,000 in gold. McClandish pleaded with them to leave the remaining $3,000 since that much was already due to creditors. The rest of the money then went to Wheeling where it helped make West Virginia the 35th state in the country (or 24th at the time if you subtract the 11 states that had seceded).
The reenactment was done as part of programming related to the Smithsonian Crossroads exhibit (more on that below), and it was pretty fun to watch! The family of banker Robert McClandish actually still lives in the house where the bank was, and they participated in the reenactment, which was also just really cool. And learning that West Virginia made itself a state by stealing money from Virginia is one of the most on-brand West Virginia things I can think of! It’s definitely not a fact that I’ll forget!
Crossroads and the Glass Museum
The exhibit Crossroads: Change in Rural America is a traveling exhibit created through the Smithsonian. Seven historical sites in West Virginia were chosen to participate, and in addition to a full year of related programming, they each have the physical exhibit for about a month. Currently, Crossroads is at the Museum of American Glass in Weston where it will stay through the end of November before coming to Arthurdale (official opening date here is December 13). Crossroads asks the communities that host it to examine both their histories and futures through the themes of Land, Identity, Community, Perseverance, and Managing Change. People are asked to think about why rural places matter, why people leave or stay, and how they want their communities to adapt for the future. Though housed at the glass museum, the exhibit in Weston is about the whole community, and basically everything I was doing in Weston related to Crossroads and these ideas of past, present, and future in the town.
As to the Museum of American Glass itself, it was a lot more interesting than I expected! Though there are glass artifacts from various time periods, the main focus is on American glass made between 1900-1960, during which the industry boomed. They have every kind of glass you can think of from little eyewash glasses to the Blenko Man who sits in their front window. In addition to seeing all the beautiful pieces on display, you can also learn a bit more about how glass is made and the personal histories of those who made it. Probably my favorite part though was the series of “Then and Now” displays that show modern items (usually made of plastic) next to their historic, glass counterparts.
This also ties in really well with Crossroads. The American glass industry declined from the 1960s onward as plastic became more popular (I’m currently thinking about how exciting plastic was in the 1954 movie Sabrina). As glass was less needed for day-to-day things like milk and pill bottles, the art of it began to disappear as well. Collecting glass is no longer much of a trend, and glass makers, like many traditional artisans today, struggle to be appreciated and make a good living with their work. This is an example of historic change across America, but it’s also a modern example as there is renewed interest in these traditional crafts.
With glass-making in particular, we can think about sustainability and how reusing glass bottles is gentler on the environment than constantly making single-use plastics. But just because people are vaguely interested in these traditional crafts doesn’t mean they’ll be used in the same way as before (interesting article related to that here). This is an idea that Crossroads lends itself to as we think about how to preserve tradition while also moving into the future. It’s not a question with a simple answer, but it is both exciting and important to think about. And if you want to learn more, the Museum of America Glass is actually pretty interesting and a fun downtown stop in Weston!
Some Weston Small Businesses
I love visiting local businesses and restaurants when I visit a place, and while I’m sure Weston has more to offer than just these, I’m very excited to talk a bit about the store Curated and the restaurant South Texas Barbecue Company!
Curated is owned by Anna Cardelli who also did a lot of work bringing the Crossroads exhibit to Weston. Her hard work and dedication are also on clear display in her boutique where a variety of local items are on beautiful display! From soaps and lotion to hot chocolate bombs and sweaters, there’s a lot to look through here, and you’ll support not only this small business but also the local vendors who create the products sold here! I came in expecting to spend at least a little money and left with a new sweater for myself and a few Christmas gifts for others! It was definitely a fun stop during the day and if you’re looking to shop local, this is a good place to check out!
And if you end up shopping til you drop at Curated, you’re in luck because the South Texas Barbecue Company is right next door! We actually went to the Glass Museum between these two stops, but since the downtown of Weston is very walkable we never got too far away. For my meal (pictured above), I had the Loaded Mac ‘n Cheese with pork, but the nachos (which everyone else at my table got) are also rumored to be very good. And of course I couldn’t pass up the Pumpkin Cheesecake when I saw a sign for it! All in all, a delicious meal and a great little local restaurant that was really the perfect culmination of a busy day exploring the town!
Usually when I travel to a new place, I do a lot of research before I go. I still learn new fun facts when I take a tour or visit a museum (like that the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world after the Kremlin), but I know the general history before I arrive and have my opinions and expectations ready before I even get in the car to go there. Weston was different. I didn’t do much research, partly because I was busy with other things and not in charge of planning this day and partly because I was not exactly eager to learn more about the asylum. From the history I knew, I expected only to learn about terrible mental health treatments, and from my knowledge of the paranormal tours, I expected to take a tour that would just be about how creepy and haunted the place was rather than about the people who lived there and how tragic much of the history was.
But the tour was really well done, and the tea served delightful refreshments. The bank robbery was fun to watch, and the Glass Museum was honestly much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I always love little local stores and restaurants, so the places we stopped in Weston were just icing on the cake of such an excellent day. I’m so glad that I was able to visit this town in the heart of West Virginia, and I have to say that I can’t think of any other place I’ve been that surprised me like Weston did. If you’re looking for a town with a rich history and vibrant future, I’d recommend stopping in Weston!