Organizing a large family reunion is akin to mobilizing an Army battalion. Except that everyone involved wants and expects their needs to be met.
Family reunion at Claytor Lake State Park
Our family is chock full of ‘water babies’. We’ve got folks who can’t imagine a decent reunion that doesn’t involve bass fishing. Several of our Boomers own their own canoes, and wouldn’t dream of going on vacation without taking them along. More than one person from our teenage cohort has a need for speed, so they’ll boycott the gathering if there’s no waterskiing or jetskiing.
Today we live in Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington DC, Delaware, and more. But the family roots run deep in Berkeley County, WV. Most of the older generation has spent good times at the old homeplace in Martinsburg at some point. So a reunion in the mountains is almost a must. I say ‘almost’ because we did in fact spend one family reunion at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. A lovely place, we all enjoyed ourselves; however, the next reunion we went right back to the mountains of Appalachia.
Each of us who has ever planned one of these get-togethers has quickly come to rely on a spreadsheet to keep score of this checklist labyrinth.
With the weight of all this baggage it was only a matter of time before Claytor Lake State Park in Dublin, Virginia popped up as a perfect spot for our particular set of kith and kin to convene.
A park visit is not complete without roasting marshmallows over an open fire
I found it fascinating to observe how the designers of Claytor Lake State Park’s cabins evolved their vision of what the public wanted from a cabin experience, from the very first cabins built in the early 1950s to today’s fully furnished luxury cabins. Claytor Lake State Park’s Visitor Center has copies of an ‘Images of America’ series book about Pulaski County, Virginia that show some of the first vacation photos from the park. There’s a boat launch for 2-3 vessels, no sandy beach, and no buildings other than a handful of plain cabins sprinkled near the shore.
Small by today’s standards, the 50’s era cinder block cabins are best for single-family outings where the idea of ‘cozy’ isn’t going to give anyone pause. The dining area spills into the living room. There’s one bathroom, plainly furnished. The 2 bedrooms open into a squared-off hallway. Porches are snug, meant for coming and going, not lingering.
One advantage of large reunions is that the group can generally spread out the higher cost of the luxury cabins, and that held true for our gathering at Claytor Lake State Park. Cabins 13-16 sit on their own peninsula jutting out into the lake, and have a dock for their own use. The porches invite a long afternoon spent reading a good book; they’re deep and well shaded, with plenty of comfortable rocking chairs. Cabin 13 has a lovely wrap-around porch and Cabin 16 has front and back porches, plus a smaller side porch for those who want to see the sunrise sitting outside with their coffee in hand. There are plenty of cabin nooks and crannies when you need a small pause from interacting.
Cabins 15 & 16 both enclose their kitchen areas with a peninsula and matching bar chairs. Makes it so much more pleasant for the cooking crew to chat with others while they work. The cabins also have extra large dining tables that can comfortably seat eight.
Family fun outside the lodge at Claytor Lake State Park
One ground rule we always establish for our reunions is that everyone eat dinner together. Breakfast, lunch, do your own thing; you’ll probably be out in a million directions enjoying the day. But facetime at dinner (with iPhones, Kindles, and Androids turned off, please!) is when the stories spill out. And those stories are some of the key things the young folks remember from reunions past. Claytor Lake’s high-end cabin designs accommodate that mingling of generations quite naturally.
With cathedral ceilings, central air conditioning, ceiling fans, multiple living room couches and ample numbers of bathrooms, the 16-bed cabins offer up a lovely sanctuary. For our older family members with limited mobility they were a true haven. Two small quibbles: if you’ve ever been on the kitchen clean-up crew after a large dinner, life is a whole lot easier with a dishwasher. I was surprised that these luxury cabins did not offer that amenity.
Also, cell phone and internet service in the cabins is grindingly slow or, with some carriers, non-existent. Yes, we’re here to commune with nature and each other, but some of us are freelance types who need to be plugged in regardless of where we are. That’s just a 21st century reality. Signals were better at the park’s Water's Edge Marina and Meeting Facility/gift shop, but who wants to walk all the way down there just to check their email?
Beautiful scenery and recreation at Claytor Lake State Park
Meantime our water babies found that they could rent motorboats, jet skis, water skis, and pontoons. Claytor Lake is a 4,633 acre, 21 mile long lake, so the newbies had plenty of room to spread out without encroaching on non-family boaters or fishermen.
I have two summertime skin colors: red or white, so Claytor Lake State Park's pristine sandy beach wasn’t a magnet for me. I was in the absolute minority there. The beaches are well tended (no trash, sand regularly raked), with food vendors nearby. Crowded on the weekend, oh yes. No wonder!
Our family does have non-water babies who nonetheless want outdoor stimulation, and for them Claytor Lake State Park offers up a number of hiking/biking trails on the premises.
One of the water babies having fun!
I have no doubt there are plenty of families who come to the park and stay within its bounds, since there’s so much to do. For the adventuresome, who are willing to put in some road time, there’s no lack of nearby enticements.
We took a portion of our group over to the New River Trail State Park one day for horseback trail riding. The Virginia Creeper trail, a popular rails-to-trails bike path, is about an hour and a half down the road. One of its highlights is Green Cove Station, an old railway station in the small hamlet of that name, which also served as the post office and general store. It was active through 1977, and has been preserved exactly as it would have been in the 1930s era, with bolts of gingham cloth for sale, crates of Coke in those greenish bottles, boxes of Borax, and so on.
Claytor Lake State Park has an annual summer festival on Father’s Day weekend each year, so we timed our reunion around that event. It served up everything you’d want in a family oriented festival: Appalachian arts & crafts vendors, antique cars, tacos and funnel cakes, and live music that included a 50s doo-wop band. To cap it all off after dark, the park hosts the nationally known Grucci fireworks family from Long Island, NY. We appreciated being able to watch their spectacular aerial display from the comfort of our cabins: the Gruccis launched their pyrotechnics from the middle of Claytor Lake, which meant optimum visibility throughout the park.
I’m a history lover, and was delighted to learn that chief ranger Matt Wright offered up a comprehensive tour of the park’s administrative building, known as the Howe House, and its grounds. Haven B. Howe built this Greek Revival home between 1876-79 out of locally sourced materials, and even built much of the furniture himself. Mr. Wright had the honor of interviewing the last living granddaughter of this gentleman farmer when she was in her 80s, and shared with his tour group a number of poignant Howe family stories about life, love, and magnolia trees told him by this Howe family descendent.
A sweet spot on the porch at the historic Howe House
You know you’ve gone to the right place for a family vacation when you’re already counting the days till you can go there again!
Dave Tabler is an Appalachian Historian and Author. You can read more from Dave here on his Appalachian History blog "Appalachian History: Stories, Quotes and Anecdotes." and a blog article he wrote especially about Claytor Lake State Park history here!