The Caplingers Make Memories at Watoga State Park

In a wooded setting at Watoga is the Caplinger family making memories at Watoga State Park. Watoga is West Virginia's largest recreation area.
The Caplingers take time to make memories at Watoga State Park with their son KC. 📸: Pam Morris, circa 1982.

As 18-year-olds, Judy and Ken Caplinger, II began a 45-year journey of making memories together at Watoga State Park. That first stop: Staying in the aptly named Honeymoon Cabin at West Virginia’s largest state park. This is Part 2.

The Caplingers spent time after their wedding at Cabin 34 in the Pine Run Cabin Area. Like so many couples before and after them, in a dining table pullout drawer, the newly married teenagers inscribed “Kenny and Judy Caplinger, May 19, 1975”.

In Part One, Caplinger explained how he spent some of his “coming of age” years at the park. In the 1960s, Caplinger’s dad, Ken, was assistant superintendent. He also touched on his time in the same role as his dad from 1979 to 1984. Watoga is nestled in mountainous terrain near Seebert in Pocahontas County.

The Next Chapter of the Caplingers Making Memories at Watoga State Park

Coincidentally, just four years later, the couple began another journey making additional memories at Watoga.

Now, the Caplingers are revealing what it was like as a young couple beginning their lives together at Watoga.

“It not only was a park I lived in as a child, but it is also where Judy and I got our start as a team/couple working/living in the park system,” said Caplinger.

Judy said she was excited and enthusiastic. “It seemed like a great adventure.” Her first impressions? “How appreciative I was for the welcome we received from employees, their families, and all the local folks,” she said.

Caplinger said that once they moved into the assistant superintendent’s residence, a new journey had begun.

“We both had officially embarked on the next chapter of our young lives.”

Ken Caplinger, II

Soon the two began writing that first chapter together at Watoga. For fun, they enjoyed swimming at the pool, and playing softball games in the summer with park visitors and staff at the airstrip. Judy’s hobbies included cross-stitching, biking and cooking. Her husband enjoyed hunting, fishing, weightlifting, and running.

Moreover, Caplinger stated that Judy “has a great singing voice, but is too shy to often reveal it. Back in the day, when she would occasionally sing in karaoke venues, she sounded a lot like Patty Loveless, the well-known country music star.”

Transforming Challenges and Obstacles into Memories

Judy’s biggest challenge at Watoga was adjusting to the park’s remote nature and the distance required to travel to obtain basic necessities. Her favorite times and places were “family get-togethers at the park, gathering at the swimming pool, hiking, and Cabin 34, of course.”

Along the way, the Caplingers made lifelong friends, became immersed in the park’s natural beauties, and enjoyed a plethora of Watoga’s activities for five years. While this sounds idyllic, there were adjustments and obstacles to overcome as young parents.

When the Caplingers moved to Watoga in 1979, their son Kenneth Caplinger, III (fondly called KC) was a toddler. Living there had its happy moments, but it also presented challenges as well. Thus begins the story of how the Caplingers make memories at Watoga as a family.

In 1977, while the family lived in Morgantown, doctors diagnosed KC with Kawasaki disease and he barely survived. Even after moving to Watoga, they had to deal with KC’s residual coronary artery damage. Additionally, they traveled several hours one way to West Virginia University Medical Center (now J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital) for KC’s appointments.

But in 1981 when KC was five, they received an unforgettable phone call from that medical facility.

“We were told that KC had finally recovered enough from the damage done by Kawasaki disease,” Caplinger said, “and that he could go off medications and should be able to live a more normal life.”

KC, now 44, is doing just that. He’s a successful businessman who owns an insurance agency in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area.

They Loved Watoga So Much That . . .

When the couple returned to Watoga earlier this year, the Caplingers said they had a “main and recurring conversation about their five years at Watoga.

“Our time at Watoga was among the happiest and most satisfying of our entire lives due to the beautiful park we had the good fortune to live in,” Caplinger said. “The great local folks and park workers welcomed us with open arms, and there were great friendships we developed with superintendent Craig Ackerman and his wife Cindy as well as with conservation officer Dick Morris, his wife Pam and their kids Sam and David who lived next door to us.”

