Tourist Town Desperate to Reopen Faces Another Battle—White Nationalists in the Castle
When VDARE’s founder bought the 132-year-old Berkeley Springs Castle, it fueled a delicate split in the artsy mountain town.
Berkeley Springs, a tiny tourist town nestled in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, has always prided itself on being a little bit different.
There is the world-famous water-tasting competition, the healing mineral springs, and the artsy town square lined with cheese shops and crystal sellers. Locals joke that massage therapists outnumber lawyers three to one.
And now, there’s the couple with white nationalist ties up on the hill, too, occupying the 132-year-old Berkeley Springs Castle.
The purchase of the town’s historic landmark by the founder of the VDARE Foundation fueled a delicate split in late February between some residents who loudly opposed it, others who quietly didn’t, and many who hoped they could just ignore it. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, shutting down the town almost entirely, it quickly faded into obscurity.
Now, though, VDARE’s presence in Berkeley Springs has taken on a new significance as the rapid return of the tourism industry becomes even more important for people’s livelihoods and for the survival of the town of 4,000.
“People have been coming here to take the waters for 300 years,” says Jeanne Mozier, vice president of the local tourism council and president of the local museum. “There’s this sense of hospitality, of being a sophisticated little town. We were never part of that entrenched, unchangeable feeling that you get in a lot of small towns in mountain areas.”
The Berkeley Springs Castle, built as a summer home for a colonel, overlooks the town square in dramatic fashion and was previously owned by the late tech entrepreneur Andrew Gosline, who bought it on a whim in 2002, restored it and often opened it up for public events. “He was, in my mind, the perfect castle owner,” said Mozier, who wrote a book on the castle. “He loved it.”
When Gosline’s sons put it on the market, local officials met with half a dozen potential buyers, including three women with big divorce payouts. “If I had my way, I would have resurrected Andrew,” Mozier said.
The tourism council never heard from VDARE founder Peter Brimelow and his wife, Lydia, until after the couple had bought it for $1.4 million. The contract was signed at the office of law firm Trump & Trump, owned by Virginia State Sen. Charles Trump, which represented the seller. (Sen. Trump—no relation to President Trump—declined repeated requests to comment on his role in the sale.)
Brimelow told The Daily Beast he and his wife chose Berkeley Springs because it was close to major cities and they “fell in love” with the town. He said they plan to use the castle for meetings and as a studio—handy considering at least three hotels have canceled conference contracts on VDARE after learning of the group’s views. (VDARE unsuccessfully sued Colorado Springs’ mayor after a hotel there canceled a conference).
Many more companies have ostracized the group. Earlier this month, VDARE was booted off Facebook for running a network of fake accounts and pages posting conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and hate speech about Asian-Americans. The group has been deplatformed and demonetized by Amazon, Google, Adsense, PayPal and MailChimp.
“We aren’t presumptuous about our role here. It is not our intention to change Berkeley Springs at all,” said Brimelow, who had previously told townsfolk there wouldn’t be any “tiki torches parades” or rallies. “We will be good, quiet neighbors and use the castle, to quote a local historian, ‘for the innocent and rational amusements for the polite who may assemble there.’”
While they may promise to be friendly neighbors, VDARE’s views are anything but. They describe themselves as politically incorrect and vehemently against immigration (except for “perhaps for a few thousand white South Africans”). Brimelow, a former financial journalist who immigrated to the U.S. from England, has made anti-Semitic and racist remarks.
The group has boosted Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and published pieces defending racist manifestos written by the El Paso and Christchurch mass shooters. Brimelow said VDARE publishes some white nationalist writers but he denied he has white nationalist views himself, instead preferring the label "civic nationalist." He has filed a libel suit against The New York Times for calling him an "open white nationalist" and a "white supremacist."
In a 2016 interview, Brimelow said he preferred to live in a white society because it's “much safer” and “the civilization levels are much higher.” “Some immigrants have relatively low crime levels, again the East Asians. Some, like the Haitians, have very high crime levels. It does seem to be correlated with race,” he said.
He told a conference in 2017: “There’s ethnic specialization in crime. And Hispanics do specialize in rape, particularly of children. They’re very prone to it, compared to other groups.”
The group’s pseudo-intellectual manifestos on immigration have been cited by Trump's hardline immigration adviser Stephen Miller and its logo suspiciously mirrored one used by the Trump re-election campaign in 2019.
Brimelow may have assumed West Virginia would welcome VDARE with open arms: It’s one of the whitest states in the country and 74 percent of Morgan County, which includes Berkeley Springs, voted for Trump in 2016.
“You find certain, I guess, Klan-ish attitudes in this state [but] we tend to be pretty fair-minded and tolerant,” said Sean Conroy, a Saint Albans resident who was so concerned by VDARE’s presence in the state that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “The opposite side of that coin would be that West Virginians are not nosy people by nature. We tend to have an attitude with neighbors of ‘live and let live’ and I think groups like VDARE exploit that.”
Brimelow said VDARE’s immigration position was no different than Trump’s and he claimed the reception in Berkeley Springs had been “warm and welcoming, but private”—save for “a whopping 12 people” who vocally opposed him.
On Facebook, the reception ranged from deeply disturbed to mildly celebratory. “We work hard to be a great vacation destination, and [this] would surely tarnish the friendly image,” one person wrote. “This is a beautiful family. Let's welcome them with open arms,” another wrote. “Come on guys, villains always live in spooky castles on top of a hill,” said a third. “It makes sense!”
Initially, a group of residents organized to loudly oppose the move. Now, with the return of tourism so vital, they say they’d rather focus on positive initiatives they’ve come up with to counter VDARE’s message.
“Over the course of our conversation we’ve come to this: well, it looks like they're our little white supremacists now,” Trey Johanson, owner of the Fairfax Coffee House, told The Daily Beast.
“The castle is so prominent, it’s symbolic… so it hurts in the gut but they're here now. What would we do? Foist them onto some other small town? They’re our responsibility so we’re going to do what we call ‘little actions’ in our town to let people know what Berkeley Springs stands for and how special it is.”
The town hopes to stage its first pride parade in summer and shops have put stickers in their windows saying, “All kinds welcome.”
“We welcome all who welcome all,” Johanson said.
Local officials say VDARE can hardly be kicked out. “It’s all of this agitation about a hypothetical,” said Mozier, from Travel Berkeley Springs, the tourism council. “Nothing has happened, these people haven't done anything.”
She said the tourism board advised the town’s council to draft an ordinance giving them power to ban large gatherings, in case any tiki torches come out. But, other than that, PR consultants told Travel Berkeley Springs to ignore VDARE and just focus on their own message: that Berkeley Springs was, until the pandemic hit, on track for a banner year.
“It’s not going to change the flair of Berkeley Springs,” Mozier said. “It’s not going to change our attitude about being welcoming and open and a healing place, and we’ll just see what occurs.”