Presiding over the valley that Abel Crawford once called home, the stone house sits by the roadside in Crawford Notch like some half-forgotten reminder of an earlier way of life in the mountains.
Like the peaks that look down upon it, the dwelling at first seems almost impenetrable, even foreboding--a gabled rock fortress set by the deserted stretch of the old Route 302, and the dormant, snow-covered tracks of the Maine Central's abandoned Mountain Division line. Gazing at the 19th century house from afar, the immediate thought is that novelist Stephen King could have a field day here.
"When our friends learned we had bought the Inn Unique, they warned us that we better not go see 'The Shining'," laughed Pat Bernardin, who along with her husband, John and nine-year-old son, Christopher, is busily renovating and restoring the 124-year-old English-styled manor into a country inn and restaurant.
Formerly of Boston where they performed similar renovations on an old Beacon Hill apartment building, the young couple made the move to Hart's Location in September after they purchased the house and 400 acres of land from the Morey estate. Armed with hammers, chisels, and wallpaper scrapers, they've been at it seven days a week ever since, 8:00 a.m. to midnight, transforming the once elegant building to its former grandeur. Their plan is to open the establishment by mid-to-late February, under a name that's been used there before--the Notchland Inn.
While some folks might have been intimidated by the sheer cost and effort required to renovate the building, and others might have been scared by the isolation of the place, the Bemardins seem well suited for the job at hand. An insulation contractor in Boston who used to ice climb in the Notch, John is familiar with the area, and says that hard work has never been something he's feared.
"A building that needs work scares some people," he noted, "but to me, it just means that I can fix it up my way and do it right." And contrary to the perception of the inn being located a bit out of the way, Pat countered that its potential as a mini-destination resort is great.
"A lot of people perceive the Notch as being at the far end of the universe, but it's not. We're more secluded, yes, but we believe that will be a strong selling point for us," said Pat, a former dining room manager and executive chef for the Massachusetts Companies of Boston.
Noting that their prime market will be people traveling from 150 miles away or more, Pat said the inn will be able to offer a comfortable, unpretentious atmosphere for those who seek a place to enjoy good dining and outdoor recreation. "We enjoy outdoor sports like cross-country skiing and hiking, and we feel that our guests will be able to come here and enjoy those activities too," Pat said. "We won't offer bargain basement prices, but our dinner and overnight rates will be moderate and offer a good value. Above all," she continued, "the Notchland Inn will be a place where you can relax and enjoy the scenery."
A similar quest for solitude and natural beauty first brought the original owner and builder of the Notchland house north from Boston in the 1800s. Dr. Samuel A. Bemis, a prominent dentist who made a fortune in the city making false teeth, developed a lifelong love for the mountains while hiking through the region enroute to Boston from his boyhood home in Vermont. A bachelor all his life and regarded in his later years as somewhat of an eccentric, Dr. Bemis first began spending his summers in the Notch at Abel Crawford's Mount Crawford House in 1827.
Built in 1792 in a clearing across from the present site of the Notchland house, Crawford's tavern was a popular spot among early White Mountain travelers by the time Dr. Bemis stopped there. According to various stories, the wealthy dentist gave the elder Crawford a number of loans over the years when the innkeeper ran into financial difficulties. When the debt reached $6,000, Dr. Bemis took a mortgage on the tavern, and then foreclosed on the property after Abel Crawford's death in 1850.
In addition to receiving Abel's substantial land holdings, Dr. Bemis also bought the property of other land owners who had settled in Hart's Location. Having enjoyed the Notch on summer vacations, the good doctor had big plans in mind for his retirement--he wanted to own most of the Notch and make the region his permanent home.
Dr. Bemis, according to newspaper accounts of the period, desired the Notch solely for its scenic beauties. He had no intention of making an investment, the lumber he cut was for his personal use, and he cultivated only enough land to provide produce for his home table, the stories note.
With the majority of his land holdings in possession, the bachelor dentist next set to work on his stone villa dream house in 1851. Throughout the nine years of construction, he personally supervised all aspects of the work, hiring men from Boston to quarry the granite from the hillsides, and also a force of woodsmen to cut the pine spruce and native hardwoods. A sawmill was erected on the property to aid the effort.
During the construction, the 26-room house was the talk of the countryside, as was its middle-aged, bachelor owner. Work was finally completed in 1860, and Dr. Bemis moved in that summer to spend the final 21 years of his life in his mountain home. George H. Morey was hired as the doctor's general superintendant to oversee the farm and maintenance chores. At its height, the Bemis property was completely self-sufficient, with separate barns for cows, horses, and pigs; a blacksmith and workshop; a sugar house; two huge fire hydrants; and still another building for the help to live in.
