The year 2020 will stand out in American history for events we’d rather forget, but I still believe every day is a gift, and I’ll cherish the time I’ve been given to stay home and explore my own neighborhood. Since March, I feel as though I’ve been running in place and connecting with people by learning to Zoom. The world may not be spinning in its old familiar way, but I feel lucky to live in Bath. If you love maritime history, nineteenth-century architecture, and people who think it’s important to be kinder than necessary, this cool little city will hug your heart and make you feel better. When the Corona virus began to limit travel, I started to take long walks. While rambling, I discovered green space laden with Queen Anne’s Lace, old brick buildings with new purpose, impressive statues, historic markers, carefully restored homes, and beautiful gardens that I had barely noticed before.
All the history around me moved me to take out my phone and snap pictures, and I wasn’t alone. Even when standing at my own front door, I saw passersby taking pictures of the flowers crowning the white fence across the street and then stopping again to take another picture of the Japanese maple tree next door. The streetscapes of Bath invite us all to savor every step, but they also remind us that change is inevitable.
On one of my walks, I realized two historic inns have gone missing since my husband and I arrived here seven years ago. Perhaps this loss is due to the Airbnb phenomenon or the new hotel on Route 1, or maybe the innkeepers simply wanted to move on to a new adventure. Whatever the reason, two inns have closed; the B&B experience once enjoyed at the Mulberry House (formerly the Galen Moses House) and the Kismet Inn is no longer available. I’m saddened by this loss because if my husband and I hadn’t stayed at one of Bath's historic inns, we may never have found our home on Washington Street. In 2013, in the middle of a February snowstorm, we stayed at The Inn at Bath because the Brunswick Inn was full; that unexpected turn of events was pure serendipity. On a snowy Saturday morning, sitting around a beautifully set table at The Inn at Bath, Joe and I met George Smith, the beloved Maine columnist, and his wife, Linda. For well over an hour, we chatted with the Smiths, and the innkeeper, Elizabeth Knowlton. After that fabulous breakfast, we decided to go exploring with a local realtor, and we found a house we couldn’t resist! Whether you call it kismet or serendipity, Joe and I have met dozens of people who share a similar story. Our experience suggests that innkeepers are more than ambassadors; they’re magicians who turn visitors into residents. Before another historic inn disappears, let me count the five that are continuing to make magic.
At 360 Front Street, you’ll find The Pryor House. Gwenda and Don Pryor purchased this classic B&B in 1999, and they’ve been welcoming guests there for twenty years—the longest stewardship at a Bath inn. This Federal-style colonial was built in the 1820s by a member of the Moses family, one of the most prominent families in Bath during the boom years of wooden shipbuilding. When Gwenda and Don decided to return to Maine from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Lindsey’s inn was up for sale. Gwenda, a social worker at the time, was looking for a creative outlet that would allow her to be a stay-at-home mom, and Elizabeth was over eighty-years old and ready to retire. As fate and Bath would have it, The Elizabeth B&B became the Pryor House, and two wishes came true.
Sitting on a hill, near the corner of Pearl and Front Streets—where the Moses shipyard once built square-rigs—this inn by the Kennebec River invites people to stay a while. With the Sewall and Patten shipyards flanking the Moses yard, it must have been a noisy spot in the 1800s, but now it’s quiet. In June, the Pryor’s daughter graduated from Morse High School as a varsity runner; in August, she left Bath to attend college. Her brother, however, continues running and studying (not in that particular order) at Morse. For the Pryor family, serving guests, like the man who invented the chip for Visa, has afforded them the opportunity to work together and to do what they love. Before COVID-19, the Pryors used to organize a block party every summer. One of their annual guests would drive up from the south with his smoker in tow, set up a sound system, and barbeque. All the neighbors would bring a side dish or a dessert, and everyone, including me, would eat and dance until dark. Looking back, I think we all enjoyed some magic on Front Street!
A block away from the Pryor House, nestled into the southeast corner of North and Washington Streets, you’ll find a garden with a bench, and behind that garden stands The Inn at Bath, a truly happy place. In 2001, the innkeeper, Elizabeth Knowlton, moved to Bath from Montana after selling her adventure-travel lodge, Bear Creek, which she ran for six years. I suspect Adventure is Elizabeth’s middle name because prior to owning a fly-fishing lodge, she taught school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On her quest for adventure, Elizabeth has certainly discovered how to make everyone feel welcome, and how to prepare the heartiest breakfast with fruit, yogurt, granola, bacon and eggs, and sometimes a little red pepper. In 2004, when Nick Bayard, the founder of the inn, asked her if she’d like to buy his B&B, she said yes within 24 hours. (Nick had purchased Marsha Dearborn’s elegant Greek-revival home, circa 1840, from her family in 1988 and successfully converted it into Bath’s largest B&B.) Recently, Elizabeth filled out a questionnaire that I sent to local innkeepers. She answered the fourth question—What is the occupation of your most famous guest?—with the word Writers; then she wrote: “Irene and Joe Drago, and they were here with Linda and George Smith!” Herein lies the secret to Elizabeth Knowlton’s success. Like magic, Elizabeth can make you smile!
