Stay in Class at the School House B&B Inn
The lure of “spring break” usually means getting away from school, but Dan and I chose to return to the halls of academe for a weekend at a 95-year-old schoolhouse that’s been restored to a luxurious bed and breakfast in Rocheport, Missouri. We anticipated a pleasant stay at the School House but didn’t realize we’d be getting a classic education in the “three Rs” once again – only this time they were “romance, rejuvenate and relax.” Add gracious hospitality, exquisite breakfasts, and a bit of nostalgia, and the “good life” unfurls like Spring. And beyond the school doors, there’s a charming little river town.
If you want to experience life in the “past” lane, go to Rocheport. A leisurely stroll through town brings a Norman Rockwell canvas to life. Mingle with its 255 residents. Chances are you’ll find many of them at the General Store enjoying locally made ice cream and pizza, and embracing the bygone pace of neighborly conversation.
For posh lodging with a nostalgic flair, stay at the School House Bed and Breakfast Inn. It offers enough “Dick and Jane” moments to nourish the spirit, but the contemporary comfort and romantic atmosphere tip the scales in memory. No wonder innkeepers Mike and Lisa Friedemann are proud of the inn’s “Top 10 Most Romantic B&Bs in U.S.” recognition.
The School House and Rocheport’s other award-winning B&Bs work together to bring tourists to town for special events. During our stay, they were featuring the annual “Celebrate Spring” weekend (April 3-4) which highlights food/wine pairings at wineries along the Missouri River Wine Trail. The hedonistic combination of fine wine and cuisine, mixed with a little romance and tranquility sounded like a great getaway, but it was actually the Katy Trail that drew us to town. Once we arrived, we found so much more, including the Les Bourgeois Winery and Bistro which is situated on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River Valley.
We learned about the School House when searching for B&Bs near hiking trails. Surprisingly, there’s a myriad of places to choose from, but this inn caught our attention because it’s located a few blocks from the historic Katy Trail, a 225 mile path designed for bicyclists and hikers and built on the old corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, also know as the MK&T or “Katy.”
When we called for a booking, Mike mentioned the celebratory weekend that included VIP transportation to the five featured wineries. Dan and I are passionate about good food and wine, so imagine our elation when we realized we could greet daybreak with a hike along the trail, eat and drink our way through area wineries, and then retire to a cozy room.
The former red brick three-story school was built in 1914 for elementary and high school students. The last class graduated in 1972. The building had been empty for a few years when the Rocheport Historical Society stepped in with a preservation plan. It was purchased in 1986 and, after extensive renovations, opened in 1988 as a six-room B&B, the first in Rocheport. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mike and Lisa bought the School House in 2002 and meticulously restored it to a luxurious inn which now has 11 guest rooms, each with a private bath and some with jetted tubs. Rooms are decorated with school themes and some offer king beds. The “Teacher’s Pet Suite,” a haven on the upper level, features a huge bathroom with a two-person Jacuzzi and skylights. The most popular retreat is the “Show’n Tell” room which offers an electric fireplace and the ergonomic comfort of a two-person, heart-shaped jetted tub. Breakfast is served in the Commons/Dining Room where the south wall features one of the school's original blackboards. A Faculty Lounge on the lower level includes a conference room and kitchen to accommodate meetings, weddings, and other special events. There’s a walkout to a lovely patio and garden area with a small fish pond.
We arrived in Rocheport late Friday morning and easily found our way to the School House where the American and Missouri flags waved a warm welcome. A few guests were leaving as we pulled up. Beyond that, any activity in the former schoolyard was left to the imagination – children rushing up the sidewalk at the sound of the morning bell which now graces the front lawn, the playground filled with laughter. It was too early to check in, but we stopped by to introduce ourselves.
The Katy Trail
It was unseasonably warm with bright blue skies and a slight breeze. We couldn’t wait to hit the Katy Trail. Lisa said the General Store wasn’t far from the trail, so we headed in that direction for bottled water and a few snacks. This charming mom and pop shop, a destination in itself, is obviously the social hub of community life -- a genuine slice of Americana. Owners Sherrie and Dan Ingram provide basic groceries, snacks, and a variety of drinks, including wine and beer. Most of all, they offer a folksy-warm welcome to everyone who stops by. The antique display cases transported us back to the days of Mallo cups, candy buttons, black licorice whips and Kits, connecting us with kids who grew up in Rocheport in the 1950s and maybe even learned their ABCs in the room we’d be staying in.
The General Store doubles as a café, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Live entertainment is featured every Friday and Saturday night, and musicians are invited to bring their instruments for acoustic jams on Sunday afternoons. Sherrie suggested we come back later for a “Shakespeare’s Pizza,” a local favorite made fresh in nearby Columbia. She also recommended Abigail’s next door if we were looking for something more formal.
