WATERFORD — Barbara Vanderzanden and her mother, Rosalie, were two New Jersey schoolteachers looking to upend their lives and start something new.
After scouting New England, three rooms into the tour, they knew the old 1825 Chadbourne homestead was the place to do it.
Two months after converting it into an inn, they opened for business.
“Everybody thought we were nuts,” said Vanderzanden, 71. “In the beginning, it was all 18-hour days because we were really working to get the place up and running, doing the decorating. We were so busy with all aspects of it, I don’t know that we ever really had time to say, ‘Do we like this or not?'”
The Waterford Inne celebrates 40 years this summer, and it’s still long days. Vanderzanden said she loves it, especially the guests, who after four decades feel like friends.
“We have a young man who has come the last couple years to visit his son at a local camp and when I first knew him, he was about 4, coming with his parents, visiting older siblings,” Vanderzanden said. “Our kitchen was off limits, nobody goes in our kitchen, but he did at 4, he’d walk right in, you’d think he ran the place. I met his wife, I said, ‘Jake, how much do you want me to tell her about when you were a little kid?'”
Each day at the inn, the table is set for breakfast the night before and she’s up at 6 a.m. to ready ingredients.
For a long time, Rosalie was the cook, and a very good one, her daughter said. She stopped cooking at 85 and died at age 90 in 2011. Since then, Vanderzanden and business partner and longtime friend Jan Beckwermert have split kitchen duties. Beckwermert cooks and Vanderzanden serves, and if guests are returning, Vanderzanden also catches up, gives directions and offers ideas for things to do.
They keep meticulous records: Who ate what the last time they stayed, and the time before that.
“We know who doesn’t like asparagus, who doesn’t eat eggplant,” said Beckwermert.
If guests are staying another night, they tidy rooms and bathrooms. If checking out, rooms need to be turned over.
Then there’s weeding, mowing, painting, grocery runs and more meals to plan. They serve a four-course dinner to the public at night by reservation, with 24 hours notice. There’s no menu; diners make requests or ask to be surprised.
The first summer they opened, “people came knocking on the door and said, ‘There’s no place (to eat) in the area. You serve dinner for your house guests, would you consider doing dinner for outside people?'” Vanderzanden said. “At first, (Rosalie) was horrified, ‘I can’t do that.’ But she did and we did and it ended up to be a big drawing card.”
People come to the inn’s eight rooms with sweet names like Appleyard and Maine Cabin to unwind and unplug. Some visit from overseas, wanting a slice of country life, others come to check in on children at local summer camps.
The inn has one TV, in a small library, and only got Wi-Fi 18 months ago.
In 1984, she and her mom started a tradition that Vanderzanden and Beckwermert have kept up, closing in March and April to travel and take a break.
“This spring we just did a trip around South America which was fabulous,” Vanderzanden said. “The lifestyle allows us to do that. It’s funny, when we’re traveling, you’re being waited upon and taken care of, but when we come home, we’re working, it’s the other side of the coin.”
She said she can’t imagine having done anything else with her career.
“I think of myself as an innkeeper; I don’t think of myself as a teacher who became an innkeeper,” said Vanderzanden. “This has been so much a part of my life and it has really been the happier years of my life. I never regret having come. I wasn’t born here, but I’ll die here.”
As for any plans to retire?
“Probably in 10 years,” she said, joking, “Do you think that’s too soon?”