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Waitsfield's Round Barn Farm Owner Seeks a Successor

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On March 13, as the Mad River Valley was digging out from two feet of snow, the Inn at the Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield was filled to capacity with skiers and stranded travelers. While its full-time staff of 11 kept their guests comfortable and well fed, owner and innkeeper AnneMarie DeFreest was two hours away on more urgent business: She was at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for an MRI to find out whether an unwelcome guest in her own head was a ticking time bomb.

DeFreest, whose parents, Doreen and Jack Simko, rescued the historic barn and inn from collapse in 1986 — she took it over in 1994 — has known about her brain tumor since last summer. In 2011, she began experiencing severe facial pain initially diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia, dubbed "the suicide disease" because many patients take their own lives to escape their suffering. Then, in June of that year, a subsequent brain scan revealed the cancerous tumor, which was surgically removed soon thereafter.

But in July 2013, DeFreest says her cancer "came back with a vengeance": Her doctors discovered a second, pinky-size growth, which led to 30 rounds of radiation. Her most recent MRI was to see whether those treatments had slowed, or even reversed, the tumor's advance.

"This is her second time around. That would be hard for anybody," laments Charlie Menard, who's been head chef at the Inn at the Round Barn since 2000. (Most of DeFreest's employees have been with her for more than a decade.) "But AnneMarie is a tough woman, and she's been able to carry a lot."

That she has, but now DeFreest needs to pick her battles. Last year, she got news that her cancer had returned just as she and her attorney were preparing a case before the Vermont Supreme Court. They were appealing a decision by the Vermont Department of Taxes, which had fined her $95,000 for not collecting a 9 percent service tax on her staff who serve at Round Barn functions. Though DeFreest had been ready to challenge that decision, by August she realized it wasn't worth compromising her health over a protracted and costly legal fight.

She has enough to worry about managing a 12-room inn and events venue that hosts 35 to 50 major functions a year and supports 45 employees. So DeFreest bit the bullet, wrote "a big fat check to the State of Vermont" and focused her energy on her recovery — and on planning her exit strategy.

DeFreest's three kids, who are 19, 20 and 21 and all in college, are savvy enough to run the business, she says. However, she wants to let them choose their own paths in life. Her parents and brother live nearby but are not able to take it on. So DeFreest is trying to sell the Round Barn — but not just to the highest bidder. She wants to find a like-minded successor. In addition to having the financial wherewithal to afford the $4 million property, that person or couple, she says, needs to understand the unique role the Round Barn plays in the life cycle of the community.

Several recent events illustrate that role, and how locals regard the venue. Before Arthur Williams died on December 28 at the age of 87, the former two-term state representative from Fayston told his family he wanted his memorial service held in the Round Barn. Williams easily could have chosen Sugarbush Resort, which he'd help to develop in the 1950s as one of its original investors. Or even the Vermont Statehouse, where Williams served for years as curator and fundraiser for its historical restoration.

So why the Round Barn? For one, it's where his wife, Hanne, was memorialized several years earlier, DeFreest explains. "And," she adds, "he loved our deviled eggs."

It's fitting that a community leader in the Mad River Valley was remembered in the iconic locale. But DeFreest doesn't reserve that honor just for the influential and well heeled. Williams' memorial was one of three end-of-life celebrations held there in as many weeks recently — along with two weddings and a large business function.

When Rick Klein, a builder from Warren, died unexpectedly on January 31 of a massive heart attack, his wife, Lori, who cofounded the Artisans' Gallery in Waitsfield, didn't know where to hold his funeral — until she heard from her old friend.

"AnneMarie called me immediately and said, 'The barn is yours. You tell me what you want and when you want it, then don't worry about another thing,'" recalls Klein. DeFreest not only provided the barn for free, Klein says; she donated all the food, alcohol and arrangements "out of the goodness of her heart."

DeFreest did something similar two years ago for Doreene Stewart of Fayston, who runs nearby Eagles Resort in Waitsfield. After her husband, Andrew, a longtime ski instructor in the valley, was found dead at Mad River Glen in February 2012, DeFreest opened up the barn for his service, too — also at no charge. Despite a massive snowstorm that day, more than 500 mourners attended.

"Andrew was the kind of person who'd give you the shirt off his back, and AnneMarie is like that, too," Stewart says. "We're so fortunate to live in a community where people are so giving, and the Round Barn is very giving to people in this community."

"It's a responsibility that the next successor needs to think about," DeFreest explains. "It's not always about the almighty dollar."

Indeed, she has already turned down several full-price offers for her property. They include one from a developer who wanted to build a village of sustainable cottages there, and another from a wealthy couple in New York City who proposed turning the Round Barn into a high-end drug-rehab facility.

"They'd be walking around the barn in circles trying to get off drugs," DeFreest says. "That is not why my parents and I put this place back together and why I've poured my heart and soul into it for the last 28 years."

She wants to sell to someone who understands "the significance of owning this particular building, in this particular community, in this particular state," DeFreest says. "I look at how many people have gotten married here and how many of them come back here, year after year, for their anniversary."

