Previous owners return to their roots at Ripton’s Chipman Inn

RIPTON — Joan and Chris Bullock thought they had bid adieu to the Chipman Inn in 1986 following a successful, 8-year stint owning and operating the historic lodging facility off  Route 125 in Ripton. They had a nice run, but the long hours of cooking and cleaning had taken their toll.
Joan Bullock recalled often serving “last call” at the inn’s small pouring station in the wee hours, then grabbing a few hours of sleep before descending the stairs to the kitchen by 6 a.m. to get breakfast ready for her lodgers.
“I had some extra help, but I realized I couldn’t keep doing it,” she said. “I was exhausted and had to get out.”
Well, she and her son Chris are back at it after a 26-year respite during which they each remained in the hospitality industry, albeit in different locations and capacities throughout the country. It was early this year that Chris — who helped out his mom at the inn while a Middlebury Union High School student during the late 1970s — called Joan and said, “How would you like to go back to Ripton, mom?”
It didn’t take long for her to decide.
“After thinking it over for about five minutes, I said, ‘yes,’” Joan, now 76, said with a chuckle.
So the Bullocks in September closed the loop and finalized a deal to purchase the Chipman Inn from the very folks to whom they sold the establishment back in 1986: The late Joyce Henderson and Bill Pierce (Henderson regrettably lost a battle with lung cancer and died Nov. 2).
The Bullocks, re-energized after their time away, are eager to write a second chapter of ownership in an inn that dates way back to 1828. Chris, a veteran of the Marriott and Hilton Hotel chains, has put together a 38-page business plan that he hopes will help the Chipman Inn reach its full potential.
The Bullocks don’t plan on reinventing the wheel or introducing sweeping changes to a property that was putting up guests long before the advent of cars, computers, televisions and touring publications. Their strategy will feature aggressive outreach to cycling enthusiasts, skiers, visitors to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus, tourists and weary in-state travelers looking for a comfortable bed, decent food and some good old-fashioned hospitality.
The Bullocks learned a lot about hospitality during their first stint helming the inn, beginning in 1978.
Joan was a single parent of three young children living in New Jersey, where she worked with a lot of social service organizations. She became enamored of New England and its inns during a visit.
“I decided, ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’” she said of her decision to become an innkeeper.
She scoured The New York Times real estate section, identifying four inns for sale. This led them to the picturesque Chipman Inn. They were able to strike a deal during the spring of 1978 with its owners at the time, Bud and Jean Todd. He was a milkman and she was a nurse, Joan recalled.
The Bullocks quickly began reworking a business plan that had not produced much profit throughout the years, they said. For example, Joan noted that the Todds ran a public dining room at the inn, which did not prove much of a magnet for area residents, who mostly ate out in Middlebury.
“Unless you are skiing, who is going to come up here for dinner?” said Joan, who then reserved food service for guests — a more predictable clientele.
In those days, the inn featured four guest rooms. The Bullocks identified a local builder to install another four rooms on the second floor of the inn’s shed, a move that greatly enhanced the inn’s revenue potential.
The Chipman Inn, during the Bullocks’ tenure, enjoyed a reputation not only as a fine place to stay, but as a social hub for the community. Joan recalled some lively times in the inn’s tap room when the college’s nearby Bread Loaf school was in session. The bar opened at 8 p.m., and there were times when more than 100 people packed in for boisterous revelry — which included the spontaneous recitation of Shakespeare and various sing-alongs.
“The students and professors were absolutely fascinating,” Chris said.
It was fun, but more work than Joan could bear. Her children at this point were leaving the nest for school and she was experiencing some wanderlust herself.
“I missed the ocean,” she said.
So they sold the inn in 1986. Chris traveled from state to state as a hospitality executive. Joan moved to Portsmouth, N.H., where she opened a gift shop. She moved to Maine during the early 1990s, working as activities director at some well-known lodging establishments there before winding up in New Bedford, Mass. There, she was living in a refurbished textile mill and helping out various charitable causes when she received that fateful phone call from son Chris.
Both mom and son believe they have the energy and vision to bring the inn back to its former glory. And they return knowing they have another family connection in Ripton: Joan’s daughter and Chris’s sister, Susan Bullock, died in 2009 and is buried there. The family, in her memory, has also supported the Ripton Community Church, located just a few paces up Route 125 from the inn.
The Bullocks were pleased to report that weekend business has been good since they took over. And there has been a bit of a buzz in the town about their second stint as stewards of the historic property.
The tap room again opens at 8 p.m.
“I’m glad I came back,” Joan said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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