When it comes to places to get away from it all, you could hardly top Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. It’s majestic, remote and serene — one of the many reasons why we’ve hosted several Shindig-style fashion shows there. But for Mary Celeste Beall, the proprietor, Blackberry Farm is also home, not to mention a business she helped build with her late husband, Sam Beall, and has recently expanded with the adjacent Blackberry Mountain resort. As such, she is the consummate host, and her resorts are the consummate place to be a guest, having earned countless accolades from the worlds of travel and food, including from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which has twice awarded its restaurant, The Barn at Blackberry Farm (for service and its wine program), in addition to a bevy of other nominations.
We caught up with Beall recently to find out how she does it, and how she makes it all look so effortless. "What’s it like to work so hard so others don’t have to lift a finger?" we asked. Here’s what she told us.
First, we wanted to ask her about Southern hospitality, that time-honored concept she’s been re-defining up in Tennessee. What does it mean to her? “A smile and a warm welcome translate as great hospitality no matter where you are,” she says. “But Southern hospitality is about making someone feel comfortable in your home, and by home, I mean your entire home — from the back porch to the dining room table. It’s all about sharing and connecting, whether it is in a field, on a porch, or a boat, it starts with friendliness and warmth.”
Of course, there’s a flipside to that, by which we mean the expectations that come from being a Southern host, particularly at a place as decorated as Blackberry Farm. “I think there is an expectation that in the South there is a special kind of hosting or hospitality, but I really see it as simply slowing down and connecting with your guest,” she says. “A slower pace of life in the South may have attributed to that legacy, but I for one appreciate the time I can really settle into welcoming someone into our home.”
Turns out, this is something that’s been with her since childhood. “Growing up, I watched my grandmother and my mother taking care of others,” she says... “It wasn’t always setting an elaborate table and sharing a meal — it was how they greeted people in our community and nurtured others outside of our home as well, welcoming an unfamiliar face with a smile wherever we were. I imagine I’d be the same type of host no matter where I lived because I love filling my home and table with people and getting to know them — but for me, the South is home.”
Of course, Blackberry Farm isn’t merely a great place to stay — it’s a great place to eat, drink and indulge, and Beall has partnered with a variety of local makers and artisans over the years to ensure it maintains a sense of place, an approach she has also taken with Blackberry Mountain. “Our entire team appreciates the work of artisans and makers because we know their heart is in everything they create,” she says. “Blackberry has always been about highlighting our region and our people. Whether it is a local farmer who grows corn for us or a glass blower who makes our vases, it is a pleasure to celebrate the talents in our community, near and far. Their dedication shows up in the quality and the tiny details of the craftsmanship, but the story and relationship you build with a maker makes the piece even more special to enjoy. I thrive on the creative process and love sharing the final product with others.”
Her inspiration often begins at home. “Our team is always working on new products and ready to explore a new idea when inspiration strikes!” she says. “My children and I play a lot of games together, so when we discovered that one of our Blackberry team members was a talented woodworker, he helped us create our own backgammon and mancala boards.” (They’re beautiful, trust us.) “Right now, I’m really excited about our collaboration with a local Tennessee knifemaker, Phillips Forged Knives,” she continues. “They created four gorgeous knives with a Damascus steel pattern on the blades that is exclusive to Blackberry Farm. And coming up from our Preservation Kitchen, I can’t wait to share a new dressing in our shop, Citrus Mustard Vinaigrette. This has been a longtime favorite at The Main House, and I think people will love enjoying it at home.”
One thing that remains an evolving challenge: Helping today’s tech-addled visitors unplug and de-stress. “First, we don’t have great cell service in Walland! So naturally, guests are a bit forced to unplug,” she says. “At first, it may seem like an inconvenience, but as they settle into their stay, they quickly realize how important it is to be present, connect with their traveling companion, or themselves, and to really slow down. We also offer a variety of activities and adventures that ask you to use your hands — so diving into a clay project or reeling in a fish ensures that you are going to put away your phone and soak up the moment.”
