To introduce you to innkeepers across America, this recurring column reveals how ordinary people turned their dream into a reality; how the innkeepers' lifestyle compares with their fantasies; and what they do to make their inn so special. In this feature you’ll meet Barbara Hearn Smith who, with her husband Jim, owns and operates the Holly Tree Manor bed and breakfast in Trenton, Tennessee.
What sparked your interest in running a bed and breakfast?
My mother, who was living with us, died in early 2009, and we had this big house in Trenton, Tennessee, just for the two of us. A few years ago prior to this, however, we went to Memphis, which is about 100 miles away, to visit my friend Bill Burk, a writer of several books about Elvis and the publisher of >Elvis World magazine. Bill told me the big question was always, ‘Where is Barbara Hearn?’ Even Paul Harvey once asked on his radio program, 'Where is Barbara Hearn?’ So around August, 2009, we looked at our big old house and we felt that we had one good adventure left in us, so why not start a bed and breakfast? We scratched our heads for a name and thought of calling it ‘The Old Harwood Place’ since that's what the locals called it, but since there are 200 holly trees here, Jim came up with the name Holly Tree Manor. At first we were going to be open maybe only a few weeks a year during Elvis Weeks in January and August, but backed off when the local zoning board asked 'Aren’t you going to be opened during ‘The Teapot Festival'?. To get an exception to the farm zoning, we decided we would open it all year ‘round.
What did you do prior to becoming an innkeeper?
Jim had worked for the CIA, and I did as well, on and off as a photo lab technician and as a recruitment assistant. But earlier, I also worked as a secretary for Senator Estes Kefauver in Washington, as a newspaper copywriter, as a model, as a teacher’s assistant for special needs students in a high school, and during my Elvis days wrote articles for 16 magazine, We’ve been around the world a couple of times, and I’ve had a wide variety of careers. It’s been a fantastic life.
How did you envision life as an innkeeper?
We had stayed in B&Bs in Europe, but never in the U.S.. So, or course, we never had a clue what to expect.
How did the fantasy compare with the reality?
Well, we just approached this as we had everything else. We felt our guests would arrive like we were meeting friends from the old neighborhood, and they’d come in and meet these two old people who have dogs, cats and horses. We weren’t mistaken, they really are like family guests. We put on a beautiful tea in the afternoon, Jim doing all the cooking. Some guests get so friendly they’ll talk for hours. The other day we were up with guests until 2 a.m. We finally had to tell them that we had to get some rest before we got up to serve breakfast.
We’ve also learned it’s a lot more work. We really don’t have the number of guests to hire a lot of help, so we do most of it ourselves. Plus we get nervous because we want everything to be perfect and we just want them to enjoy everything.
What is the most pleasing aspect of running a bed and breakfast?
Meeting people, definitely. I don’t know if you know the old story about when Spencer Tracy first saw Katherine Hepburn. He said, “There’s not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce.”
So although we’re kind of off the beaten path and haven’t had that many guests, the ones we’ve had are “cherce.” We’ve had writers and artists and people in every line of work you can think of and I think it’s amazing that the whole spectrum of America seems to come right through this little town.
Plus, we are ‘people’ people and enjoy hearing stories about their lives. Everyone has a book in them. And when they see our pictures of me and Elvis, they want to hear about him.
What do you find most challenging?
I think promoting it has been the hardest part. Getting the guests here. When we started, we figured that Elvis fans in Memphis would come up here, as we are only about one and a half hours from Memphis by car, but when they get to Memphis they want to hang around there and see everything. We must say, however, the guests who do get here want to come back.
We had an open house and ribbon cutting and that was covered in all the local papers so people are finding out about us. Then Bob Greene wrote a story about finding a picture of me and Elvis --they had it hanging in the men’s room of a restaurant in Naples, Florida. Our son said, “I never know where my mom is going to turn up…” But I think that’s kind of unique and funny. People have been calling like crazy. I told Bob “Elvis is a friend who never stops giving.”
Do you have enough time for yourself?
When we have guests, we are really, really busy. But we’ve been married 50 years now and have been in each other’s pocket, so we know how to work well together. We’ve lived all over the world, but this is one of best places in the world to live. The people in little old Trenton are fantastic. We have some really good friends in this little town, so whenever we get too busy, they’re here to help.
I should tell you that we have 18 acres, plus two big dogs, four horses, and one cat. People ask how often Jim has to mow the yard and I tell them, “Just once. He starts in April and ends in October.”
Where do you focus your attention when marketing and advertising?
We’ve tried rentalo.com and bedandbreakfast.com, but it seems that the Elvis fans are really helping. There are hundreds of them that have us on facebook and since Bob Greene’s story came out we’ve had a lot of visits on our website. Recently, we’ve also been interviewed by Danish, British, and Canandian TV production companies for programs airing early next year. In addition, a PBS production ‘Tennessee Crossroads’ should air in January or February of 2012. So, hopefully, these should help.
What do you do you make your bed and breakfast different from others?
One thing that makes us unique is that we are the only B&B in the whole area. There’re two about 30 miles away in Jackson. Another thing is that we’ve traveled extensively overseas. We have a lot of antiques and interesting pieces and it’s decorated beautifully. A friend who does decorating helped us with it, and when we had our open house and ribbon cutting the turnout was great and the reaction very positive. What we’re proud of is that our guests leave as friends. We keep up with them and they send us pictures of their kids and grandkids. They don’t just stay for a night, they become friends. We never just accept the money and show them the room. It’s never like that. So I think it’s our friendliness and open attitude that set us apart.
Located in Trenton, Tennessee, midway between Memphis and Nashville, the three-bedroom Holly Tree Manor is a fashionable inn in Greek Revival style situated on 18 acres of beautiful Tennessee farmland. Guest rooms include a living room, a dining room, two spacious bedrooms with a shared bath, a suite of two rooms with a private bath, and an extensive library. In addition to an ample breakfast, an afternoon tea and home baked treats are served daily at 4 p.m.
And to learn more about other innkeepers, you can read about Lynette Scofield of the William Henry Miller Inn in Ithaca, New York and Daniel and JoAnna Jimenez of the Lake Morton B&B in Lakeland, Florida.