George Washington visited Hot Springs, Va. on horseback in 1755 on an inspection tour of forts as protection against Indian attacks. The Homestead spa and resort was founded in 1766, a decade before our country. That makes the hotel 250 years old in 2016. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Memorandum Book that on August 13, 1818 he ate two meals at The Homestead and took the waters to the tune of $2.12 1/2. William Howard Taft was the keynote speaker there at the annual meeting of the Virginia Bar Association in August 1908. Woodrow Wilson and second wife, Edith, chose The Homestead for their Christmas honeymoon in 1915. Most every U.S. president since has visited the resort, where many indulge in the hotel’s most popular activity, golf. Hands down, The Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia is one of the most prestigious locations in the country to hold a conference, treat the family to a vacation, bathe in the Jefferson pools, indulge in a dizzy array of spas, or . . . give a talk. It is located on U.S. 220 five miles south of Warm Springs in Bath County.
Hotel management conducted lively discussions on how to celebrate their first 250 years. Figuring that many people who would want to come could not, they quickly discarded the idea of a single Gala. The proposal that carried the day was a major surprise to the Pastry chefs: concoct and bake a unique cake flavor each of the 366 days of the year, and have 400 portions cut and ready to serve daily at 2:50 PM. Why this time? 2:50 is another way of saying 250. When I was there, the cake flavor was strawberry with vanilla oats.
Another anniversary feature was to organize Fireside Chats: “Join us around the fire as influential guest speakers relay their experience with this historic resort,” read the flyer “Celebrating 250 years of Southern Hospitality.” While I had never been to The Homestead before, the SUBJECTS of my latest biography––Henry and Emily Folger––journeyed from Brooklyn to the resort 28 times from 1914 to 1929, spending over 600 days there. I was disappointed to learn that no record of the Folgers’ stays remains in the hotel archives, not even one photograph of the Folgers. Understandably not one of Emily in the baths, but what about Henry on the golf links? It is true that the Folgers were a reserved couple; they stayed below the radar. When the hotel’s director of Development and Communication learned that Collecting Shakespeare not only includes details about activities that Mr. and Mrs. Folger engaged in at the resort, but shares with the reader the numbers of the two hotel rooms they consistently rented, she invited me to come give a talk during the anniversary year. AND they put me up in the Folgers’ old Room, which you see below. What a thrill for a biographer! Moreover, the invitation to speak about Collecting Shakespeare fell in 2016, the 250th anniversary of The Homestead AND the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
As invited guest, my talk in the Tower Suite was entitled “Shakespeare Collectors and Homestead Guests.” I showed the audience invoices the Folgers kept of their stays, where we see what they spent for room rental: $16 a night. I projected on the screen picture postcards of The Homestead that I had obtained on eBay that showed how the resort looked a century ago. I left the original postcards in The Homestead archives. The hotel sent me a link (below) to the talk. An alert to the viewer: the screen provided was LED, which poorly reproduces the slide images.
One-hour YouTube Video of Talk at The Homestead, including 15-minute section (25:34 ––40:23) where Grant is dressed and speaking as Folger.
Stephen H. Grant is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal. His most recent book, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger, is available now.