At the National Trail Schoolhouse Inn Bed & Breakfast, a love of food and a historic building have guests leaving Brownsville steeped in school spirit.
Funny, how the definition of a decent breakfast differs from person to person. For instance, there are those who wouldn't know an egg frittata from an Egg McMuffin, and generally have their morning meals served by the good people at Starbucks.
And then there's George and Betty Weber's version of breakfast.
"We knew you wouldn't wake up early," says Betty, a knowing smile on her face as she watches her bleary-eyed guest - who'd planned on waking up well before 8 a.m. - straggle into the cozy dining room of the National Trail Schoolhouse Inn Bed & Breakfast in Brownsville.
Betty, 65 years old and all Virginia drawl, is delicately placing plates of food on a glass supper table. Only, they're not so much plates as platters: a platter for the fresh fruit, dangling from wooden skewers; for the mountain of eggs, scrambled with a dollop of cream cheese; for the smoked pork chop, whose scent escaped the kitchen and enveloped the house as soon as it hit the skillet; and for the French toast casserole: a baked, golden-brown concoction stuffed with sliced peaches, smothered with custard, sweetened with brown sugar, and comforting in the way that only something warm and homemade can be on a chilly October morning.
"I think every guest that stays here oversleeps," she says, not noticing that the sight of so much food has sent her guest from bleary-eyed to bug-eyed. "People are always asking me, 'What do you put on the bed sheets that makes them feel and smell so good?' They think it's something expensive I put in the wash."
Betty lowers her voice and leans in close, her chestnut-colored hair skirting her shoulders. "It's just Snuggle."
From the food to the fabric softener, the motto at the National Trail Schoolhouse Inn is a simple one: Make visitors feel comfortable. First-time B&B operators and amateur chefs George and Betty Weber joke that any success they've had with the Schoolhouse Inn over the past six months that they've owned it can be attributed purely to research. "B&Bs for Dummies," George, a retired steel fabricator now clad in a cooking apron, says with a laugh. But the warm atmosphere - he insists that no one leave without a hug, she routinely sends guests to bed with a piece of freshly baked pie - is more likely due to the couple treating each visitor as indulgently as they would their six children and 14 grandchildren. That inviting tone would explain why one recent overnight guest didn't hesitate to ask if, along with her homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, she could also have chocolate-covered strawberries for breakfast. (George and Betty chuckle and shrug their shoulders at the memory; they of course accommodated.) Or, why a minister from a nearby town has no qualms about occasionally swinging by just to tickle the ivories on the baby grand piano, gleaming near an antique Victorian buffet.
And the Webers wouldn't have it any other way.
"For probably 25 years, we talked about one day having a mom-and-pop-restau-rant type of place," says George, who likes to unwind by reading recipe books. "The kind of place where you get to know the people who come in, and they get great food, and they can sit around and feel comfortable and know that they're welcome."
Of course, even without all the hospitality and home cooking, the charming Schoolhouse Inn is steeped in enough history and character to provea popular draw.
"It's so funny," says Betty. "When I was young, I used to always have this recurring dream of walking up and down the steps of an old schoolhouse. That was the whole dream: just me, walking around an old school.
"And now..." she says, letting the thought trail off as she gestures around the dining area, its large, white display shelf lined with dozens of weathered texts - a 1910 edition of Speaking and Writing, next to collector-worthy McGuffey Readers from nearly 80 years ago - that echo the B&B's academic roots.
"You have to take a look at this," says George, handing his guest a small maroon notebook, titled "Your Memory In Cloth Covers, 1908."
The notebook is actually a journal that belonged to a teacher, Frank H. Palmer, whose perfect penmanship throughout not only recalls some of the significant events of the last century, but is also a reminder that this renovated B&B was once known as Brownsville School: "Mon. Feb. 3: Still cold and windy. Dreadful weather. Only 7 pupils at school. King Carlos I and the Crown Prince of Portugal assassinated February 1. ..."
There's no mystery to the Schoolhouse Inn's past life, even before visitors step through the side door and into the spacious country kitchen adorned with clues: a row of vintage lunchboxes sitting atop a cabinet; an antique chalkboard affixed to the wall; two aged American flags hanging in a corner, seemingly waiting for a chorus of students to rise and recite "The Pledge of Allegiance."