All smiles are Ken and Judy Caplinger as they pose for a selfie making memories t Watoga State Park, Cabin No. 34, also known as the Honeymoon Cabin. The log cabin is in the background surround by a lush forest and mountain laurel that is common through West Virginia's largest state park.
Still making memories at Watoga State Park 45 years later are Judy and Ken Caplinger. Here, they pose for a selfie when they revisited the Honeymoon Cabin where they stayed following their wedding in 1975.

So, what would be the couple’s advice to making memories to first-time park visitors?

“Hike the trails. Make sure you go to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. Use the swimming pool. Go explore a bit along the Greenbrier River. Fish the Greenbrier, Watoga Lake, and Laurel Run.”

Nevertheless, the Caplingers echoed a commonly heard sentiment from former park personnel. “We loved Watoga so much we really would have liked to remain there longer.”

Many still do . . .

After Watoga, Caplinger culminated a 35-year career with West Virginia’s state parks system by serving as its parks chief. He retired in 2013. Currently, Judy is Director of Office Operations for a home furniture company.

About the Author

John C. Dean, a former journalist, also grew up at Watoga. Caplinger was John’s supervisor in 1979 at Watoga. From 1962-1964, the Caplingers lived next door to the Dean family at the park. John is a legal editor and writer. He can be reached at .

Ken Caplinger, II Comes of Age at Watoga State Park

Long before Ken Caplinger, II reached a career pinnacle as West Virginia’s parks chief, he had his coming of age at Watoga State Park. This is Part One.

During the early 1960s, Ken, Sr. and his wife, Doris, lived next door to my family from 1962-1964. Accompanying them were their four children – Ken II, Dave, Kaye, and Sue. The siblings’ sister Carol already had become independent and brother Mike was not born yet.

When the family moved to Watoga from Babcock State Park, Caplinger was six. At Watoga, his dad was assistant superintendent and Herb Robinson was superintendent. Caplinger’s dad spent 20 years at various parks including Blackwater Falls, Cass Scenic Railroad and Babcock.

So when a young Caplinger grew up at Watoga, he and his dad often fished together at the lake.

Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his brother Dave take a minute to pose for a photo at the Watoga Administration Building, circa 1963. Photo by: Ken Caplinger, Sr.
Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his younger brother Dave pose for a photo at the Watoga Administration Building, circa 1963. 📸: Ken Caplinger, Sr.

“Dad taught me how to fish there in a rowboat,” said Caplinger. “He used to laugh about me hooking him in the lip with a big hook with a nightcrawler on it during one of our first fishing excursions on the lake.”

Caplinger’s Coming of Age at Watoga Using Education, Inspiration and Dedication

Caplinger’s first full-time job: A maintenance worker at Blackwater Falls State Park. Prior to that, he worked seasonally as a desk clerk, recreation attendant, campground attendant, and maintenance worker. Starting his management career, Caplinger spent five years as Watoga’s assistant superintendent. After Watoga, he moved to Pipestem State Park and was its assistant superintendent for two years and its superintendent for six years.

“Dad inspired an understanding of state parks as a legacy held in trust for future generations. Keith Simmons, Blackwater Falls Assistant Superintendent provided me with great examples of how to be businesslike and focused on goals. Henry Burr at Watoga taught me a lot of park maintenance skills and how to lead by example in tackling any challenge ‘hands on’ instead of relying on others to do all the hard work.”

Moreover, Caplinger said he grasped how important education, inspiration and dedication were from his “heroes.”

Sage Advice About Coming of Age

Caplinger’s dad reinforced that “you are just a part of something greater than yourself.”

Keith Simmons advised him to “avoid drama and just do your job.”

Henry Burr recommended that “if something works, give others credit for it. If it fails, be prepared to take responsibility yourself.”

A Slippin’ and a Slidin’ at Watoga Lake

Furthermore, Caplinger recalled a memorable experience that occurred when he received that first park assignment in 1979 at Watoga.

In fact, that residence at the park as a child growing up later became his and wife Judy’s home.

