What happens when your family's Tennessee farm is converted into a country-house hotel
I've often wondered what kind of memories houses have. Do they forget their inhabitants the minute the deed changes hands?Or do their settling foundations retain something of the people who once lived there?To find out, I went back to the place where three generations of my family had lived, Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. The house still stands, but in and around it is a posh, sprawling resort.
My grandparents Eleanor (Mimi) and Howard Jarvis owned Blackberry from 1952 to 1976 and ran it as an inn for 10 of those years. Back then it lacked the ornamentation of a hotel. The nine-bedroom house was built in the early 1940's on a sloped clearing overlooking Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Surrounding the house were 1,100 acres of wild and wooded land, tamed only with shuffleboard and badminton courts, a pool, asparagus beds, and enormous flame azaleas. From April through October Mimi acted as innkeeper for a handful of guests (who paid around $24 per night). They usually fell into one of two categories: bird-watchers or University of Tennessee football fans. The most famous visitor may have been a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but since the guest book has been lost, no one can remember exactly which justice it was.
My aunts were the waitresses. According to my father, he and his cousin worked as groundskeepers (though it's believed they spent most of their time hiding in the bushes smoking cigarettes). Years later, as a young attorney with quixotic farming fantasies, my father convinced my mother they should move from Knoxville to Blackberry to raise children, cows, and various vegetables. That lasted only five years, and after my father's final garden came in, they left. Mimi sold the farm the following year.
Such a short attention span would never do at today's Blackberry, where making people feel at home is serious business. Now a 44-bedroom compound, the resort has a staff-to-guest ratio of one to one and, in contrast to the insouciant charm of its previous incarnation, is run with seamless precision.
"WELCOME TO BLACKBERRY!" CHIRPS THE PORTER when I have only one leg out of the car. It's early afternoon and a cool spring rain has just fallen, bringing out the familiar mountain smell of damp cedar bark and pinesap. Nostalgia is interrupted by a pack of neatly pressed employees and guests on golf carts scooting around with concentrated purpose. Along a network of paved pathways, they dip over hills and rise from wooded hollows. I seem to be at the epicenter of an anthill.
"Ms. Jarvis, hello!" calls out a boyish-looking man in wire-rimmed glasses waiting at the door of the reception cottage. "I'm Brian Lee, the innkeeper," he says brightly. With a faint smirk and a nod, he adds, "You're related to the former owners?" The question sounds more like a statement of fact. How does he know?Eventually, I learn that Lee is no normal innkeeper; he is the George Stephanopoulos of the breed, who, with the help of an intricate walkie-talkie system, orchestrates the comings and goings of everyone and everything from some hidden Blackberry War Room. (I've heard that Lee has since left, only to be replaced, I'm sure, by another wunderkind innkeeper.)
Though I've requested a room in the main house, I am offered one of the new luxury cottages that now crowd the pristine little meadow, where, long ago, a devout gardener had planted GOD IS LOVE in jonquils, much to Mimi's dismay. "No, thank you," I say. So I am given the Mayapple Room in the main house, which coincidentally is where my mother slept on her first visit to Blackberry, before she married my father. (Mimi sequestered Dad at the far end of the house.) Mimi's taste-white eyelet curtains, poster beds, hooked rugs-was more spartan than that of the current owners. The room is now draped in the kind of suffocating floral chintz that makes me slightly nauseous. Still, I don't want to move to one of the new buildings; I have no interest in rooms that were once woods or meadows. I want to be close to my primal places: the playroom under the stairs, the huge bay window, the flagstone veranda, the long dining table around which family dramas took shape. I set out to look for them.
Because it's midweek, many of the rooms in the main house are vacant. Roaming around, I discover that the floor plan is practically unchanged, except that my playroom is now a tiny office and my nursery a bathroom. Of course, the kitchen has been enlarged and the screened porches enclosed. In the living room Bach is playing softly, and from the large bay window I see that the knobby magnolia tree is still there.
I take a book out to the rocking chairs, but instead of reading I watch the clouds push shadows across the hills and wonder if it's possible to tire of this view. Some guests walk by, talking in thick Georgia accents about how movies are a bad influence on America's youth. As they pass under the magnolia branches I'm reminded of an absurd story my mother once told about how a blacksnake dropped from the tree onto a guest. No snakes today, fortunately for the Georgians. My poor mother had a terrible time adjusting to the snakes—the first time one slithered across the living room she commanded everyone to stand on the furniture—but eventually she got quite expert at smashing them. I follow the other guests in for tea, a lovely spread with crisp cheese biscuits, glassy triangles of peanut brittle, and ramekins of white-chocolate mousse.