We headed for the trails, joining the estimated 350,000 bicyclists and hikers who are drawn to the Katy Trail each year. The season kicked off that weekend, but we had the trail to ourselves most of the day. We headed west to walk through the 243 foot MK&T tunnel built in1893. Thick black smoke stains still grip the hand-hewn rock walls. Beyond the tunnel, the trail slices through meadows, farmland, and on to little towns that once thrived along the rail line. We chose to turn back east to see one of the most scenic portions of the trail, diverse with wildlife as it winds between the Missouri River and the lofty limestone bluffs that once held the gaze of Lewis and Clark.
Dan and I have a penchant for rivers and the moods they evoke when walking beside their flow. It was humbling to revisit the rich history of early explorers who forged this once-rugged countryside. We were awestruck by the natural beauty -- the red-tailed hawks soaring above the bluffs, wildflowers peeking through rocks, redbuds coming into bloom, trickling waterfalls, and the romance of simply holding hands for a moment here and there. On days like this, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. A cardinal sitting on a branch against a blue sky never looked so red.
After walking a few miles, it was time for lunch. We had noticed a sign for the Les Bourgeois Bistro pointing up the bluff. It was a fairly steep ascent, but we were eager to explore the pathway. The sandwiches and appetizers, washed down with a nice Chardonel, were worth the climb! On the way back to the School House, we browsed through several antique shops, including Richard Saunders, Inc., which is in a renovated pre-Civil War home.
Around 4 p.m. we returned to the School House to check in with several other guests. The aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, known as “Rocheport Appetizers,” met us at the door and whet our appetites for a homey stay. Mike invited us to the the second floor Commons Room for our “first-day-of-school” orientation. As with any school, there were a few rules – no smoking, no open flames … mostly, though, we were encouraged to enjoy our stay and help ourselves to the seemingly bottomless plate of cookies. Mike let us know that coffee/tea would be available by 7 a.m. for early risers and breakfast would be served at 9 a.m. He said a welcome reception for wine-tour guests would be hosted by the town’s three B&Bs at 7 p.m. that evening in the Faculty Lounge.
Mike and Lisa showed such genuine hospitality that we felt at home right away. With their personal attention to detail, we knew we’d be given no less than 100% while “staying in class.” And this was one class we didn’t want to skip!
We were assigned to the “Prose Room,” a comfortable retreat with a beautifully carved poster bed, an 8-foot mirrored armoire, plantation-shuttered windows, and a two-person jetted tub. One wall is highlighted with a simple framed silhouette of Abraham Lincoln whose prose we’ve long admired, especially the rhythms infused in the Gettysburg address.
After settling in and resting a bit, it was time for the reception. The evening gave us a chance to meet other guests while enjoying an array of appetizers and several wines from St. Genevieve’s Crown Valley winery. Later, we returned to the General Store for pizza, a real treat made with fresh tomatoes and provolone cheese. Abigail’s was tempting, but we wanted to kick back with the locals and listen to “ilyamy,” a duo with incredible technique and talent.
We returned to the School House to relax with a glass of wine in the Commons Room. The American flag gracing one corner reminded us of the glory-day mornings when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom. Moved by the memories, we stood with hands over hearts and said the oath once again.
Echoes in the Hallway
Saturday morning, Dan headed to the trail early while I strolled through the school halls accented with subtle touches from the old days, such as “Dick and Jane” posters and hand-held school bells. A large display case held the pomp and circumstance of notes passed between friends, diagramed sentences, an ink bottle, and report cards extolling excellence in German, Latin, grammar, civil government and orthography.
Faded newspapers told the story of Rocheport (“port of rocks”) which hummed with activity in the mid 1800s when steamboats stopped daily to pick up the tobacco, wheat, and other products. Like many river towns, the bustling port gradually died out as river commerce gave way to railroads in the early 20th century.
Later, when talking to local author Brett Durfur, who owns Pebble Publishing, I learned that Rocheport was once the biggest steamboat landing between St. Louis and St. Joseph “until the railroad stole its thunder.” The town’s finest moment came in 1993 when the first section of the Katy Trail opened, a 6 ½ mile-stretch between Rocheport and Huntsdale, and put the sleepy town back on the map.
Dan returned in time for breakfast. We chatted with other guests while enjoying the gourmet fayre that included fresh fruit and juice, homemade cranberry orange scones, and a delicious vegetable cheese strata. The VIP coach arrived at 10 a.m. to pick us up for the wine tour which took us through the scenic countryside of the Missouri River Valley. After a full day’s indulgence in food/wine pairings, we retired early. (Read about the annual tour and the day’s adventure in our Good Life “Wineries” section.)
Shortly after daybreak on Sunday, Dan and I took our final trek, this time following the wooden planks that lead to a bluff just a few feet east of the MK&T tunnel. An easy-climb path took us to the top which overlooks a peaceful conservation area known as the Wetland Bed and Breakfast which caters to migrating birds and waterfowl. Here, the Missouri River nears the end of its journey and eventually joins the Mississippi at St. Louis. We were back in time for breakfast, another delightful feast, this time featuring scrumptious cream cheese stuffed French toast drizzled with a thick blueberry sauce.
