Kris and Dave O’Brien wanted a way to make a living far
from the bustle and noise of Baltimore. So, 14 years ago, they
purchased about 80 acres east of Berkeley Springs near Cherry
Run, the old Mary Mason farm.
Many people would have torn down the original log house and
built a new place, but the former antique store owners felt
it was important to renovate and preserve a bit of history,
rather than build new home on undeveloped land. The house is
now a cozy home, but it took a year just to make it livable.
Next, Dave O’Brien turned his attention to building two
cabins away from the house as vacation rental properties, while
Kris brought in income by teaching in Berkeley County. The resulting
cabins are unique and give renters a quiet, country experience
with dark, starry nights.
As time went on, the O’Briens found themselves more and
more interested in recycling and conservation. At the same time
their guests were becoming more specific in what they wanted
out of a night in the country. This coincided with a nationwide
and worldwide trend known as Ecotourism.
Dave O’Brien welcomed this trend and initiated the Morgan
County Ecotourism Association, a division of Travel Berkeley
Springs three years ago. There are now about eight members.
“When we first got here, we figured we would just supply
alternative lodging, but as we became more interested in living
a green lifestyle, we realized that promoting ecotourism would
be a way of increasing business as well,” he said. “We
get to do a a nice thing for nature and have a business, too.”
Kris O’Brien enumerated what their guests expect out of
an ecotourism cabin rental. They want to know what the O’Briens
are doing to conserve their acreage, whether they allow the
cutting of trees and what they do to provide wildlife habitat.
“The most important thing we do though, is to try to educate
our guests on conservation issues,” she said.
Nurturing and protecting the land is not an easy task. It’s
an every-day, all-the -time job.
In addition to the daily maintenance of the cabins and the housecleaning
after guests depart, the O’Briens compost food scraps,
take care of overabundant insect and plant populations without
resorting to pesticides or herbicides, and recycle glass, paper,
metals and plastics. Their home doesn’t have the typical
septic system. The used dish and clothes-washing water, known
as gray water, is piped into a holding tank and used to water
the flower gardens.
They conserve more water by using water-free composting toilets
that eventually create soil from the waste. After the addition
of peat moss and cedar chips, the nutrient rich material is
used to feed the flower beds. The process takes about three
months. The O’Briens are vegetarians, and the remains
from their fruits and vegetables get recycled in the compost
“We have big compost piles over here,” Kris O’Brien
said. “Recycling and composting is the least an ecotourism
business can do. But we need to be constantly improving to satisfy
our sharpest ecotourists. One of our guests asked us why we
used a regular-sized refrigerator in the cabins, so we purchased
some secondhand, half-sized models, which use less electricity.”
A fun, yet environmentally friendly feature of the cabins is
the antique claw foot bathtub on the rear porch. Filling the
tub as needed, rather than keeping the typical hot tub full
and heated at all times, saves a great deal of electricity.
The O’Briens do a lot of their shopping at second-hand
stores, and buy very little new. Their cars are older models.
They grow a lot of their own food and take short road trip vacations
to conserve gasoline. They often explore other parts of West
Virginia, which they find “incredibly beautiful.”
They don’t own a clothes dryer, dishwasher or garbage
“Our lifestyle is really part of ecotourism and is to
geared to the conservation of natural resources,” Kris
O’Brien said. “Our friends say we ‘walk the
walk, and not just talk the talk,’ and wonder how we can
live this way.”
& nature trails
The one-acre pond on the property is not only scenic, but also
provides recreational activities. It is also ecologically sound.
“You can drink the water,” said Dave O’Brien.
The clean pond is partially due to the population of thousands
of snails that live in the water. They multiplied over a 13-year
period from the four dozen originally introduced by the O’Briens.
The snails eat algae as do the resident bottom-feeding Large
Mouth Bass, Carp and Koi fish. The bass also eat nuisance Blue
Gills. Fishing is discouraged to keep the right ecological balance
in the pond.
The O’Briens have built two miles of nature trails on
their bowl-shaped acreage. The paths weave around the pond and
through the woods, past streams and the sumac shrubs they have
encouraged to keep down the weedy Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus)
“Sumac berries are an important source of food for birds,
especially in winter,” said Kris O’Brien, a Master
Gardener. She often leads her guests on nature tours of the
property pointing out wildlife and trees along the way. A grant
from the Natural Resource Conservation Service enabled the couple
to establish wildlife habitats. Kris O’Brien explained
that so many local forests have been taken over by trees and
shrubs, making it difficult for ground-nesting birds like Whippoorwills
and Chuck Wills Widows to find a place to hatch their eggs.
With a great deal of sweat, they tore out multiflora roses and
honeysuckle and planted native grasses such as Big Blue Stem,
Switch Grass and Indian Grass. The typical lawn creates an impenetrable
carpet that small animals find it difficult to tunnel through
and doesn’t provide good nesting sites. Native grasses,
however, grow in clumps so small mammals can move freely, which
in turn allows raptors to find their food more easily. “Originally
there were prairies of these native grasses in Morgan County,
but none are left,” Kris O’Brien said.
Though they are mostly self-employed (Kris fills in with substitute
teaching at times) and have to provide their own retirement
benefits, and sometimes worry during slow periods about having
enough rentals, they are happy with their life style. “Even
on a bad day, I can float on my pond on an inner tube and realize
I have a great life,” Dave O’Brien said. “Just
making money is just not that important. To us, teaching people
why they should conserve the environment is just as important.”
“Our alternative lifestyle is a healthy one for us,”
Kris O’Brien said. “It promotes good health for
our bodies, mind and spirits since we live relatively free from
chemical pollutants. And we live in such a beautiful place.”
Winter Getaway •