“About a year after I was hired as assistant superintendent, I finally got a box delivered to the house with my ‘official’ full superintendent’s unform,” Caplinger recalled. “I excitedly put it on and drove over to the lake to check the licenses of the many trout fishermen at the base of the dam. And I took one step down the hill and slipped and slid all the way on my back into the water between two fishermen who looked down and asked, ‘want to check our licenses?’ I said ‘No.’”

Posing together at the assistance superintendent's residence with brown wood siding are Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his wife, Judy, circa 1980. Photo by Richard S. Morris.by
Ken Caplinger, Jr. and wife, Judy, at their home at Watoga State Park, circa, 1980. 📸: Richard S. Morris

Coming of Age Sometimes Means Turning Lemons into Lemonade at Watoga

After that humorous misstep at Watoga, Caplinger, however, had more serious hurdles to overcome.

One such obstacle included “dealing with an extremely limited budget compared to the magnitude and size of the park and its extensive infrastructure,” he said. “I recall especially one year when we were only provided $2,000 for building repairs/alterations in a park with almost 60 structures of various types.”

As an assistant superintendent, Caplinger oversaw nine full-time staff, a dozen summer employees and eight seasonal housekeepers.

But overcoming obstacles also led to coming-of-age accomplishments while at Watoga for Caplinger.

“One such success was working with Superintendent Craig Ackerman (now Superintendent at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon), Henry Burr and the maintenance crew of Dale, Tom, Wayne, Basil and Letch Pyles, and Charlie McComb to re-roof, paint, and do interior renovations on all 34 cabins over several years and with very little budget. It was done by hard work and ‘elbow grease’ and dedication from all of the named individuals.”

And this is just another example of Caplinger’s coming of age at Watoga that assisted in his career development. With 35 years experience in hands-on and management roles, Caplinger has seen a little bit of everything. However, specifically, what would he tell future assistant superintendents/superintendents at Watoga?

“Make sure you enjoy and remember every day at one of the greatest state parks in the U.S.A. Embrace and get to know the great people in the local community and make them your friends. Go talk to Henry Burr regularly and use his advice.”

Watoga: Then and Now

When Caplinger returned to Watoga with Judy earlier this year, he did notice a couple differences from 1979 and today.

“All the great intrinsic values remain the same. But the cabins and other infrastructure are in even better condition now due to the park system having had more fiscal resources for repair/renovation,” he said. “Also, the forest was impressive and looking mature even when we were there. But it has gotten even more impressive and wonderful in the 35-40 years since we were there.”

Would that be a coming of age at Watoga?

Watoga Through Caplinger’s Eyes

While at Watoga earlier this year, Caplinger had a few observations.

“I would like to see the Arboretum somewhat restored/improved. We need to be vigilant and active in preventing resource exploitation such as the park logging initiative of two years ago. I see Watoga’s core value of nature and the great outdoors always being its biggest and most valuable attraction.

“Looking ahead, how about a 100th anniversary to be held in 2037 to celebrate the park’s opening in 1937?”

Furthermore, Caplinger stated that it would be nice to commemorate Watoga’s past, long-time workers.

“For example, maybe something like the ‘Gaylor Recreation Center,’ the ‘Henry Burr Picnic Shelter’ and the ‘Vernon Dean Trail.’ Honor them somehow for their lifetimes of service,” Caplinger suggested.

To explain, the Gaylor sisters (Nettie and Lillie Mae) lived on Chicken House Run Road that borders the park. They were decades-long cabin cleaners. Likewise, Henry Burr devoted 54 years of service to Watoga. Vernon Dean is my dad. He worked at the park for more than four decades. And like Caplinger, I also had coming of age moments at Watoga.

Caplinger was deputy parks chief from 1991-2006. Then he served for seven years as West Virginia’s parks chief overseeing 35 state parks, recreational use management of seven state forests, five wildlife areas, and two rail trails before retiring. He stays involved with park initiatives as an at-large board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.

Now, Caplinger spends time with his three grandsons. He goes golfing, works on cars and home improvements, and creates artwork with an emphasis on wildlife subjects.

Part Two

Next up: What was life like during the Caplingers’ five-year stay at Watoga in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Tune in then.

About the Author

John C. Dean is a former journalist. Currently, he is a writer and legal editor. He can be reached at .