By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
PERTH COUNTY, Ont. — So where do all the wonderful restaurants in the theatre town of Stratford, Ont., get their local meats and produce? It's in surrounding Perth County, which has its own charm complete with Mennonite buggies and something called “yarn bombing.” The county is also home to a number of hostelries, from smaller motels to century homes lovingly remodelled as B&Bs.
Sarah Franklin, tourism specialist for the County, describes it as a big donut, with Stratford as the hole in the middle. The “hole” is off-centre, much closer to the southern and eastern borders of the county. The county, which has a population of about 38,000 (not counting Stratford or St. Mary's), is bounded by Listowel and Palmerston in the north and St. Mary's and Tavistock in the south.
The brochure listing hotels, motels and inns in the county includes The Forest Motel and Woodland Retreat in Stratford, the Listowel Country Inn Motel in Listowel and the Shakespeare Inn in Shakespeare. But the list of area accommodations also includes B&Bs such as Windbreak Farm in Fullarton and Hardwood Haven in Listowel.
Today Windbreak Farm B&B and Woodworking is a well-restored century home, with a spacious front porch, gardens that include a miniature church, a woodworking shop out back and a horse named Misty roaming the grounds. It has three guestrooms named the Dove's Nest, the Robin's Retreat and the Swallow's Loft, the latter an aerie in the attic.
But when Cathy and Bob Hutson looked at the 110-year-old Windbreak Farm, located on Line 26 outside of Fullarton, more than two decades ago, the real estate agent didn't even want to show it to them.
“It was derelict,” Cathy told CLN. “It was in poor shape for sure, with lots of critters. Rob wanted to tear it down, but I saw the potential.” Renovating took three times longer and was three times more work than starting over, she added ruefully. “The first thing we fixed was the roof — when it rained we had 50 cooking pots catching water.”
Over the years, they renovated many things themselves, calling in contractors when necessary. “I knew Bob and I could do it ourselves, putting the house back [to its original condition] was a labour of love. We had to remove trim, lathe and plaster, finish the walls and floors. There was a big cistern in the attic with copper tubing, and pipes ran down from the gravity-fed cistern. There was one [clawfoot] tub up there, and we later added another one.”
“Cathy has an eye for colour, while I'm good working with wood,” said Bob, who restored all the woodworking in the rooms, adding new materials to replace those that were damaged in the originals.
Windbreak Farm was the Hutson's family home up until 2011, when they made the decision to convert it to a B&B. Cathy was raised in the tourist industry, as her family owned a camp in French River, Ont. She had always wanted to do something similar — interacting with people and giving them a holiday. They were both homebodies, who didn't mind being tied down. Bob worked as a teacher for 30 years, leaving that career in his mid-50s. In preparation for that move, he went to Fanshawe College for cabinet making. In the meantime, Cathy was working various jobs. The idea of running a B&B would allow both to work from home, earn a few dollars and would suit Cathy's hospitality and cooking skills admirably well.
“We get a lot of repeat business,” Cathy said. “A lot of people have come for six years in a row. They always want to know what's different, what's new on the menu.” Cathy even published a cookbook titled Savour the Morning Flavours, printing 100 copies and selling it at the B&B last year.
“The majority of our guests are from urban areas. And it's been a very long time or their first time spending a night in the country,” Bob said.
Hardwood Haven, located in Listowel, Ont., is even older than Windbreak Farm, with the original house built in the 1850s and a newer part added in 1877. It's located in Listowel, a community of 7,500, whose major employers are Listowel Technology, the Memorial Hospital and Spinrite Inc., billed as Canada's largest wholesale yarn company, and its factory outlet.
Owners Ty and Fay Cross,
who bought the house in 2009, have many stories about the building's history. For example, previous owner Andrew Malcolm, who owned a furniture factory, won the house in a poker game. He took two rooms on the main floor, combined them and put in all hardwood floors to create a ballroom. Some of his furniture still remains at the B&B, including single beds in one of the guest rooms.
“His work was so elegant — he furnished the Royal York and other CP [now Fairmont] hotels,” Fay told CLN.
The house was also used as an officers' mess with a radio room in the tower and cartoon drawings from that era on the wall.
“People who come here are either working in town or visiting family and friends,” said Fay. “We get a few weddings — the wedding party gets changed here and they take pictures here. We get yarn shoppers, and cyclists, though we are a little bit off the G2G [Guelph to Goodrich] Rail Trail. In the last year or so, people from Kitchener have come for a night away — they like the ambiance, the special feeling here. This week we had people from Ottawa, China and the U.S. — all three working on business the whole week.”
“Very few of our guests are drive-by,” added Ty. “We get some from the Internet, with people googling Listowel.”
B&Bs talk about Airbnb
The Hutsons are members of SABBA, the Stratford Area Bed & Breakfast Association, which requires members to adhere to some very high standards, and includes biannual water, fire and health unit inspections.
“It's nice because it gives a good impression — SABBA has a good reputation,” said Cathy. “They're not threatening at all and should be welcomed by all B&B owners. It helps us all and gives a good impression of Stratford.”
They tried using Airbnb this year, and to date have had 12 reservations come through them. “It was a good experience and the people were wonderful,” said Cathy. “Airbnb encourages you to drop your price, but I'm not going to stoop to that.” Bob also noted that 11 of the 12 parties were young professionals, compared to middle-aged or elderly people coming from other sites.
“We haven't tried [Airbnb],” said Fay Cross. “We debated and tossed ideas out. But when you look at regulations regarding fires, lighting and doors, it's hard for me to to be a part of it.” Ty adds that they are a licensed, regulated B&B — “it's a way to differentiate ourselves.”