Economic Development Means Saving the Land and Water in Bath County

Sep 19, 2018

Here in Virginia economic development usually means building something and using up resources, but in Bath County a different approach is in play.   One family has found a way to make money by saving the land and water around them.

For owners of the Ft. Lewis Lodge, economic development means preserving the land and water around them.

John Cowden’s father ran a cattle farm in the rolling hills west of Staunton and Lexington – 3,200 acres of pasture and forest that Cowden would inherit.  He and his wife Carol liked farming, but they thought this property had potential for something more

“You step back and say, ‘What is the land best suited for, and in this case we said it was the scenic beauty,” he explains.

They spent the next five years turning an old grist mill into a diningroom and bar, building a lodge,  renovating houses on the property and moving four authentic log cabins from other parts of the state.  They even converted their silo into three circular suites – accessible by a spiral staircase outside, and they built a dock.

“The Cowpasture River is crystal clear," he says. " You can stand in four feet of water, wiggle your toes, and see every one.”

The Ft. Lewis Lodge does have wifi, but there are no TVs, no fitness center or swimming pool.  Instead, guests like Clay Tharrington amuse themselves by hiking and fishing, kayaking, tossing horse shoes, bird watching, star-gazing and other outdoor joys.

“I just love this place.  It’s magical, tucked away here in the mountains.  You’re able to unplug and disconnect from everything and just plug into nature," he says. 

"We got engaged here two years ago," adds his wife Erica Tharrington. "We're now expecting our first child, and we plan on bringing her back next summer.”

The property also appealed to Cowden’s son David and his fiancée Erin Framel.  They left New York City careers in financial services and fashion photography for the wilds of Bath County, Virginia.

An old grist mill serves as the diningroom for the Ft. Lewis Lodge.
Credit Ft. Lewis Lodge

“I did a 180 coming here," she recalls.  "It started as a dream conversation we’d have over a glass of wine, and then we realized we were having a real life conversation about making this move, and we just the business his parents had built was so cool, and we wanted to see it continued into the next generation.”

The place is remote – an hour from Staunton or Lexington, but over the last 30 years people have found it.

“We encourage people to get directions off our website," John Cowden says. "Everyone thinks they have full faith in their phones and GPS, and then they have a problem and think, ‘Oh well, we’ll call,” and now we don’t have as cell signal.  Welcome to rural America!”

Most guests get a warm reception when they arrive, but not all.  Erin remembers waiting for friends from New York.  She thought she heard them outside.

The Cowdens converted their silo into three circular suites.
Credit Ft. Lewis Lodge

“So I stepped out and turned on the light, and I looked to my left, and there was a full-sized bear!  The bear just sprinted off, and I slammed it shut and started screaming. So I was wide awake by the time my friends made it there.” 

And David recalls another misadventure – this one in the late afternoon. As the staff prepared dinner for about 40 people, the power went out.

“So we scrambled to get generators and extension cords and searched every house for every candle.  We actually had a pretty nice set up, and then the power came back on. That’s the kind of thing you have to deal with when you’re way out here.  A tree falls on a power line, and you’re out of juice.”

There's no swimming pool, no fitness center, but the lodge offers another novel amenity -- a river.
Credit Ft. Lewis Lodge

That’s a problem the Cowdens hope to avoid now that they’ve installed 150 solar panels – enough to meet most of their needs in the seven sunniest months when the lodge is open to visitors.