Two blocks north of The Inn at Bath, near the corner of Washington and Pearl Streets, you’ll find the Benjamin F. Packard House. In December of 2004, Amy and Mark Hranicky decided it was time to live their dream. On their honeymoon in 1990, they had their first B&B experience in Cape May, NJ, and they glimpsed their future—someday they would be innkeepers. Fast forward back to 2004. After reading an article in Yankee Magazine about up and coming towns in New England, they narrowed their search for an inn to Bath. They visited that December and fell in love with the City of Ships. (This sounds like a familiar story.) When they returned for a second look in February, 2005, they uncovered their future at 45 Pearl Street.
Like a fairy tale with lots of twists, the Italianate-style home, circa 1845, had been built around a simpler, 1790 house; 140-years later, it was converted into an inn by Liz and Vince Messler. Later, it was sold to the Haydens, who kept it as a B&B for a number of years before converting it back to a private home in 2002. Amy and Mark bought their storied house with the intention of adding another bedroom, and returning it once again to a B&B. Clearly, the history of the Benjamin F. Packard House proves that change is the only constant. I’m convinced that the shipwright Benjamin Packard—the most famous owner of 45 Pearl—would agree. By all reports, Packard, who was also an owner of two shipyards, lived a bold life by keeping his eyes on the horizon. In their own way, Amy and Mark are following his lead. Recently, they told me their most memorable guests are quilters, a group of friends from north of Bangor who visit every year. Oh, the stories quilters tell—they must be unforgettable!
A few months after Amy and Mark purchased their inn on Pearl, Rachel and Ken opened The Kennebec Inn at 696 High Street—a short walk from their first inn, the William T. Donnell House, which they opened in 1997 and later sold as a private home. This detail fascinates me because I’m a docent at the William T. Donnell House at the Maine Maritime Museum, which was the home of the Donnell family when William T. was building ships with Gardiner Deering next to the Percy & Small yard. Once again, the beauty and success of The Kennebec Inn highlights the long reach of Bath’s shipbuilding history. (And let’s not forget, Long Reach was Bath’s original name.) In 2005, Rachel and Ken started to restore the circa-1850 Italianate on the south end—not far from the site of the South Church and the once bustling shipyards of Houghton, Rogers, and Deering & Donnell. If you love sea stories, this inn is brimming with them. The original owner, Captain James B. Perkins, was a master mariner during the “Halcyon Days” of Bath; in 1869, a few years after selling his home in Bath to Captain Samuel B Reed, he became the first director of the Eastern Steamboat Company, which operated out of Phippsburg. Sadly, the second owner, Captain Reed, was lost at sea, but his grand home still welcomes guests from near and far. In fact, at the Kennebec Inn, there are guest rooms named in honor of Captain Perkins and Captain Reed.
In 1843, John Bosworth Swanton—a descendant of William Swanton who is credited with building the first year-round shipyard in Bath in 1760—built a Greek Revival-style house at 888 Middle Street. Today, that stellar home bears the name Middle Street Inn. And it also carries the lovely distinction of being Bath’s newest, historic inn. In 2016, Chuck Spliedt and Jude Smith, discovered this gem after a year-long search; in 2017, they began the Herculean task of converting it into a comfortable B&B, and they welcomed their first guests the same year. Three years later, these new innkeepers have had the arduous task of adapting to ever-changing guidelines for health and safety. However, true to their new home, they have stayed the course. Chuck hails from Baltimore, Maryland, and he honed his hospitality skills there; Jude, born and raised in western Pennsylvania, left a corporate career to make heavenly breakfasts at a warm and cozy inn on Middle Street. (There seems to be a thread here—Bath innkeepers tend to come from away.) When I asked Chuck and Jude what was the occupation of their most famous guest, there answer surprised me: “Well, it’s not an occupation, but we had a granddaughter of a former U. S. President stay with us.” It would have been sweet to join that guest at the breakfast table!
For the inns of Bath, the pandemic of 2020 has been difficult to navigate, but my research shows that innkeepers have an enormous capacity to adjust to change. For innkeepers, a typical day starts with a freshly made breakfast, new guests at the table, and new stories to share. At the end of today, the good news is five historic inns remain in Bath.
While I was writing this blog, I learned that Elizabeth Knowlton has sold The Inn at Bath to a new innkeeper. Over a year ago, Elizabeth told me she was ready to pass the baton, and now she has gracefully passed it. Though we will miss her tender heart and her gift for listening kindly, we wish her fair winds and following seas and hope she visits us often with stories to tell.
Have you stayed at one of Bath's historic inns? If you haven't, please do. If you have, leave a comment and share your first impression.