“Good grief, Mike was right,” I thought as I sat in a line of idling vehicles as far as I could see. We inched past wooden soldiers and clowns, crawled by angels and tennis players, crept up to downhill skiers and snowmen, and came to a perfectly timed stop beside a couple of ballroom dancers.
My friend had warned me that a Saturday-night drive through the Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia would be a lesson in patience. But I was glad I had persevered when I rounded the bend and saw Woodstock snapping a photo of Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang.
For over 25 years, these twinkling tableaux have been a holiday tradition at Oglebay. Hundreds of thousands of colored lights stretch for six miles throughout the resort, covering more than 300 acres in dozens of picturesque scenes featuring favorites like Cinderella, Christmas kittens, sleigh rides, snowball fights, cheerleaders, sledders, and a glittering poinsettia wreath and candles standing over 60 feet tall.
It seemed like hundreds of thousands of people had the same idea. In Wilson Lodge, groups lined up for a sumptuous buffet dinner that started with baby spinach with julienned apples, griddled onion, white grapes and toasted pecans tossed in a maple vinaigrette; frisee lettuce topped with crumbled goat cheese, candied walnuts and roasted red and golden beets. We moved on to apple cider-brined turkey breast and buttermilk smashed new potatoes, butter-herb roasted chicken, ham and oan-seared mahi mahi with tomato fricassee. Then, we concluded with Oglebay’s bourbon bread pudding, pumpkin cake, and a boatload of cakes, pies and holiday-inspired pastries. Everyone left with a complimentary festive red Oglebay coffee mug to take home as a souvenir.
My Oglebay visit began earlier that afternoon, after a scenic drive over the Ohio River and through the city that founding settler Ebenezer Zane thought was “a vision of paradise” when he first saw it in 1769. After ascending a steep wooded hill, we arrived at the Colonial Revival mansion that was the home of Earl Oglebay, a Cleveland industrialist who had made his fortune financing and operating steamship companies, coal mines in West Virginia and Ohio, and iron ore mills in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Oglebay purchased the property once known as Waddington Farm from his mother-in-law in 1900, and gradually increased its acreage until it doubled in size. He transformed it into a country estate, building roads, landscaping the grounds with ornamental plantings, and remodeling the mansion built in 1846 that he, his wife, Sallie, and their only daughter, Sarita, enjoyed as a summer retreat. It also featured an experimental farm where researchers studied soil culture, crop rotation and breeding of livestock like the champion bull “Border Raider.”
After Oglebay died in 1926, the property was willed to the people of Wheeling for public recreation. Two years later, it became known as Oglebay Park. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp there. About 200 young men were headquartered there to improve the property, eventually building nature trails, picnic sites, winterized cabins, tennis courts, an outdoor theater, a riding academy, a horse show ring, a golf driving range, a three-acre lake and a nature center. When Wilson Lodge opened in 1957, Oglebay became a year-round resort.
The mansion became a museum in which 13 rooms are furnished with period decorative arts pieces and Oglebay family possessions, such as the sterling silver tea and coffee service the Oglebays gave Sarita for her January 31, 1912 wedding to Courtney Burton. Each piece in the custom-made set features places that were significant in Sarita’s life, such as several buildings on the Waddington Farm estate.
Other rooms house artifacts from Wheeling’s early days, such as the axe the Zane family used to build their cabin when they settled in present-day Wheeling. The Mansion Museum also hosts traveling exhibitions, such as samplers created by 18th- and 19th-century schoolgirls and an original Shakespeare First Folio from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The showpiece of the museum is the five-feet-tall, 225-pound, 16-gallon punch bowl made by Wheeling’s Sweeney Glass factory in 1835. In 1844, the Sweeney brothers made three of these punch bowls to exhibit in New York City and Philadelphia, and they won first-place medals for creating the largest piece of cut lead crystal ever produced. One was given to Henry Clay when he came to Wheeling for the opening of the National Road, in appreciation for his advocating tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing; he displayed it in his parlor and used it as his baptismal font. This one is the only surviving bowl; it topped Michael Sweeney’s grave from 1875 to 1948.
After seeing so many whimsical glass novelties, I decided to bring home a “Bluebird of Happiness” from Carriage House Glass. The store sells items handmade by skilled glass artisans, such as ornaments fashioned in Oglebay’s glassblowing demonstration studio…
as well as Oglebay’s signature hyacinth lights blooming in 150 hanging baskets and other plantings in the “Garden of Light” during the Winter Festival of Lights.Oglebay Resort’s other shops offer unique gift items, gourmet and regionally produced food products, Christmas decorations, bath and skin care products, candles, and garden items, such as Frost Fern and Goshiki False Holly, which takes its name from Japanese for “five colors.”
The Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Resort continues through January 1, 2017. For more on Oglebay, see The Story of Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia and the History of Oglebay Institute and the Oglebay Family, by Ralph H. Weir; An American Legacy: The Oglebay Story, by Isaac M. Flores; and The Trees of Oglebay and Wheeling Parks, by Brooks E. Wigginton.