On September 13, 2023

Family can’t find home, buys Ripton’s inn

 

By John Flowers/Addison County Independent

RIPTON — In addition to abundant rainfall, this summer has brought numerous housing inquiries from people seeking to relocate to an Addison County that has few available homes to offer.

The Guilbeau family of Austin, Texas, was among those seeking to lay down new roots in greener and steeper Green Mountain pastures. And when their search for a conventional home came up empty, they took a novel approach: They acquired Ripton’s 195-year-old Chipman Inn, which they hope will become both their long-term home and a successful business venture.

And in addition to housing the Guilbeaus and what they hope will be a steady stream of guests, the Chipman Inn will also provide haven to a weary traveler from a war-torn land: Ukrainian national Svetlana Osetska, an extended family member who recently left her homeland in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion. 

“Given the circumstances in her homeland, I felt it was right to offer (Osetska) a longer refuge, at least until there’s peace back in Ukraine,” Elizabeth Guilbeau said. “Her presence has not only enriched our lives, but also provided her with a meaningful role and purpose amidst the challenges.”

The Guilbeaus’ trek to cooler climes had been in the works for several years. 

“I’ve wanted to move to Vermont for a while, to live in the New England area and get away from the Texas heat,” said Guilbeau, whose family includes husband Christopher and children Ruby (12), Narrah (9), Julien (7).

Christopher is a software developer whose job remains mobile, while Elizabeth has been a stay-at-home mom to their children, two of whom began classes this week at Ripton Elementary School.

They eventually whittled their search down to the Middlebury area, but found few housing options. Elizabeth’s eyes ultimately came upon the Chipman Inn for-sale listing, and she was intrigued.

“It was a bit out of our price range,” she acknowledged. “But I thought, ‘I could run an inn.’”

She and her husband both have experience in the hospitality industry, having worked at restaurants and hosted guided trips in northern Arizona.

“I saw the inn as an opportunity and it also gave me a career path, because I’ve been looking for my next (professional) step,” she said. “The kids are in school now and I wanted to do something.”

Elizabeth holds a degree in communications from Louisiana Tech University and believes that will be an asset in promoting the Chipman Inn.

“The innkeeper who was here (Chis Bullock) was so great, but the one thing that might have been lacking was marketing, and I can do that,” she said. “I can make the inn better known and more profitable.”

The Addison County Economic Development Corp. helped the Guilbeaus put together a financing package to buy the inn. That package includes a $100,000 loan through the ACEDC’s revolving loan fund, which is capitalized by USDA/Rural Development. ACEDC Executive Director Fred Kenney has introduced the family to representatives of Middlebury College, Porter Hospital, the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Department of Tourism and other area innkeepers.

Historically, the Chipman Inn has offered nine guest rooms. It will now offer five, to ensure adequate living quarters for the Guilbeau family of six.

“We’ve taken over one side of the house and are renting out the other side,” Elizabeth explained.

The Guilbeaus plan to continue the inn’s long-running tradition as a comfortable, convenient lodging spot for tourists, hikers, skiers and leaf peepers. The inn was built in 1828 by Daniel Chipman, a former U.S. House Representative from Vermont, as well as a founder and professor of law at Middlebury College. The original farmhouse began operating as an inn and public dining room in 1974.

Both the Rikert Outdoor Center and Middlebury College Snow Bowl are not far from the inn, as is the college’s Bread Loaf campus.

“I think this has the vibe for people coming for the outdoor experience,” Guilbeau said.

Asked what changes she might be contemplating to inn operations, Guilbeau said she’d like to transform the building’s taproom into a coffee shop that would also offer beer, wine, tea, hot chocolate, pastries and breakfast tacos. She’s looking to make that change sometime next year.

Also on the agenda — convert from door keys to door codes, while streamlining the online reservation process.

“We want to bring more technology” to the operation, Guilbeau said.

Elizabeth believes she can cover most of the innkeeping bases, with a little help — some of which will be provided by Osetska, whose daughter Lena is married to Elizabeth’s brother, Paul Miles. Lena and Paul met and fell in love in Ukraine around a dozen years ago. But as tensions escalated in the Eastern European nation in 2022, Miles and Lena recognized the gravity of the situation and formed an exit plan for her mother, Svetlana Osetska. She landed in Oklahoma several months ago, Guilbeau explained.

When the Guilbeaus bought the inn on June 23, they invited Osetska to join them and get a glimpse of a terrain that’s perhaps the polar opposite of Oklahoma.

Osetska quickly agreed and hasn’t regretted it for a second. She conversed with this reporter with the aid of translation software in her smartphone.

She recounted how several years ago, she dreamed that if she had $1 million, she’d buy a home surrounded by mountains and forestland. She imagined a place like Switzerland.

“It seemed to me that such a paradise could only be (in Switzerland),” she said. “But when I arrived in Vermont, I realized my dream was here.”

Though its terrain still bears scars of recent flooding, Ripton stands in sharp contrast to Osetska’s hometown of Dnipro, an industrial city of a million residents in central Ukraine. Dnipro and its airport have sustained multiple airstrikes since the war broke out last year. Rocket blasts injured nine in a city apartment block this past July. Russian missiles have targeted city infrastructure, as well as industrial and residential areas in the city, according to Osetska. She spoke solemnly of the impact the bombing has had on her psyche.

“The first two months when I lived in Oklahoma, I shook at every sound. I was scared of everyone and from every thunderstorm. Even when the door is slammed hard, I shudder and am scared,” Osetska said. “Although I live in Vermont now and no one shoots, I wonder what is happening in Ukraine and all the people I know there — my loved ones.” 

Russia’s strategy, Osetska believes, includes terrorizing Ukrainians to diminish their appetite for defending their sovereignty.

“The Russians can’t win at the front, so they try to intimidate ordinary people who don’t fight,” she said. “They hope people will demand an end to the war.”

She has no idea about the fate of many of her friends, some of whom have scattered across the globe in their quest for safety.

Her time in Vermont has helped numb the pain she’s been carrying around for more than a year.

“Every time we go somewhere by car, I’m surprised I can look out the window and enjoy everything I see,” she said. “I’ve been to several countries in Europe, I’ve been to Egypt and Israel, but I haven’t experienced such pleasure anywhere, just looking out the car window. I have not seen anything like this, anywhere.”

A refugee of war, spontaneity and the ability to adapt have become second nature to Osetska. So she’s perfectly willing to roll up her sleeves to help take care of the inn. A trained physicist, Osetska’s resume also includes stints as an artist and embroiderer.

Her artwork can already be seen in the stairwell leading up to the second floor of the inn.

Osetska’s long-term goal is to return to Ukraine, though she’s willing to rethink her future as circumstances demand.

For now, she’s basking in the glow of her new surroundings. “For me, this is an amazing adventure,” she said. “I believe God doesn’t do anything by chance.”

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