Beginning in 1983, the Bramwell Christmas Tour of Homes has been a holiday tradition for over three decades and counting. We spoke with Betty Goins, who has been organizing the tour since its inception, about its history and how our community might carry on the spirit of the tradition despite a different holiday season in 2020. (The tour was cancelled for 2020).
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the Bramwell Christmas Tour of Homes?
A: It began in 1983 as a fundraiser for the Bramwell Millionaire Garden Club. Several ladies lived in these grand old homes, and one lady said, “Let’s have a fundraiser!”
It’s so much fun for all of us, having people come into our town. We were heartsick not to be able to open this year. There’s no way logically to get people into our homes safely. Through the years there’s been time after time people telling us, “We come here to get us in the Christmas spirit.” We can’t do it this year, but people are more than welcome to come walk around our street safely. It always makes us feel good that we gave a little Christmas spirit to everyone.
Q: How far of a draw has the tour had over the years?
A: We’ve had people who maybe have come visiting in the summer, driving through southern West Virginia, found Bramwell, heard about what we were going to be doing in December, and come back to visit. It has not been unusual to have people drive from Cincinnati, Georgia, Tennessee, and more just to come for the Christmas Tour of Homes and to make a weekend of it.
Q: Of course this year, you’ve had to adapt to stay safe. Is this the first time the tour has had to cancel? How have the tours adapted and changed over the years?
A: We’ve never had to cancel before, but sometimes it is snowing. For the Christmas Tour, we’ll usually have 400-700 people come into the community for that three-hour time frame. One particular year we had a severe ice tour on a Friday night. We all felt, “Well, we’ve advertised! We have to open.” I was back in our church talking to some of our workers, not expecting a crowd, and I go into the sanctuary where everyone usually gathers. There were about 40 people dressed in Santa hats from Gilbert who had driven just to come for the Christmas tour. It was so heartwarming to see those smiling faces in Santa hats. Weather has always affected the tours, but we’ve always had to have safety in mind.
Q: What do you think is so special about the story of Bramwell? Why do you think the tradition of the tours has sustained so many years?
A: I think it’s a combination of things. The story of Bramwell itself is kind of remarkable when you look at that alone. People want to hear that story and know about the coal and coal heritage. People are always curious about other people’s homes, how they decorate, and the architecture.
Many of the homes are special. One home has hand-carved oak railing in the house and to think about the craftsmanship that took. You have the history of the towns, the curiosity, the festivity—music, lights, people in costume, sometimes you may smell apple cider wafting through the dining rooms, and many people say they feel like they’re stepping back in time. We’ve had carolers on the street, horse carriage rides on the street, all the things that encourage people to come. Another thing we do too is have live music in each of the homes. Someone playing the banjo, someone singing, strumming guitars. All of that adds to the ambiance. [People] set their calendars and want to know when the next tour is.
We had one house that had 21 trees. And these are all room sized-trees—a Christmas tree in every single room, including the bathrooms and hallways!
Q: How can people still have the Bramwell experience for the holidays, even with the home tour being cancelled this year?
A: Doors are always open in Bramwell. The town is decorated. One lady who is so creative has put up a gingerbread village made out of wood! The Corner Shop is open for business with limited inside dining. We have a new Mexican restaurant that’s open for outside dining. You can walk around with all the miniature lights on, and one lady has decorated all the trees. It’s so charming to see all those lights twinkling. Surely people can come and get into the holiday spirit enjoying the restaurants and walking around the town.
Q: Of course you’ve been part of the tours since the beginning, and a couple of years back you said it might be your last year organizing. Has that been the case?
A: I had been telling the group I was going to retire, and I told them for three years, “You’ve got to listen to me, a younger person needs to learn the whole drill.” But then I always say, “Here I am! Doing it again.” I just love it.
But I try to get people to understand. None of this could be done without many workers behind the scene—people to clean and decorate and take care of hospitality rooms, to get all of the refreshments. We have a lot of people who volunteer to make it happen, and I just sort of lead everybody.
Betty Goins is a lifelong resident of Bramwell, West Virginia and organizer of the Bramwell Christmas Tour of Homes for 37 years. More information on planning your trip to Bramwell can be found here.
[Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
Snow-covered Bramwell photos by Krstyal Grose.
This post was last updated on December 14, 2020