Outside, motorists cruising the National Road can see a bell tower perched high above the B&B, sharing the same air as the top branches of the maple and ash trees that dot the yard. The bell's trigger is a braided, 100-year-old rope that runs down through the inside of the building like a frayed support beam - straight through a niche in the second story's hardwood floors and ending downstairs, its slack curled up neatly about 100 feet from the kitchen.
Some mornings, George or Betty will walk over to the rope and give it a hard tug, sending the cast iron clanging across town and reminding longtime residents of the days, from 1900 to 1948, when they walked to Brownsville School with their lunch pails in tow.
"You look at these steps, and you can't help but wonder about all the children who used to run up and down them," says George, standing at the bottom of the dark-wood staircase that once led Licking County students to their high school classrooms, and today carries the B&B guests to renovated bedrooms. He's right: It's easy to imagine a stampede of kids grabbing hold of the heavy railing and racing up the flight of hollow stairs - especially since the original coat hooks from which they'd hang their jackets are still there, waiting for them at the top.
In fact, from the blend of country and primitive furnishings to the countless features preserved from its school days, it's no wonder that so many former students have been drawn back to the building, lured by the authentic feel of their lovingly preserved alma mater.
"We had a reunion here about four or five weeks ago for a bunch of people who had gone to this school," says George. "The oldest one was 95." The 41 guests came for a Sunday afternoon of lounging on the expansive patio to relive decades-old memories together - only a few hundred yards from the outdoor spring from which Brownsville School's teachers would have the students fetch water - and enjoying a country-style buffet prepared by the Webers: fried chicken, ham loaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, pickled beets and eggs, and a host of fruit pies. "They decided right then that they were going to come back again next year," says George.
Members of the group toured inside the old school, too, seeing how even such original features as the large stage on the second floor, once used for drama productions, has been left intact (even the hidden footlights are still there), as well as the tin ceiling looming above it. The stage now serves as an upstairs leisure area for the guests, outfitted with a fireplace, cushy sofa, oversized loveseat and ottoman, and equipped with a DVD player, stereo system, big-screen TV and the building's second piano.
"If you come here with your family or some friends, you have that whole upstairs to kick back, talk, laugh - you can't find that in a motel," says George, pointing out that the intimate and relaxing second floor also boasts a pool table, mini-fridge (stocked with sodas) and microwave (packets of microwaveable popcorn and tea bags set above it). "In some B&Bs, you kind of feel like you're intruding in someone else's house: like you're using their living room, their bedrooms, so it's hard to feel comfortable," he says. "But this place is so big â€¦ it really seems like your own space."
And with a permanent outdoor wedding pavilion, picturesque surroundings, and an exterior staircase, allowing brides to make a dramatic descent from the B&B to the backyard altar, that space is increasingly being occupied by couples coming to get married at the Schoolhouse Inn.
"You'll have to excuse the leaves - we just had a bride who begged me not to rake them," says George, apologizing for the dried, crimson and mustard-colored foliage scattered across the B&B's back lawn.
"You should see our wedding pictures, with all those leaves lying around; they're absolutely gorgeous," says Stephanie Knirck, the Akron newlywed who'd married her husband, Dave, at the B&B the previous weekend. "I've known my whole life that I wanted to get married outside, in autumn."
For Knirck, 27, the leaves just seemed like the cherry on top of what had already felt like the perfect choice of wedding venue for the couple and their 140 guests. "I thought it was so neat: It being a schoolhouse, my [maiden] name being School," she says.
But the real highlight came when that bell in the tower high above the Schoolhouse Inn - the one that used to signal the beginning of another day at Brownsville School - rang to announce the start of the Knircks' lives together.
"We watched the wedding video the other night," says Knirck. "It's amazing: The part where the minister pronounces us man and wife, and [then] you hear the school bell start ringing ... that just gives me chills."
The other time that bell gets rung, says Betty, is when the smells wafting from the kitchen haven't already woken the overnight guests, leaving all those platters of breakfast food to get cold.
"But that hardly ever happens," she says with a smile.