There’s always room at the inn; business helps fire victims

MIDDLEBURY — Dan and Michele Brown have hosted some corporate movers and shakers during their almost 11 years of owning and operating the historic and picturesque Swift House Inn in Middlebury.
But nothing gives them more satisfaction than when they are able to roll out the red carpet to those who find themselves temporarily homeless due to a fire or natural disaster.
“It’s what you do with your heart,” Dan Brown said, when asked about the free, temporary lodging the inn has provided to locals who have escaped disaster with at-times little more than the clothes on their backs. “We don’t have a plan, or anything. We’re just in a position where we have these buildings and rooms. If an opportunity arises where we can help, we are always willing to do that.”
The Independent approached the Browns after receiving a tip from an inn owner (who requested anonymity) in another part of the state who noted the Browns had helped some Middlebury College students displaced by a fire at a rental home on Weybridge Street last month.
The college found new housing for all five affected students. But when one of those students — Sayre White — chose to rent a room at the Swift House Inn for a couple of days to regroup before moving onto the campus, the Browns slipped a note under her door saying she was not going to receive a bill.
“We didn’t want to make any money off of the tragic situation she had endured,” Michele Brown explained, noting the five students had lost a lot of their possessions.
Not only did the Browns waive her bill for two nights’ stay, they made a bundle of towels and other essentials for White to distribute among her former housemates. Michele Brown and Sayre White shared a tearful embrace before she left.
“When a disorienting event such as this occurs, the smallest kindnesses can be instrumental in regaining strength and direction,” White recalled of the kind act. “I was deeply touched by the care I was shown during my stay at the Swift House Inn — care evident in both my conversations with Michele and Dan at breakfast, during which they expressed their condolences and eagerness to help, and in their generous donation of lodging and home essentials. They are a glowing testament to the giving, supportive character of this community and the individuals within it, and I can only hope to someday have the opportunity to give back as they have.”
The Browns also came to the rescue back in November, when a fire displaced four families from a home at 36 Seymour St. One of those families was a single mom with three children. The family had a relative living in Middlebury with a home that was really too small to accommodate long-term guests.
“It was right before Thanksgiving, and I called her asking her to come stay at the inn,” Michele Brown recalled.
The mom and her three kids stayed at one of the larger rooms at the inn, gratis, for a total of 10 days.
“It was fun with the kids,” Dan Brown said. “The kids came down for breakfast a few times.”
“After the first night, in fact, one of the children exclaimed, ‘We don’t want to go home,’” Michele Brown recalled with a smile. “There were so appreciative.”
So appreciative that the mom insisted on doing something for the Browns. The Browns told her she needn’t bother, but she and her children baked up a huge tray of cookies for the innkeepers and their staff.
Dan Brown said the philosophy of doing good deeds is emphasized at the couple’s place of worship, the Congregational Church of Middlebury. He has participated in several of the church’s service trips to other parts of the country, where the volunteers assist with various community projects. One of those trips called for rebuilding homes in New Orleans — a trip in which the single mom participated. Dan is slated to head up a service trip to West Virginia this September.
Around five years ago, the Browns provide a free room to a Cornwall woman whose home burned. The Swift House Inn room allowed the woman to maintain a presence in Middlebury during nights when she was on-call as a Porter Hospital nurse. The woman and her family have since relocated to Addison.
“It was fun,” Michele Brown said. “We got to know her.”
The Browns stressed their practice of helping those in need is not unique among the state’s many innkeepers. They cited the example set by the Three Mountain Inn in Jamaica during Tropical Storm Irene in late August of 2011. Jamaica became isolated as a result of road and bridge wash-outs during the storm. But the Three Mountain Inn threw its doors open to stranded folks and became a community hub for more than a week while rescue crews gradually reconnected Jamaica to the outside world.
“They showed what we knew we were like,” Brown said of the Three Mountain Inn. “That’s why I was down there to help them.”
It all comes down to disregarding the bottom line in times of community need, according to Dan Brown.
“It’s important that if you are a business person in a town, that you are part of the town,” he said. “With that, there are times when something happens and you don’t take advantage of it to make a living. You use what you have to try and make things better for people.
“How can you charge in a time of crisis?” he added. “How can you take advantage when somebody’s in need?”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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