Big Draws, Little Town
Later that morning, Mike and Lisa talked about the unique characteristics that drew them to Rocheport. They were both CPAs from Tulsa, OK before they bought the School House and assumed the roles of owners/innkeepers. While traveling through Europe, they spent a lot of time at B&Bs and often talked about opening one of their own. In 2002, they decided to take the leap. Lisa said, “I was self employed at the time and traveled a lot. After 9/11 traveling became such a hassle. I was ready to stay closer to home but didn’t want to go back to an 8-5 job. It seemed like a good time to pursue a bed and breakfast.”
The couple developed a list of “wants” and began a nationwide search. Mike said, “We weren’t even thinking about Missouri when we came across the School House. But it had a combination of draws – the winery, fine dining, and excellent recreational opportunities with the Katy Trail. Also, it’s halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis which makes it an ideal location for a weekend getaway. And then there’s the river. You can’t undersell the river. The economic heart was already here. We found a vibrant community with its own tourist base. A sizable percentage of people have the trail in mind when the come for a visit. Without the trail, we’d be dead.”
In the end, it was the community’s “classic, small-town feel” that cinched the deal, according to Mike. “The first thing we did was walk through the alley to the post office, past tool sheds that reminded us of our grandparents’ houses, and pre-Civil War homes. … We made the move Cortez style. We burned the ship so there was no going back,” he said.
They took over the School House in December which gave the time to gear up for the busy season. Typically, it begins when the Katy Trail opens in April and ends in October with the splendor of fall foliage along the bluffs. Everyone in town works together to maintain the community’s throbbing life, according to Mike. “What we do and how we do it is critical to everyone. The best strategy to attract additional growth and keep the community alive is to work together and lift each other up,” he said.
While the B&B caters to weekend leisure guests, weekdays are often busy with corporate retreats or strategic planning sessions. Drawing from his own corporate experience, Mike believes it’s easier to get creative outside the work environment. ‘We provide a safe place for new ideas,” he said.
Mike and Lisa lived in the B&Bs lower level until 2007 when they built a home next door, known as “The Dormitory at the School House.” It resembles an early 20th century one-room school house with a little cupola on top. They live on the second floor and provide two guest rooms on the main level that are ideal for bicyclists and families with small children. “Bikers like to hit the trails early, so we have the rooms set up with everything they need for a self-serve breakfast,” Mike said.
And the School House B&B Inn offers an elegant oasis for guests who prefer to be pampered. As we pulled away from the historic landmark, Dan and I were already anticipating another visit to the B&B which certainly deserves the A+ it gets from guests. The casual elegance, romantic tranquility, historic flavor, and superb cuisine transformed our trip into an exceptional journey. Rocheport wins accolades for dusting off its treasures and making a comeback. It’s a time warp that can’t be described in guidebooks. You simply must go there and experience it for yourself.
For more informationion on the School House Bed and Breakfast Inn or the Dormitory, visit www.schoolhousebb.com or call (573) 698-2022.
Update: December 2009 -- If you're looking for an old-fashioned winter break, The Rocheport B&B Association invites you to its charming village for a Winter Weekend Getaway and Progressive Dinner. The December 4-5 event will feature gourmet food, great wine, unique shopping, and time to relax in a quaint setting before the holidays move into full swing. The getaway is $79 per couple plus the cost of your selected guest room for Friday and Saturday nights. For more information, visit www.schoolhousebb.com or call Mike and Lisa at (573) 698-2022.
Other Lodging Options Near Katy Trail
Yates House B&B – innkeepers/owners Dixie and Conrad Yates offer six luxurious guestrooms, all with private baths and some with king beds and jetted tubs. The B&B is known for its gourmet breakfasts made with locally grown, seasonal produce. Dixie offers cooking classes and also caters for small groups in the dining/meeting room. The inn, built in 1991, is a beautiful reproduction of an 1850 roadside inn and is mentioned in the Select Registry of Distinguished Inns of North America. Next door, their 1840 Garden House provides three additional guestrooms. For more information, visit www.yateshouse.com or call (573) 698-2129.
Amber House B&B – this new Victorian style inn opened in 2005 by innkeeper/owner Mary Schlueter who offers four elegant guestrooms, all with private baths and some with king beds and jetted tubs. Mary is a professionally trained chef who is renowned for her gourmet breakfasts and weekend cooking classes. She’s a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and reviews cookbooks for national publications. For more information, visit www.amberhousebb.com or call (573) 698-2028.
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Rocheport General Store, www.rocheportgeneralstore.com, (573) 698-2282
Les Bourgeois Bistro & A-Frame Wine Garden, www.missouriwine.com, (573) 698- 2300
Abigail’s, (573) 698-3000
For the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on the trail, visit www.bikekatytrail.com; Katy Trail State Park, www.katytrailstatepark.com, (660) 882-8196, or order The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook by Brett Dufur through www.pebblepublishing.com