A collector of books and a man of taste, Dr. Bemis lived the life of an English baron, with manservants seeing to his needs. He grew blind in his later years, forcing him to rely on George Morey to assist him with his affairs. He also became something of a crank, as guests who overstayed their welcome often discovered. According to accounts passed down through the years, guests were invited to arrive on a certain date, and leave on a certain date. If a guest overstayed, he or she would be sent a curt letter; noting that a second invitation need not be expected.
Dr. Bemis' private valley became less remote after 1875, when the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad completed its tracks north through the Notch to Fabyans, passing directly by his house. The population of the tiny township of Hart's Location grew to between 300 and 500 as a result of the logging and railroad activity, while great hotels were constructed in nearby Bretton WoodS and Bethlehem to accommodate the influx of mountain tourists.
When Dr. Bemis died in May 1881, Mr. and Mrs. George Morey were informed that the old dentist had willed all his property to them. Several friends and alleged relatives from Boston and elsewhere appeared as objectors to the will, and there consequently ensued one of the longest will contests on record in New Hampshire. Fought through all the state courts and ultimately carried to the United States Supreme Court, the will 'was finally upheld 15 years after the doctor's death. George H. Morey inherited all of the dentist's holdings in the 15-mile-long, two-mile-wide township of Hart's Location--all 15,000 acres of it.
George Morey continued to farm the land and harvest timber until his death in 1902. His son, Charles, took over the management of the holdings at age 19, and married Florence Pendergast of Boston in 1906. Like the railroads which preceded her, "Flossie's" arrival marked a new era in the mountains, as she dominated all politics in the region with a pioneer spirit and shrewdness of mind. Controversial, iron-willed and not one to compromise, Mrs. Morey--or "Madame," as she preferred to be addressed--passed away at age 91 in January 1978, yet her memory is still a force to be reckoned with in the Notch.
Sometimes referred to as the "mayor of Hart's Location," a position which in actuality has never existed, Mrs. Morey held a number of state and local positions throughout her long life. In 1929, she became the first woman in Carroll County to be elected to the House of Representatives, a post she held on three separate occasions. The town moderator for Hart's Location for nearly 30 years, she held every town post except treasurer at least once.
Along with her list of other accomplishments, some noteworthy and some of questionable merit, Mrs. Morey is perhaps best remembered as the proprietor of the Inn Unique. The mother of two first opened the doors of Dr. Bemis' stone house to the public in the summer of 1920, and kept them open for more than 50 years with the help of her son, George. Offering breakfast and dinner along with overnight lodging, the inn was a landmark among hikers and travelers in the White Mountains. The same could almost be said about its proprietor, according to local residents who were acquainted with Mrs. Morey.
The battles waged by Mrs. Morey over the years seem far removed now in 1984. Following her death in January 1978, Mrs. Morey was buried in the cemetery behind the house, alongside the other pioneers of Crawford Notch--Abel and Hannah Crawford, the Moreys, and Dr. Bemis. The estate was tied up in legal proceedings, but in the end, Florence's son George received the lion's share.
Various parties--including the Appalachian Mountain Club--expressed an interest in purchasing the inn and its 400 acres of land after that settlement, but those negotiations never were brought to fruition. Pat and John Bernardin noticed an advertisement in the Boston Globe in November 1982, listing the price for the Bemis house alone at $165,000. Including the land, the Bernardins were able to negotiate a purchase for under $350,000, a price which John says was reasonable.
"We were looking for a career change that would allow us to do something together, whether it be go sailing for a year or purchasing an inn," John explained. "There were other places available, but none that had all the elements of a rich history, this setting, and all this potential." And while the costs of renovating and updating the structure might be prohibitive or economically unfeasible for someone-else, the fact that John is able to do much of the work himself makes the project viable for the Bemardins.
Phase: I of the Project is currently nearing completion, as the six guest rooms on the first floor of the East Wing are being totally revamped, as are the public rooms of the same floor. Most of the 12 guest rooms will have a private bath, as well as working fireplaces, John noted. The heating system has been upgraded, totally new wiring is in place, wall sidings have been gutted and replaced with fireproof, insulated sheetrock, and new wallpaper is on the way to give the inn a bright, country look.
Phase II will get under way in the spring, and will consist of renovating the six guest rooms on the second floor of the East Wing. Phase III calls for the renovation of the old theater building, which will be used as the dining room. Landscaping and continuous overall upgrading is also planned, John said.
While tiring, the work has been rewarding, according to John and Pat. Especially encouraging has been the support from the business community and their neighbors, the couple said. "When you're tired, it's great when someone stops by to tell us that the place is really beginning to look great,-" John said. "We just want to bring it back to what it was during Dr. Bemis' time. It's got incredible potential."
Editor's Note: The Notchland Inn was purchased by Ed Butler and Les Schoof in 1993 and there have been many more improvements since that time. Visit www.notchlandinn.com to learn more about this unique property.