Speaking of soaking up the moment, the Blackberry resorts also offer a wide variety of content, both print and digital (for if and when you’re able to get some of that aforementioned scarce cell service), including The Blackberry Sessions (with guests including Brittany Howard, Emmylou Harris and more). This got us wondering how Beall manages all the demands on her time, and why telling others’ stories is so important to the Blackberry story. “We’ve always felt a powerful pull to share the stories and voices that make up the Blackberry experience,” she says. “Dating back to my mother-in-law, Kreis Beall, then to my late husband, Sam, Blackberry has always shared stories through newsletters, tableside stories or cookbooks. It was natural for us to expand those platforms with the Blackberry Magazine, both in print and digitally. When you share a part of yourself, you are giving a bit of a gift to the other person. So, sharing stories or experiences for us is just another way of showing our appreciation for our guests and friends.”
As for the other side of the equation — crossing all these things off her to-do list, and at a level of quality that is consistent with Blackberry Farm’s standards — Beall is characteristically modest. “Time management…what is that?” she says. “But seriously, it’s all about team, delegating, trusting, and vision. There is magic behind a common goal and dedicated, smart, talented people. At Blackberry, we are always working together to create a great experience for our guests and each other. So, whether chefs are contributing a recipe, the adventure team is recommending hikes, or a photographer is capturing a sunrise, all of those pieces come together because we are all working towards the same goal. With five children, I always have to take one day at a time, rely on my village, and have faith that it will all work out…and know I cannot do it all even if I want to.”
For those fortunate enough to stay at the Blackberry properties (or for those who aspire to), you can bring some of the experience home with you, thanks to a range of offerings available on site and online. We asked Beall how she maintains the quality, and why it’s important to her that guests can bring some of the farm back with them. “Guests were always asking for a jam recipe or where to buy the chair in their room during their stay, so it all started very organically and grew out of an effort to make things even more accessible for our guests,” she says. “We cannot possibly provide everything, as oftentimes a furnishing is one-of-a-kind or a recipe is hyper-seasonal, so we focus on what we can do best and what our guests will enjoy. The Blackberry team is dedicated to upholding our quality of experience, so I always know that any product that reaches our shelves is something our guests will love.”
Finally, we had to ask where she goes when she wants to relax — after all, running an expansive retreat 24/7 is hard work. Her answer brought our conversation full circle: “Home. My bathtub! Thankfully Blackberry Farm is big enough for everyone to spread out and escape.
“When I am surrounded by my family in a place that I love, I know I can take a deep breath and enjoy being with them whether we are at home or somewhere on the water,” she continues. “I am a Pisces, so the water is always calling me. What I look for from a host is their genuine effort to make me feel at home. There is nothing better than feeling completely comfortable and at peace in someone else’s home. I especially love when a host is unapologetically themselves and doesn’t feel like they need to entertain me every second!” With that advice in mind, we moved on to our rapid-fire round.
1. What are you reading or listening to at the moment?
“Just finished American Dirt and CANNOT stop thinking about it.”
2. What is a principle you try to live by?
“Make a Great Day! We have the power to control our own reactions to the day no matter what happens, and I want to always try to Make it a Great one!”
3. What is one hidden talent you possess, and one hidden weakness you overcome?
“As the mother of five living 45 minutes from school, I would say I have an unofficial Masters in logistics and changing plans on a dime. Hidden weakness is overscheduling — well maybe that isn’t hidden!”
4. How do you keep your inspiration / imagination fueled?
“Always being willing to explore! I love learning about new things, connecting with friends and new people, reading and listening all with an ear to how we can add a dash more into our days or be inspired by something fresh. I also find so much inspiration in nature — its constant evolution and process of sprouting, growing, blossoming, and then going to seed or returning to the earth fascinates me.”
5. Do you have a daily practice or ritual?
“I am working on more meditation, but I try to take a few minutes every morning to reflect, pray, and have some quiet to absorb what is going on in my life and those around me — sending prayers and positive vibes to people in my life near and far.”