On any given day, spring through fall, those couples can often be seen picnicking on her lawn with their kids. Those families never need to ask DeFreest's permission. They know they're always welcome.

The influence of the Round Barn in the last 20 years has extended well beyond the Mad River Valley, too, as an incubator of other successful businesses, nonprofits and cultural events, including the Vermont Fresh Network, the Green Mountain Cultural Center and the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals.

All successful entrepreneurs want their legacy to live on. But DeFreest knows she can't hold out forever waiting for the perfect suitor. Her father's mother, sister and first cousin all died of brain tumors by the time they were 68, and DeFreest, who turns 50 in October, doesn't know whether time is on her side.

"This isn't about me," she says. "It's about our community and what's going to happen to my staff."

Creating a Sense of Place

Just days before this month's major snowstorm, DeFreest and a reporter, accompanied by her black Lab, Cooper, sit down on a couch in the inn to discuss the Round Barn's past and future. DeFreest, who personally oversaw all the interior design, points out many of the historical touches preserved from the original 1810 farmhouse, including its ceiling medallions, handcrafted woodwork and wide-planked hardwood floors.

DeFreest says she wanted the inn to retain a very specific "sense of place." For example, its 12 rooms aren't numbered but rather are named after many of the families who first settled in the valley, including the Abbotts, Joslyns, Palmers and Sterlings.

As we talk, two newlyweds who just got married in the barn are outside taking photos on the front porch. DeFreest glances outside and grimaces.

"They're taking pictures in front of my crappy old stairs," she says. "I wish the new ones were installed."

Among the 35 to 50 weddings held in the Round Barn annually, this is one of the smallest. The couple booked the inn's elopement package, which includes a weekend stay, flowers, wedding cake, photographer and on-staff justice of the peace. (Price: $1,070.)

Though the Mad River Valley has long been a popular wedding destination for Vermonters and out-of-towners alike, that wasn't the case before DeFreest's parents renovated the property. In fact, her mom says that hosting weddings wasn't even on their radar.

"That wasn't our plan at all," Doreen Simko says with a chuckle. "It's just the path we followed."

The Simkos and their five children began coming to the Mad River Valley in the 1970s to ski. When the couple turned 50, they decided to sell their home and wholesale flower business in Somerset, N.J., and "retire" to Waitsfield.

In 1984, Jack Simko, who'd driven by the round barn for years and was curious about its unusual, 12-sided architecture (see sidebar on page 33), asked then-owner Ralph Joslyn if he could peek inside. According to DeFreest, Joslyn, a crusty Vermont dairy farmer in his eighties, barked, "Nobody goes in my barn!"

As the story goes, in 1969 Joslyn's wife, Marge, had given Ralph an ultimatum: "Either the cows go or I do." Within a week, his entire herd was auctioned off, and the barn doors were shut and not reopened for years. In 1986, when Jack Simko finally ventured inside, yellowed milk slips still hung on the wall. (Many remain there today.)

However, once the cows were removed, so too was the barn's sole heating source, which resulted in the building frosting and heaving each winter. When the Simkos acquired it in 1986, one side of the barn sagged 16 inches below ground level, while the other had lifted 18 inches. Only later did they discover that the foundation was nothing but stumps and fieldstones. DeFreest remembers the first time she saw the barn: "It was bowed out like an egg and about to topple over."

The Joslyns interviewed the Simkos for four hours before they finally agreed to sell the farm, which had been in their family for seven generations. "It's very similar to the position I'm in now," DeFreest notes.

Initially, the Simkos' goal was to renovate the 14,000-square-foot farmhouse, which local zoning had grandfathered in as an inn; it had operated as such until six months before it was sold. In the years after Mad River Glen opened in 1948 — Sugarbush opened about a decade later — the Valley had so few lodgings that out-of-town skiers often rented beds in local farmhouses.

The Joslyns' place was one such ski hostel. It had four bedrooms, with 10 bunk beds per room, and two bathrooms: one for men, the other for women. Skiers brought their own sleeping bags and, for $25 a night, got a bed along with hot breakfast and dinner. Before skiers headed to the slopes each morning, DeFreest says, Marge Joslyn asked them what kind of pie they wanted for dessert that night.

Ironically, the reason DeFreest is now selling the inn — cancer — also explains how she first got involved in the family business. In 1985, DeFreest graduated with a journalism degree from Emerson College, then took a job working for ABC News' Paula Zahn. At the time, DeFreest was also overseeing the catering department at Harvard University — a position she assumed after waiting tables there for extra money. DeFreest often hosted large affairs for major heads of state, including Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana, as well the Philippines' then-president Corazon Aquino.

In May 1987, DeFreest was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her leg. Following surgery to remove it, she took a leave of absence from both jobs to convalesce in Waitsfield and eventually relearn to ski — as a teen she'd been an avid ski racer. DeFreest moved into her parents' inn-to-be, set up their accounting system and wrote their brochures. The place opened to the public, with six rooms, in August 1987.

And she decided to stay. At first just the three of them ran the inn, DeFreest recalls. She did all the housekeeping and cooking, while her parents served their guests. About six months after opening the inn, they turned their attention to renovating the barn.

