BEDFORD, Pa. - She was born in the wilderness and grew and grew, becoming ever more regal. Men and women believed that visiting her would restore their health and clear their minds. Ten presidents of the United States stayed with her - seven while in office.
This grande dame, Bedford Springs, was one of America's first resorts. People flocked there for days on end, before we had a concept called
In 1985, only a year after becoming a National Historic Landmark, Bedford Springs, ravaged by a flash flood, closed. It was 189 years after people first camped there to drink from her seven different mineral springs, 90 years after they began playing a strange 18-hole thing called golf, and 80 years after they first swam in the huge, rare indoor public pool.
Now she's back.
Painstakingly restored for more than two years and $120 million and ready to enter a third century, Bedford Springs Resort faces its first full season of guests. A high-end resort steeped in history, it has brought Bedford County 300 new jobs and a likely $1.2 million in sales taxes this year, more than twice its 2007 contribution.
The resort, about a 31/2-hour drive from Philadelphia, reappears with her former woodsy splendor intact, and a modern sensibility. Dropping into the walnut-furnished 216 guestrooms is like cascading into history - if history had 32-inch flat-screen TVs and iPod docking stations.
"I had my prom here," says Teresa Rice, 59, who grew up in Bedford and is now a Bedford Springs concierge. Like a lot of people from Bedford County's seat - known to turnpike drivers for a few hundred yards of interchange gas and grub - Rice never set foot in the resort until a special event. "Bedford Springs was for a certain caliber of people," she says.
James Buchanan, for instance. Pennsylvania's only president made the place his summer White House in the mid-1800s (he received the first-ever transatlantic cable, from Queen Victoria, there) and his simple desk now sits at the bottom of an elegant Federal-style three-story staircase that's been a constant resort staple. The staff at one point pulled that desk from the room he stayed in, then refurbished the quarters as a surprise.
That, it was. When Buchanan walked in, he was said to have been enraged. It just wasn't home anymore. The desk came back, the room - now the Buchanan meeting room - went downscale, the president relaxed. Which is, after all, the point.
You can't walk more than a few feet in the resort without sensing America's past - and the first thing that strikes you is the enormous amount of wood that adorns it.
Long, white-painted porches jut from its contiguous stream of buildings, joined as they were built over the decades. Wooden bays hold windows of original hand-blown glass, some with names of brides married in the ballroom, clearly scratched.
Millie C. Swartzwelder/Sept. 3, 1888
, says one, the legacy of a woman trying out her long new surname - and testing the authenticity of the diamond in her ring.
"Walnut. Cedar. White pine," reels off general manager Rikki Boparai, who came out here - which is still the middle of the wilderness, to city folks - to run things before the soft opening in July.
You can take a historic tour of the resort, or just stumble over the past while you move through the present. Hike along its 24-plus miles of mapped trails - walking sticks supplied in each room - and you'll see the running mineral springs. (Three of the seven are now tapped, and the running spring water is no longer suggested for drinking.)
Swim in its heated indoor pool, set in a high-ceilinged, balconied room, then check out the pool's spitting image on a hand-colored postcard, circa 1905, in the hallway. The swimming water, as well as the waters in the already-busy spa - Bedford Springs' newest attached building - come from an eighth spring remodelers discovered under the resort's check-in desk.
Play golf on the course restored much to its 1920s look, where holes 1, 2 and 15 are originals, 213 years old.
That case of weapons? They're genuine "Kentucky rifles," made in Bedford County. Those lighted displays of old glass bottles, with different "Bedford" logos from many decades? Originals, once filled with spring water and sold with great success to consumers, long before bottled water became an American grocery staple.
Archival cases in the public rooms house open ledgers that show, in fancy handwriting, the guest bills of various times. (In the Civil War era, when officers would drop families off while they headed to battlefields, the room fee was $3 a day - almost 100 times less than a current high-season room.)
But history isn't its only allure.
Philadelphian Deborah Diamond, director of research and strategy for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Board, went with her husband and two boys, ages 7 and 9, in October.
"It was lovely," she says, "physically beautiful and for us, a good value because we were there a little bit off-season. I was very proud - Pennsylvania did it right. . . . For us, the history was not a draw. We liked it for the current resort."
The revived Bedford Springs could not pose such a dynamic tension between now and then were it not for luck, providence, or both. From the time a local physician named John Anderson decided to house patients there for spring-water therapy at the end of the 1700s, a family named Defibaugh was part of the Springs' history. They ran the tavern where visitors ate renowned chicken dinners, before there was a resort with a dining service. They made wagons that delivered goods. They provided services. They made the rifles in those cases.
In the last half-century, architect and minister Bill Defibaugh, a direct descendant of the family, took a growing interest in Bedford Springs. When owners would sell off furniture to raise cash, Defibaugh, now 74 and president of the new Bedford Springs Historical Society, would buy the goods at auction. He and his wife kept them in their 10-bedroom Michigan home, and hauled them along when they moved to Bedford in 1979.
Defibaugh was considering a huge sale of the items when he received a message from two Texans, who had heard about the dilapidated piece of history no one wanted at a conference of hoteliers. "Please don't sell any of your stuff," they begged Defibaugh.
The two were Dallas buddies Keith Evans and Mark Langdale, who just finished his stint as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica and heads the foundation establishing George W. Bush's presidential library. The co-owners put up $14.5 million to buy and restore Bedford Springs, and added on about $10 million in federal historic tax credits, $25 million in state redevelopment funds, and a mix of other grants.
And they used Defibaugh's trove of history.
Says Evans: "There are several architecturally historic resorts around the country, but I can't even frankly think of another one that has all the artifacts and wonderful things we have. It's an interior designer's dream."
Defibaugh is a ledger lover whose material includes the documents now on display, plus thousands of historic photos; many, from one particular album owned by an 1800s chaperone, are the source for handsome framed enlargements that fill guest-room hallways.
He eventually donated the goods or sold those he'd paid more than a pittance for - Buchanan's desk, for instance.
He is, himself, a walking encyclopedia of information about the resort. "Many times," he was remembering the other day, "I'd come here with a station wagon and haul back corner-cupboards and hutches and utensils, all old, all being sold off."
On leaving Bedford on such a trip in 1972, "I felt like I was leaving home. I had a sense of destiny that I would live in Bedford."
Now, 36 years later, the man who collected its history has brought himself back. And its history, too, to a home restored to its heyday.
Bedford Springs Resort is at 2138 Business Route 220, Bedford, Pa., just off the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in south central Pennsylvania - about a 31/2-hour drive from Philadelphia. Information: 814-623-8100 or