For years, Mary Celeste Beall, 42, played a supporting role at Blackberry Farm, the legendary resort in Tennessee that her husband, Sam Beall, ran. When he died suddenly in 2016, the mother of five had to learn to run it herself--while shouldering the burden of devastating grief. --As told to Sheila Marikar
My in-laws bought Blackberry Farm in 1976. Back then, it was a super-small team. My mother-in-law cooked and rode a riding lawnmower with her son, Sam--my future husband. Sam and I started dating in high school. When he got into the California Culinary Academy, we moved to California. But he was always so excited to make a home on the farm. We returned to Tennessee in 2001, when Sam took over from his parents, and built our home on the farm in 2007.
For years, my role was supporting Sam. He'd be at the Barn--the restaurant--until 2 a.m. I'd get up with the kids and get them ready for school (though he'd somehow drag himself out of bed to see them off most days). I have a master's in accounting, but I consulted on our retail stores and interior design. Blackberry Farm was our life. It's not like Sam worked somewhere else, left each morning, and didn't come home until the evening. Sam dreamed about it being a family business forever.
The day Sam passed away started off as a normal day. At 4:45 a.m., he left for a skiing trip in Colorado. We kissed goodbye.
I will remember that kiss for the rest of my life.
That afternoon, I was going to pick up my son and his friend, and the friend Sam had gone skiing with called. He said Sam had had a terrible accident and was dead.
I thought it was a horrible joke. I didn't believe him. I started screaming and shouting. I drove home for 35 minutes, praying, crying.
I had to make the two worst phone calls of my life to Sam's parents. Then I had to figure out how to tell our children. They'd lost their father. Their hero. And I had lost the love of my life, my best friend of 23 years. I was beyond shattered.
But I found myself standing up at Sam's funeral. I had no notes, but I had to say something to my family, our loved ones, our community. That we were going to be OK, that the hopes and dreams Sam created would not die. After the funeral, his father said, "We think you should do this"--meaning run the farm.
I hadn't run a hotel before, and I was scared. I had no plan, but I knew I wanted to keep Sam's vision for Blackberry alive--for our children, for Sam, for myself, and also for our team. (There are over 750 of us.) The hardest thing would be seeing his vision handed off to someone else.
Developing Blackberry Mountain, which is much more activity- and adventure-focused than the farm, has been a huge part of my healing. We opened this February. But we had owned the land for 11 years and had renderings of the lodge before Sam passed. He had explored every inch on foot, bike, or four-wheeler. (He was the adventurer, I'm not--I'd be scared to know about some of those four-wheeler outings.) It was great for all of us to have something new to think about. We got to honor Sam. We'd be in meetings and say, "How are people going to bike around the property?" Or, "Sam would love it if guests arrived and hiked to their rooms."
One big thing we realized when Sam passed away was, "Oh, my goodness, we have no succession plan." That's where my accounting and more logical side has come out. Sam focused on food and beverage and activities. Those areas were doing well. And we've been able to improve design, architecture, marketing, retail. A big part of how I've been able to do this has been delegating, trusting, and believing in people. Exactly what Sam's parents did for me.
Early on, I'd get teary in a meeting, and then 10 minutes later, I'd be like, "OK, y'all, sorry for the tears, but aren't we glad that someone didn't come in from some big corporate hotel chain and say, 'No, you cannot do that!' " We let ourselves make some crazy decisions. That's what makes it magic.