Escape to Vint Hill

The Cold War experience comes alive at Vint Hill Farms Station

Dawn and Scott Donaldson have owned the historic Inn at Vint Hill for 17 years. On December 26, 2016, they launched Fauquier’s first escape room, The Cuban Missile Experience. An escape room is an adventure game in which participants must solve a series of puzzles in a set period of time using only the clues and equipment provided. Players win by successfully completing all their missions before their time expires.

The mansion that is now the Inn was built on a cattle and sheep farm just before the Civil War; Mosby’s Rangers skirmished with Union cavalry at its back gate. During World War II (WWII), the mansion, farm, and all of its outbuildings were bought by the Army. The Inn at Vint Hill was used as a command center and officers’ club and quarters. Renamed Vint Hill Farms Station, the property was turned into an intelligence training headquarters and “listening post.” The men and women at Vint Hill Farms Station tapped into communications from locations including Berlin. The intelligence they gathered included a 20-page dispatch from the Japanese ambassador to Germany. That information became critical to the success of the Allied Forces’ Normandy Beach landing.

After World War II, the station served as a top secret signals intelligence base during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Donaldson’s escape room, an intelligence-based adventure game on the inn’s second floor, incorporates the station’s involvement in the Cold War. “The escape room transports you to October 27, 1962,” Donaldson says. It is 12 days into the crisis, and tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States have reached an all-time high. The Soviets are working on nuclear missiles at four sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. In response, the U.S. forces’ alert level has been raised to DEFCON 2.

On the morning of October 27, USAF Major Rudolf Anderson departs an air base in Florida, piloting a U-2 reconnaissance plane. He is shot down and killed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile fired from Cuba. The escape room scenario picks up here, as the United States finds itself on the brink of war. “You become a member of President Kennedy’s Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the Crisis, and you have sixty minutes to solve the puzzles and prevent nuclear war from happening,” Donaldson says. Failure means World War III and the end of the world as we know it.

The Cuban Missile Experience owes much to the Inn’s neighbor, the Cold War Museum. Housed in a barn formerly converted for top-secret use by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Army Intelligence, the Cold War Museum now displays artifacts from a three-million-dollar collection. These artifacts cover the rivalry between the Communist bloc and the democratic free world from the 1940s through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Cold War Museum supplied us with all the historically accurate documents to take participants back to the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Dawn Donaldson says. It was an undertaking the museum’s executive director, Jason Hall, was pleased to be part of. “We are really close with the surrounding businesses. We want to make Vint Hill Farms Station a destination where people have multiple things to do,” Hall says.

The museum building, as well as the buildings that house the Covert Café, Vint Hill Craft Winery, and Old Bust Head Brewery, are owned by Julie and Ike Broaddus. Hall describes a vision of community-building and cross-marketing at Vint Hill, a vision the Broaddus duo share. “We want people to come here and make a day of it—tour the museum, have lunch at the Covert Café, go next door to the winery, get drinks at the brewery,” Hall says. “We want people to pick up the theme of this area, its uniqueness.”

The Cold War Museum is a gem in itself, with rare artifacts such as the only declassified reconnaissance film from an SR-71 Blackbird, as well as a fragment of the plane Major Anderson was flying that fateful day in October of 1962. On the weekends, the museum is staffed by volunteer docents with long histories of service in the Armed Forces and intelligence. It opens during the week for larger parties and special events.

Vint Hill Craft Winery, next door to the museum, was once a top secret cryptographic intercept facility during WWII and the Cold War. In its tasting room, the winery features a display of period uniforms and artifacts on loan from the Cold War Museum. Vint Hill Craft Winery also hosted two talks in a series of presentations put on by the museum this year.

Old Bust Head Brewing Company, also hosted a talk series that featured retired US Air Force General Michael Hayden. Hayden was the director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005, and the Director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009. “We knew we were going to max out, and we did. That event sold out in four days,” Hall says. Many in the audience were former intelligence officers who had worked under Hayden in some capacity.

While they often welcome groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, visits from veterans and former intelligence officers are common at the Cold War Museum. “You wouldn’t believe how many times someone will come in and say, ‘That’s the exact machine I used!’ ” says longtime museum volunteer John DePerro.

Photo by Katie Fuster

The same audience is drawn to the Cuban Missile Experience escape room to test out their long-held skills. “We have people come here from all over the world, a lot of whom are veterans or were in intelligence,” Dawn Donaldson says. “We’ve done about 300 rooms now, and we average a 10 percent success rate. We don’t make it easy for them!”

Cold War Museum

The Cold War Museum has attracted heightened interest since the 2015 release of the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg collaboration Bridge of Spies. The film, set during the Cold War, tells the story of how lawyer James B. Donovan negotiated with the Soviets for the release of Francis Gary Powers, who was flying a CIA mission in a top-secret U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia). Initially sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by the Russians, Powers was freed in a prisoner swap that saw the U.S. return convicted KGB spy Rudolf Abel to the Soviet Union. Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., founded the Cold War Museum and consulted on the film. Powers, Jr. has lectured around the world on the importance of preserving Cold War history and honoring Cold War veterans.

Presentation

On Sunday, July 23, at 1 p.m., the Cold War Museum will be hosting a presentation by noted pilot Colonel Adelbert “Buz” Carpenter (USAF, retired) on “Flying the SR-71 Blackbird.” Carpenter flew the SR-71 worldwide as an aircraft commander, then instructor pilot, accruing 777 hours of flight time on 65-plus missions. The event will take place at Old Bust Head Brewing Company and will be followed by a Q & A session and special access to the Cold War Museum. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.com. For questions, contact Jason Hall at jason@coldwar.org.

Cuban Missile Experience Information

The Cuban Missile Experience is open for reservations seven days a week. Book your escape room experience by visiting www.escapevinthill.com. “We also welcome groups and corporate clients for team-building events,” Dawn Donaldson notes. For more information, contact the Donaldsons at info@escapevinthill.com or 540-349-5700.

Katie Fuster
About Katie Fuster 12 Articles
Katie Fuster lives in Warrenton with her husband, children, and rescue animals. For more on this story, drop by her writers’ page at facebook.com/AuthorKatieFuster.

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