To do so, they hired Milton Graton of Holderness, N.H., who at the time was an octogenarian covered-bridge builder who had restored the historic round barn at Shelburne Museum As DeFreest explains, though their round barn was barely standing, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To get it up to code and comply with national standards meant installing fire sprinklers but not making any major structural alterations. Visitors to the inn today are surprised to discover a 65-foot lap pool in the barn's basement, which serves dual purposes: recreation and water source for the sprinkler system.

Doreen Simko, a lifelong arts enthusiast, says that for a brief time she considered dividing the barn's second floor into artists' studios, with an exhibit space and shop in the hayloft. But that idea was shelved when they discovered that local zoning wouldn't allow retail there. Simko eventually satisfied her desire to be a patron of the arts by founding the nonprofit Green Mountain Cultural Center, which is still headquartered in the Round Barn. The venue also hosts Green Mountain Opera Festival events, as well as an annual Vermont photography exhibit and Art in the Round Barn, a juried art show.

In 1989, when the barn's $300,000 renovation — more than the Simkos paid for the original property — was still in the works, the family received a propitious visit from a Fayston couple. They asked when the construction would be completed, as they wanted to get married there. DeFreest says she and her parents were stunned. They couldn't imagine why anyone would want to have a wedding in the barn. Still, they agreed on an August date the following year.

And so in August 1990, the Inn hosted its first wedding — and three others that year — charging each party a nominal facilities fee of $500. In those years, the barn had no bathrooms, kitchen or caterer. "It was basically a really sturdy tent," DeFreest recalls, "with a swimming pool in the basement."

The rest is local history. A few years later, when Doreen was diagnosed with cancer, DeFreest took over the inn's daily operations and has run it ever since.

Early on, it became clear to DeFreest that she wanted an exclusive caterer to prepare all of the venue's meals.

"Word-of-mouth was how we were building our business at the time," she says, "and I quickly learned that every component of the event had to be something I was proud of, because it was my reputation."

DeFreest turned to her old friend Annie Reed, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute who was running Cooking From the Heart Catering. Both women wanted to serve food that was fresh, seasonal and local.

The rise of the Inn at the Round Barn as a wedding venue fortuitously paralleled the resurgence of small-scale farming in the Mad River Valley, says Lisabeth Magoun, now special-events coordinator at Waitsfield's Lareau Farm Country Inn, home to American Flatbread.

Magoun worked at the Round Barn for nine years and, before that, for Cooking From the Heart. She says that because the inn was planning events 18 to 24 months in advance, it was easy to arrange with local farmers to raise specific crops and livestock to meet its catering needs. Thus was born the Vermont Fresh Network, which provides seed money to local farmers by connecting them with regular local buyers and a predictable demand for their goods.

The Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals was another outgrowth of the Round Barn's operations. Susan Klein, executive director of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, credits DeFreest and her parents for creating not just an events venue but fostering a wedding industry that now feeds millions of dollars into the local economy. (See sidebar.)

From Success to Successor

To find a suitable new owner of the Round Barn, DeFreest has developed a two-pronged approach. It includes working with Inn Partners, a Brattleboro-based firm with more than 30 years of experience connecting innkeepers and bed-and-breakfast owners with prospective buyers. Co-owner Bill Oates, often referred to as the "guru of the inn business," has consulted in the sales of more than 200 inns around the country. He's confident that the Inn at the Round Barn will find its rightful "heir."

But DeFreest isn't relying solely on Oates. She's also put the word out among her vast network of contacts that her property is on the market. She says she's even willing to sell the property for less than its appraised market value of $3.95 million in order to keep the Round Barn operating as a financially sustainable business.

While DeFreest discusses the Round Barn's future, two of her guests poke their heads in to say hello and compliment her on their moonlight snowshoe and dinner the night before. John Reilly and Heather Rhodes, both Massachusetts police officers, are what DeFreest calls "three-time offenders" — they're enjoying their third visit to the inn. Nearly 40 percent of the inn's guests are repeat visitors, she notes.

"The food's incredible, the chef's incredible, the building is incredible," Reilly gushes. "I had stuff I'd never had before and probably will never have again. And I have never slept so good."

"This is a bed-and-breakfast," DeFreest tells him. "If you screw up the bed, you don't get a good night's sleep and you serve a crappy breakfast, what's the point?"

After the couple leaves, DeFreest explains how she's interviewing every prospective buyer and asking them such questions as, "How do you define community?" and "Tell me about a positive travel experience you've had."

Recently, she declined an offer from an Indiana couple who, she says, "said all the right things and had all the right money." Still, DeFreest opted not to sell to them, in part because the woman never once smiled. DeFreest says she couldn't imagine how that woman would interact with repeat customers such as Reilly and Rhodes, who return not just for the food and scenery but also for the hospitality.

Just before this story went to press, DeFreest received some rare good news: Her MRI revealed that her tumor hasn't grown, and two prospective buyers were visiting the property that week — one of them particularly promising. This time, DeFreest says, she's hopeful that person will share her vision of the Round Barn's future.

"There's a special thing that happens in the Mad River Valley that I define as community," she says. "And I'll know it when I find it."

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