A stay at Tennessee’s bucolic Blackberry Farm is about being with family
One of the most magical times of day at Blackberry Farm is early morning, when mist wafts gently over the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains and hangs like a cloud over the property’s Old Walland Pond. There are 4,200 acres here, an hour south of Knoxville in the eastern part of the state, and scattered among them is a topographical array of hills, forests, grassy fields, and streams. There are also blackberry bushes, which gave the property its name.
Back in the 1930s, the previous owners, a couple named Florida and Dave Lasier, discovered this land while traveling between Chicago and the Georgia coast searching for a locale to build a home. They were enchanted by the place and when Florida’s stockings snagged on a blackberry bush, they had the name. In 1976, while walking through the property, Kreis Beall had no such blackberry altercation but she and her then husband Samuel Beall III, known as Sandy, the founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, were also drawn to it just as the Lasiers had been.
“The immediate charm was, of course, the beauty,” she says. “It was inspiring. I looked at the land and the space and saw an opportunity to bring a dream to life—creating a place for great food and cherished fellowship. This had always been a dream of mine and I knew this place could be so much more than just a home for my family.”
At first, they opened six rooms to outside guests, adding rooms incrementally over the years, along with self-contained cottages and houses with three to five bedrooms for a current total of sixty-eight. The inn was also accepted as a member of the esteemed organization Relais & Châteaux and is often cited as the best in the country. But the overall style has remained the same throughout: gracious, traditional but not fussy Southern charm. From the antiques and fine fabrics in the original rooms, now known as the Historic Rooms, to the stone fireplaces and rustic four-posters composed of fused striplings in the secluded Hill Cottages and the nubby fabrics, oriental carpets, and wing chairs in the living rooms of the houses, all exude warmth and ease. Beall’s eye for design has proved so popular with guests that she formed a separate division, Blackberry Farm Design, which apart from designing the inn’s rooms also now undertakes outside design projects.
As gracious as its design is, though, many guests return again and again for the inn’s food; its culinary achievements showcasing local ingredients in inventive preparations have earned multiple James Beard Foundation nominations, three awards, and fans around the world and within the chef community. It’s one area of the inn that was always a family focus but that has clearly evolved over the years.
“The culinary focus really came to the forefront when Sam became proprietor,” Beall explains, referring to her late son who took over management of the inn with his wife Mary Celeste in 1998. (He died tragically in a skiing accident in Colorado in February 2016; Mary Celeste Beall, already involved in inn operations, took over management.) “He spent a lot of time visiting and working at some of the most well-respected restaurants, wineries, and farms in the world. He wanted to bring that experience, the farm-to-table experience and high-quality cuisine to Blackberry Farm.”
The results are clearly visible to guests as they stroll the gardens with master gardener John Coykendall, learning about heritage seeds and farming practices or doing a tasting tour of farmstead fruits and vegetables such as the namesake blackberries, sour cherries, and wild mushrooms. Or they can taste products such as arugula and black walnut pesto, their house-produced cheeses with evocative names such as Appalachian Gold and Singing Brook, charcuterie, preserves, including bacon jam, all available to buy to take home.
The real showcase of the culinary experience, though, is The Barn, the specialty dining room set in a two-hundred-year-old Pennsylvania barn, taken apart, moved, and reassembled piece by piece. It opened in 2007 with interiors designed by Suzanne Kasler, who had previously contributed other designs to the inn, as well as designing the interiors for the house built by Sam and Mary Celeste Beall on the property. The offerings here, elite examples of their “Foothills Cuisine,” feature dishes such as shaved beets with the local smokehouse Benton’s country ham with yogurt foam, chives and smoked mushroom oil, and roasted Pekin duck breast with sweet-tea gastrique, fall vegetables and foie gras. There’s also a list of three hundred rare whiskies and a worldwide wine list that runs a couple of hundred pages. Rare among facilities here, no children under ten are allowed.
They are, however, quite welcome in the inn’s other restaurant, the main dining room, The Dogwood, with a slightly simpler menu (wild striped bass with brown butter, capers, and lemon; cakes such as caramel chocolate tarte with espresso whipped cream and cocoa nibs). And they’re totally welcome and encouraged to participate in all of the Farm’s activities. Unlike other hotels with such sophistication, Blackberry Farm is truly slanted toward families.
“We always had a vision to include families,” explains Beall. “When Sam was a toddler and we were just getting started, he would follow behind me and help me serve meals to our guests. As he and the property grew, he worked in all different areas of operation. It always felt natural to create a family experience because family was such a big part of it for us.”
That’s why, unless children four years and older are off on their own in supervised Camp Blackberry activities, or pre-teens and older are in Youth Discovery programs painting, doing ceramics, or engaging in adventure activities, you’ll see families together all over the grounds. They might be canoeing or paddling a stable board on the lake, trout fishing in Hesse Creek, riding horses on the trails, hiking a field of wildflowers. Or, they may be making friends with the Lagotto Romagnolo puppies that are being bred to ferret out the truffles in development in the fields. Then making s’mores and staring up at the stars. As Mary Celeste explains it, her children are involved in developing activities as her husband was as a child. "They love to be on the property and it's fun to talk to them each time they attend an event or do an activity," she says. "They are very observant and full of ideas. They're also a great go-to test group when we want to try out new activities at Camp Blackberry."
Next year, families will have even more activities from which to choose when a project Mary Celeste is shepherding opens seven miles from the Farm. Blackberry Mountain will present cottages decorated in Blackberry Farm–style with reclaimed oak, white rough-sawn walls, lime washed oak ceilings, and antiques located amid more than five thousand adjoining acres. The family farm grows.
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Photography by Chris Little
Written by Laurie Werner
Produced by Shannon Bowers
This story appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of MILIEU.