Orth House Bed and Breakfast

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on June 24, 2001

Even the exterior of the historic Orth House Bed and Breakfast emanates hospitality. From the ornate, wooden sign in the yard to the wreath on the front door, images of teddy bears convey a welcome as hearty as hosts Lee and Marilyn Lewis’ hugs.

A teddy bear seems an appropriate mascot for an inn outfitted with antiques, velvet drapes, royal purple carpet, pot-bellied stoves, and a blanket over every sofa. The atmosphere is cozy and comfortable—just like the dozens of plush teddy bears that line the shelves and hallways of the Orth House.

The bear of honor—the one that sparked the fetish—is a furry white creature dressed in a green sweater, given to the Lewises as a wedding gift. Later, when they redeemed an anniversary gift certificate for a stay at a B&B that happened to be decked with teddy bears, they considered it a sign and began a collection that now fills their own 3,600-square-foot inn.

The Lewises dreamed of operating a B&B for nearly six years before they found the perfect property in Jacksonville, Ore, (pop. 2,000). They’d detoured into the small gold rush-era town on a whim during a monthlong trip up the coast from their Southern California home. As they canvassed the downtown streets lined with saloon-style, 19th-century buildings that now house galleries, restaurants, and boutiques, “We noticed this inn for sale,” Lee recalls. “We talked with the owners for hours and ended up staying the night. Three weeks later, we called back and made an offer.”

It’s easy to see how the two-story, red brick Italianate “villa” captivated the travelers. Built in 1880 by John Orth, a successful businessman, it’s one of 86 local buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark.

Decorative tin ceilings, claw foot tubs, an ornate maple staircase, original blown-glass windows, a picketed front porch, and glossy wood floors are just some of the features that give it a distinct Victorian character.

It was the combination of both house and town that persuaded the Lewises. They’d evaluated many areas for B&B potential and always found something lacking. But Jacksonville had all the right ingredients: historical appeal and a May-to-October festival that attracts 65,000 people annually. It also helped that the climate is relatively mild; being located in Oregon’s “banana belt” means the town rarely gets snow or below-zero temperatures.

“It had more positives than negatives,” says Lee, a trim, energetic man who hefts luggage out of trunks and car seats with the deftness of a teenager.

Then in their late 50s, the Lewises encountered much surprise from friends and family who expected the couple to simply retire and not “take on all that work.”

“But I never saw it as ‘taking on all that work,’” Marilyn says. “It’s a whole new lifestyle, something we’d talked about and wanted to do.”

They quickly sold their house and moved north to rural Oregon. “It was like a big door closed behind us,” Marilyn says. “One gal suggested we might want to move back, but the thought of coming back had never even entered my mind. I thought if it doesn’t work out, if it’s really that bad, then we’d move on and do something else.”

Learning the ropes

Unexpected surprises were part of the package for the new innkeepers, despite realistic expectations about the work involved in cleaning rooms, cooking, and bookkeeping for a small establishment.

“There are a lot of unforeseen expenses,” Lee says. “The previous owners had a figure in their minds that it would take to refurbish the house, and it ended up being three times that amount. It was the same with us.”

“Like carpeting the two front parlors,” Marilyn interjects. “We didn’t expect to have to do that.”

Though the previous owners had made many improvements, the Lewises wanted to bring the house to even higher standards. They continued making enhancements and by the second year had achieved a prestigious Three Diamond status with AAA. The ratings result from impromptu annual inspections and indicate the level of service and amenities tourists can expect at a given property. The belief is that higher rankings (up to five diamonds) attract more customers.

Advertising was another unanticipated expense. After experimenting with several vehicles, they now consider AAA publications to be an essential outlet, along with regional lodging directories. Their evolving website, www.orthbnb.com, also helps fill their two guestrooms and suite. But they live by the credo of Jerry Evans, another local innkeeper: “The best advertising is a satisfied customer.”

“When we received our first repeat guests, we knew we must be doing something right,” Lee says.

Their stay at the Orth House was a standout because the Lewises were willing to talk and answer questions, say recent guests Martin and Carol Devenir-Moore.

“Not every place is that friendly,” Carol says. She particularly enjoyed perusing a scrapbook compiled by the Lewises detailing the home’s original inhabitants.

Such interaction with guests is essential to innkeeping, Lee and Marilyn say. “You can’t just put the food on the table and leave the room,” Marilyn says. “You have to enjoy people.”

Loving their new life

Typical Orth House guests range from “newlyweds who can’t rub two nickels together,” to well-traveled professionals. The Lewises, whose rates range from $95 to $225 per night depending on the season (AARP and AAA discounts are available), adapt their services to each guest, perhaps providing an early breakfast for the businesswoman with a meeting in the next town, or arranging a carriage ride and candlelit dinner for couples on a romantic getaway.

They also accept children, unlike many B&Bs which cater to adults only. They made that decision in the same manner they’ve made many others—on the spur. One night, a couple showed up with three boys in tow. Instead of sending away potential customers, they boarded the family and had no problems.

“The parents are always more worried than we are,” Marilyn says. “Sometimes you bend your rules, and if it doesn’t work, you go back to square one,” Lee says.

But they’ve rarely had trouble. “In 4 1/2 years, we’ve never had an item missing,” Lee says, gesturing to the many figurines in cases and on dressers in the rooms. “It’s interesting and we’re glad we’ve done it.”

Now that they’ve been Jacksonville residents for more than four years, neither can imagine moving away. Even when they “age out” of the innkeeping business—“I don’t want to have to hobble out to greet guests,” Lee says, with a laugh—they plan to buy a smaller house in the same area.

“We’ve found a home,” Marilyn says. Lee agrees. “We’ve met a lot of neat new people and gotten involved in civic organizations and functions we were never involved in before. Plus, everything’s in walking distance; a block-and-a-half to the bank, a block-and-a-half to the post office, only five blocks to the grocery store.’’

“We’re not making big money,” Marilyn says, confirming the statistic that few inns make large profits. “But we’ve got a lifestyle that we like much better.”