A Hiker’s Stay at the Norwich Inn

Historic Norwich Inn Welcomes Guest on Foot or by Car

By Sally Pollak
Story originally published in Seven Days on 07|28|2021.

The Appalachian Trail emerges from the woods at the top of Elm Street in Norwich, where a white blaze — marking the 2,193-mile path from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine — guides hikers downhill into town.

At Main Street, the trail heads south before crossing the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. A short walk in the other direction leads to the center of Norwich. There, it’s not uncommon for long-distance trekkers to stock up on groceries, hit the post office and crash at the Norwich Inn, a block off the trail.

“When it rains, they come in like ants,” said Gretchen Dwyer, who works at the front desk.

Earlier this month, a hiker who goes by the trail name of Reef stayed at the inn before continuing his 440-mile walk over the White Mountains, across Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness and on to the summit of Katahdin. Before checking in, Reef made a patio pit stop, during which he drank three bottles of chocolate milk and ate two containers of pasta salad — a snack he purchased at Dan & Whit’s, the fabulous general store next to the inn. His bright-yellow backpack occupied one chair at the table.

“This isn’t food; this is just to sustain life,” Reef, a fortysomething engineer from Massachusetts, said between bites of pasta. “I’m going to get a room, take a shower and destroy a large pizza with every topping they have.”

While there is far more to recommend the inn, Reef said his room — which he secured for a hiker’s reduced rate of $139 — was desirable because it was dry, clean, and equipped with a bed and a shower. The Norwich Inn, a stately clapboard building at the corner of Main Street and Beaver Meadow Road, has been lodging weary travelers since 1797.

That long history “certainly makes us unusual,” said co-owner Joe Lavin. “In our market, there isn’t anything quite like us.”

Lavin thinks the inn complements the culture of the Upper Valley. For people who want to experience a certain local flavor, he said, “The Norwich Inn is that spot.”

The inn — which has had numerous names over the years — was founded by colonel Jasper Murdock, a graduate of Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover, N.H. According to a history of the inn, he welcomed travelers to the grand home he built in Norwich. It’s been in continuous operation since the end of the 18th century, except for about a year after the inn and several nearby buildings were destroyed by a fire in December 1889.

During the pandemic, the Norwich Inn stayed open, thanks to innkeeper Dave Burtonbush, who assumed many roles to keep the business running. (Federal and state loans and grants also helped, Lavin noted.) Some nights the inn hosted only one guest, Burtonbush said. He added that it’s exciting to see the business begin to rebound.

“We’re starting to turn a profit,” Burtonbush said.

Set back from Main Street on a big lawn, the Norwich Inn today encompasses three buildings that together hold 40 guest rooms. Seventeen of those rooms are housed in the Victorian mansion, which includes gathering spaces such as a lounge, a dining room and a pub.

The front porch and back terrace are lovely seasonal spots to enjoy drinks (chocolate milk or otherwise) and bar snacks. The in-house brewery and restaurant, Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse, is open five evenings a week for pub fare, with expanded hours and offerings to come as the inn revamps post-pandemic.

Hikers seeking respite from the woods aren’t the only storied characters who have spent time at the inn. On July 22, 1817, president James Monroe ate dinner there, though he didn’t spend the night.

More than a century later, in 1926 and 1927, Dartmouth student Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, dined at the inn with fellow classmates. Drawings on pages of the inn’s ledger, which inn management thinks were made by Geisel, document those occasions; framed copies of his art hang above the front staircase. As depicted by Geisel, the college students are having a blast — and maybe drinking during Prohibition. (Booze is in the eyes of the beholder.) Geisel labeled one of the events he immortalized in the sketch as “The Last Supper.”

The inn’s more recent history can be traced to the Dartmouth-Columbia homecoming football game in the fall of 2005. Joe and Jill Lavin attended the game with their son, Tyler Lavin, who was a placekicker for Dartmouth and worked at the inn during college. At a tailgate party, Jill told an acquaintance who worked for the football team and the inn to tell the owners that her husband wanted to buy it, Joe recalled.

“I think she wanted me out of the house,” he said with a laugh. “Two days later, I got an email from [then-owner] Tim Wilson that said, ‘Well, it’s not really for sale, but let’s have a beer.’”

That beer turned into a long discussion that resulted in the Lavins purchasing the inn in 2006. “It was sort of like karma,” Joe said.

For Joe, acquiring the inn marked rookie ownership of a lodging property after a long career in hospitality. He’d retired earlier that year from his position with Marriott.

“I like the edge of being the last bastion of responsibility,” Lavin said “It has some energy to it.”

The Lavins live primarily in Potomac, Md., but come up to Norwich for extended stays a couple of times a month. On a day-to-day basis, the inn is run by the 36-year-old Burtonbush, who relocated to Norwich three years ago from Pennsylvania. He was a food and beverage manager at a casino in the Poconos that had 15 bars and restaurants on-site — some open 24 hours a day.

“In a lot of ways I feel like, without doing that job, I wouldn’t be able to handle this one,” he said.

Burtonbush values the inn’s place in the community. It serves guests who come to the Upper Valley for connections with Dartmouth or nearby King Arthur Baking, as well as those who want to recreate in and explore the region. He and his staff want every visitor to get the most out of their stay in Vermont, Burtonbush said.

“I’m contributing to a community something greater than myself, hopefully,” he said.

Staffers offer recommendations for summer hikes and paddles, as well as winter skiing. Dwyer, who works at the front desk, takes guests on tours of local breweries and distilleries.

“They can drink, and I can drive,” she said.

Long before Appalachian Trail hikers became a summer fixture at the Norwich Inn, it was a place where travelers stopped en route to the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. They might have arrived by stagecoach, rather than on foot.

By whatever means guests show up today, they will find a welcoming and helpful innkeeper; house beer on draft; a continental breakfast in the morning; and a shaded porch for people-watching, reading and quiet conversation. And, of course, running water is a plus, noted Reef the hiker.

“Showers are big-time,” he said before heading to his room to take one. “Because you’re living in dirt.”


Seven Days Staytripper Series

Created by Seven Days, the Staytripper: The Road Map for Rediscovering Vermont” series presents curated excursions statewide. The series was originally published from 2020-2022 and highlights Vermont restaurants, retailers, attractions, and outdoor adventures to spotlight all corners of the state.