That evening my mother, who lives in the nearby town of Maryville, drives over for dinner. We're both delighted to find that the tables are set with the same china pattern—Lavinia, painted with delicate blackberries—that my grandmother used until her death.
Before dinner we sip blackberry kirs on the veranda while Mom points out the field (now a large pond) where my father spent his weekends cutting the broom sage. "He had a radio on the tractor, and he'd ride in circles all day long," she says with a laugh. Dad, though a zealous farmer, was not a very practical one; he would routinely plant huge quantities of cabbage and string beans that my mother would then have to can. Neighbors in the area, known as West Miller's Cove, taught her how to put up produce and make kraut, but they insisted she follow the moon and the zodiac; otherwise her vegetables would be soggy. Many of these neighbors had never been to Blackberry before my parents moved in. When the farm was built, people in the Cove thought the original owners were German spies who had somehow wired the fences to send secret signals. My parents opened the house up for elaborate Fourth of July parties, where my mother had so many electric skillets frying chicken that the fuses blew. In warm weather, friends would camp on the property and then come up to the house for dinner. "I never knew how many people would show up," she says, still dazed by the experience.
For the next three hours, over a dinner of potato-encrusted catfish, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and an apple tart with hazelnut-caramel sauce, I hear about my parents' neighbors and friends in the Cove, a cast of characters befitting a Flannery O'Connor novel. There was the woman who ate tomatoes as if they were apples, the man with the glass eye who ran for any and every political office available, and Claudette and Tiny, who rented the farmhouse on the property and helped raise our pet cow, Hotdog.
"Hotdog thought she was a dog," says my mother, who fed the orphan calf with a bottle every four hours. We kept Hotdog in the warm furnace room all winter, and by spring she wanted nothing to do with the other cows. Claudette bought Hotdog a bell and changed her name to Little Claudette, and the two of them would loll about the yard.
After dinner Mom and I sneak out to the side of the house and down a dank set of stairs to see what has become of that furnace room. Hung from the ceiling to dry are kumquats, and olive branches that executive chef John Fleer uses to smoke the local catfish and trout. Cases of Quibell water are stacked on the floor. Hotdog, we decide, would not fare well in these quarters.
THE NEXT MORNING, FORTIFIED BY HEARTY BLUEBERRY griddle cakes, I take off on a bike ride. I follow the paths past the pond and the fishing house, down to the farmhouse, and then along Hesse Creek. Buttercups and blackberry bushes are in bloom.
Back at the main house, my father is waiting to take me fly-fishing. The stealthy innkeeper materializes with Orvis rods and reels and a picnic lunch. Blackberry's connection to Orvis goes back to my grandparents' era, when Mrs. Orvis visited the inn and, while on a nature hike, stumbled upon a moonshine still (she thought it was a cement mixer). Dad and I commandeer a golf cart and head to a practice pond so stocked with trout it feels like cheating. Restless, we move on to Hesse Creek, a sacred place for my father if ever there was one. I hook a tree while Dad casts long beautiful lines into shady pockets of water. I point out that it's starting to rain.
"You don't pay attention to rain when you're fishing," he grumbles, heading farther upstream. Then the heavens open up and we sprint for the golf cart, soaked.
That night, following a savory meal of smoked trout cakes, thick veal chops, and a hash made with fingerling potatoes and spring vegetables, we join the crickets and whippoorwills outside with snifters of blackberry brandy. (Walland is a dry town, but the inn occasionally provides nips of this wonderful liqueur.) I ask my father if living at Blackberry was the happiest time for our family. All this space, all this freedom must have been magical for a couple with young children.
"We did things together," he replies. "We didn't need distractions, we had each other." But kids grow up and people get divorced, and to save us from those deadly subjects we indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: figuring out what's wrong with everyone else in the family.
"Shhhh," I whisper, when I realize how loudly we're talking. "Remember, we don't live here anymore." This stings. I see it in his eyes.
"I know," he says.
I don't tell him what I'm really thinking: that when we lived here the rooms were drafty, the cows unruly, and the hardwood floors a minefield of splinters. It's tempting to romanticize the imperfections of innocence, but, like us, even this old house had to grow up.
Louise Jarvis writes for Elle, Mademoiselle, and Condé Nast Women's Sports & Fitness.