The Coachmen

In 1993, Jack Barwick and his son, John, bought an old inn in Waterbury that had sat empty for years. Now, the Old Stagecoach Inn is a favored getaway for guests from all over.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Jack (right) and John Barwick, the father-and-son team who own the Old Stagecoach Inn in Waterbury, relax on the inn's new deck surrounded by some of the flowers they've planted.

Owning an old building is like owning a ship, says John Barwick. "You can work on the thing forever; if you let it go, you're really in trouble, but if you keep up with it, it's kind of rewarding. It's a beautiful place."

He should know. He and his father, Jack, own a building built in 1826 as a stagecoach stop and town meeting house in Waterbury. They bought the Old Stagecoach Inn, a lavender-painted Victorian, in 1993 from the Small Business Administration as an asset sale.

Jack calls running an inn "exactly like running a dairy farm: You have a property that you have to keep maintained; you start early in the morning; and you can't get away very often."

Of course, they're quick to add, that's only the downside. Both enthusiastically say there's an upside to running an inn, especially the chance to meet and mingle with a variety of fascinating people. "You regret many times that they're only here for one night, because it's so interesting to talk to them," says Jack.

The Barwicks looked for a year before they bid to purchase the Old Stagecoach. "We always knew about this place, but it was out of our range," says John.

"At that time, right after the go-go '80s, there were many businesses that had obtained loans through the SBA, so the SBA became the largest property holder in the country. The folks who bought the inn had done a major renovation over two years and ran it for a short time before running out of business, so it reverted to the SBA."

Wanting to sell and recoup as much of its money as possible the SBA kept it on the market a couple of years, making occasional price reductions, while the inn sat empty.

"Another major price reduction came along, and it was still out of our range, but we decided to go for it." A bunch of other people were also interested at that point, so the SBA asked potential buyers to submit a bid as well as a detailed business proposal. "Although we didn't have a lot of experience in innkeeping, we had a lot of experience with business proposals and models, both my dad and I loved to cook, and we just figured how hard can it be?" John laughs as he recalls this, adding, "It has turned out to be as hard or harder."

The Barwicks came to innkeeping the way many people do: through a desire to leave corporate America and do something completely different. What they had in their corner was years of experience working together in the corporate world.

A native of Pennsylvania, Jack attended prep school at Mount Hermon in Northfield, Mass., and graduated from Princeton in 1947.

With a degree in history and international relations, he had an opportunity to do some work at the London School of Economics, "but I was too busy having a good time," he says with a rueful chuckle. He did, however, work at the State Department until 1954, after which he returned to the New York area. For the next 30 years, he was a trainer for a series of large corporations such as IBM, he says, "mostly in human resources, human relations and interpersonal communications skills."

Jack married in 1956. John, the older of his two children, was born in 1958 in New York City.

"We only lived there for five years," John says. "We moved north into upstate New York and, when I was 13, moved to Connecticut."

After high school, John decided he wasn't going to go to college and moved, instead, to Boston with a friend "to play blues music." That's where he got his first job cooking breakfast. "I never thought the experience would come in so handy later on," he says.

After a couple of years, he did enter college to pursue an undergraduate degree in communications science at Central Connecticut State University, followed by graduate work in communications science at the University of Connecticut. "I was working on my thesis, and my dad pulled me in to help him on something that was only supposed to last a month," he says with a chortle, "so I never got my graduate degree."

That "something" was starting a training consulting business. Jack had developed and patented a system that automated the role-playing process using computers, laser disk players, cameras and tape recorders. "I was to help him develop that," says John. I ended up working with him for 10 years, from 1982 to 1992."

People remember the Old Stagecoach Inn as much for the parrot as for anything else, says co-owner Jack Barwick. On its cage in the inn's lovely parlor, Coco, their African gray parrot, holds court.

"It was fun and creative," says Jack, "because each of the programs was developed from scratch, and we used a lot of media very early on, going into advanced media concepts, particularly interactive television and then computerized uses of interaction but it was also fatiguing. When the opportunity came to get out of there, I was just as happy to settle into something else."

The company was a success. "At the end, it had about 30 employees," says Jack.

Once they bought the inn, they immersed themselves in it. "The SBA billed it as furnished, but it was very sparsely furnished," says John. "Fortunately, we had two houses full of antiques we could use. Deep cleaning was required everywhere, he says, as well as "ditching some of the comforters, mattresses and linens."

The inn has 13 rentable rooms: eight in the main part of the inn and five efficiency suites. John and Jack each live in an efficiency suite, leaving 11 rentable rooms. Rates range from around $50 up to $120 a night.

"In the lower ranges, we have three rooms," says Jack, "which we were unable to completely convert and furnish with a private bath, so we just had to keep those at a lower rate. Then you get on up to the more elaborate rooms," he says, "elaborate in that they have more antiques in them. The decor is more of what I'd call 'country elegant.' It's not 57th Street New York elegant; it's the kind of nice old furniture you would have found in a Vermont farmhouse, and we try to keep it that way."

Over the years, the Barwicks have learned the joys and challenges of owning an old building. "Once the temperature goes below 20 below," says John, "you find out where the weak points are in terms of the pipes. I think we've burst and corrected all the pipes that are in danger and put things in place that will keep it from happening again. We haven't had a major burst in like six years."

The Barwicks initially decided to run the inn without additional staff, "because having this not work out wasn't a possibility," says John. Doing everything meant quick burn-out, though, and when things began to go better, and they were more comfortable with running an inn, they hired housekeeping help. There are three part-time employees.

A typical day begins at 5:30. "I go straight over and flip on all the ovens and the waffle machines and start making coffee," John says. After making cinnamon rolls and muffins and readying the bacon and sausage, he makes potato pancakes and prepares the buffet table with one of the housekeeper/waitresses. They're ready to serve by 7:30.

Breakfast goes until 9 on weekdays, 10 on weekends. "We break it all down and clean up and are done by 11," John says.

They offer breakfast to the public, but don't advertise it, because on rainy days when the inn is full, they run out of space in the dining room. "Locals know about it, and we put a little sandwich board out that says 'breakfast now being served,'" says John.

The inn used to serve dinner to the public and guests, but no longer. "We do functions," says John, adding that the inn can accommodate 30 for a sit-down dinner and about 60 for a reception with hot and cold appetizers. "We own all the property out back, a nice, big, green field, where we can do weddings for up to 200."

They like to rent out the entire inn to groups, especially in slow seasons, he says. "They get the run of the place it's like they own the place for a while." At those times, he and Jack will create special dinners "in any way they want."

The requested check-out time is 11, so they start cleaning rooms right after breakfast. "Any time we're doing a task," says John, "we shift to another task, so if there's a lull in breakfast and we know a room's empty, we start to do it."

When breakfast clean-up is finished, John likes to meet with the groundskeeper, "and then it's shopping for the next day." He buys anything in Waterbury he can, "but I do prefer to go to Hannaford's or Costco; shopping is the only recreation I get," he says with a grin.

The rest of their day is made up of answering calls and handling interruptions.

By around 4 p.m., guests start checking in. "You wind down your serious stuff, because at that point, you have to be focused on the front of the inn. Once people have checked in, they want information about the area, and you have to be ready to socialize, to give them drinks, whatever."

Dressed in lavender paint and skirted by gardens, the Old Stagecoach Inn in Waterbury is a Main Street landmark.

Guests who stay more than a night or two might decide to take it easy and relax at the inn for a day. "We're always cognizant of who's in the inn, so we make sure we're not vacuuming around their chair kind of providing a level of comfort when they're around," John says.

The Barwicks haven't had to advertise the inn to any degree. "We get quite a mix here," says Jack. "I think a lot of that is explained by the fact that the minute they turn off I-89 onto Route 100, we're the first thing they see."

The inn is host to quite a few Canadians, Jack says, including "people from up around Ottawa and Montreal, traveling and visiting family in the Maritimes or on the coast, and Waterbury's about halfway." First-timers often don't have reservations. Sometimes, guests are people visiting family and friends in Waterbury.

Steve Sabol, vice president for business development at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the corporate headquarters of which are in Waterbury, can't say enough good things about visiting the Barwicks and the inn. "The Stagecoach is just a wonderful, old-time, hospitable place that has a tremendous amount of character and good will," he says. "John is a great person whose passion, when he's not in the inn, is fishing, and he is willing to talk about that any time. Jack is a well-traveled person with a lot of knowledge of the various parts of the world who's a delight to talk to, and adults and kids all get a kick out of Coco, a unique addition to the whole ambiance of the place."

Coco is the Barwicks' 7-year-old African gray parrot. "People remember the inn as much for the parrot as for anything else," says Jack, who decided to find a parrot when he recalled an inn in his Pennsylvania home town that had one.

Even with all the work and lack of privacy, the Barwicks are still having fun as innkeepers. John has created gardens around the inn and plans more. They've recently completed an outside deck surrounded by flowers.

Occasionally, someone asks about the ghosts that are rumored to haunt the inn, which have, at times, drawn the attention of journalists and writers such as Joe Citro, who recently did a story on it for Vermont Public Radio. "We keep a record of occurrences," says John. "They're just all wacky, and it does seem like an awful lot of people report these things. A guy with a dowsing rod who dowses for psychic energy came here, and according to him, there's ghosts all over the place."

While the previous owners used the hauntings in their marketing, the Barwicks don't. "It is kind of a double-edged sword, because not everyone wants to be in a place where there's ghosts," John says.

More people are seeking information on running a bed and breakfast themselves than on ghosts. "We get a lot of people who stay at the inn, and their objective is to go to a bunch of bed and breakfasts and find out what innkeeping is like," says John, 'because that's their idea of a romantic and fun life. I say, 'It is a fun life, but it's definitely not for everyone. It's not easy for some people to work together and to have people in your home at all times.'"

"They only see the upside of it," says Jack. "They see they can probably pick up a large, very nice dwelling somewhere, and they'll be dealing with people in a nice sort of way just for breakfast. But they don't realize how they're going to be tied down and how much their privacy's going to be invaded."

As for the Barwicks and their inn, Vermont has truly become home for them, says John. "My mom and her husband have since moved up to Stowe, which is really nice; my sister's renting a place in Stowe; and some cousins have moved to Waitsfield, so a family contingent is forming," says John.

"Anybody that's in an operation of this size strictly for the money should do something else," John says with a grim chuckle.

Originally published in August 2002 Business People-Vermont