Staying true to their values and their vision has helped the couple behind this bed-and-breakfast to create a cozy country getaway.
The cozy, stately old home at the corner of Illinois Route 38 and Daysville Road in Franklin Grove has long been an important fixture in the community. It began in 1912 when Columbus D. Hussey established a several hundred-acre estate in this rural town.
At one time, a Dr. Fleming used it for his office and home.
Now, the property’s fourth owners, Lisa and John Ayres, are using the lovingly restored home as a bed-and-breakfast that’s as much unique as it is focused on environmental conservation.
Since its opening in 2015, the Lincoln Way Inn – named for the Lincoln Highway that bypasses the home on Route 38 – has welcomed more than 10,000 guests.
“Every day, creating a special, unique and personalized stay that guests carry with them as they go back out into the world – this is our favorite part,” says Lisa Ayres. “Lincoln Way Inn offers more than just a room. It’s an eco-friendly, sustainable getaway.
To some extent, Lisa figures she was always destined to run an environmentally conscious bed-and-breakfast.
She was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from UW-LaCrosse with a bachelor’s degree in Recreation Administration. She received a Master of Public Administration degree from Norwich University in Vermont.
The outdoor and conservation enthusiast pursued career paths related to outdoor recreation and environmental education, having worked as an intern with The National Wildlife Federation, a field director for the Girl Scouts of DuPage, and several roles, including president and COO, of USO of Illinois – a nonprofit provider of programs and centers dedicated to supporting active duty, guard and reserve service members and their families.
Lisa then served for five years as executive director of TAWANI Foundation, the philanthropic arm of TAWANI Enterprises, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in historic preservation, sustainability and neighborhood development.
“Creating meaningful experiences interlaced with educational elements would prove to be the driving spirit of my avocation and occupation,” Lisa says.
It was while Lisa and her husband were living and working around the Chicago area that they would “adventure” to the Franklin Grove area on weekends. They had friends nearby and spent plenty of time exploring the Nachusa Grasslands, where wild bison now roam.
“As avid ‘butterfly and prairie people’ – as friends call us – the flora and fauna at Nachusa Grasslands is truly unique, endemic and a treasure. We were hooked,” Lisa says.
Thus enthralled, the couple set out to secure a little place to call their own in Franklin Grove.
Sometime around 2009, after years of driving past the house on the corner of Daysville Road and Route 38, Ayres’ car literally stopped itself right outside the front door. As she sat there staring at the house, an idea began to form. She and John could transform it into an inn, creating a destination experience for couples like themselves. They eventually bought the home and a 110 acre-prairie located 3 miles away.
“Upon purchase, the dreaming began of creating a balanced life in harmony with the land, flora, fauna and those who would love it as much as we do,” Lisa says.
With the mentorship of friends, the input of colleagues, and the investment and involvement of TAWANI, the Ayreses brought to life the vision, business plan and design for Lincoln Way Inn. Renovations began in 2014 and were complete the next year.
Today, Lincoln Way Inn offers much for visitors to explore when they stay in the inn’s six suites.
The property comes with amenities such as heated parking, a pergola, a gazebo, a stone grotto, a guest library, two living rooms, a garden patio pagoda with a fireplace, a s’mores bar, a dining porch and a private balcony.
There are many smaller perks, such as organic, 100% cotton linens, robes and towels. Keeping with the eco-friendly theme, the Ayreses use all-natural cleaners around the inn.
The Ayreses love to cook, and they believe cooking a meal for another person is a gift to both the giver and the receiver. Naturally, inn guests enjoy creative and local farm-to-table dishes, crafted in the home’s kitchen.
The couple serve up a welcome charcuterie tray. They invite guests to reserve a picnic lunch for hiking in nearby Franklin Creek State Park, borrow one of the inn’s bicycles, or book a massage and facial service.
Lodging options include overnights, corporate stays, yoga retreats, family reunions, weddings, elopements, celebration stays, farm visits and more. Destination experience packages are in development.
In keeping with its unique vibe, the inn recently added a meditation water garden.
“We are so excited about the addition of this water feature,” Ayres says. “The creek, pond and falls will provide guests with a place to gather, rest and renew. With the snow falling today and winter embracing us in the months ahead, we will feel the warmth of the sun, beside the water, as we plan the garden that will surround and abound around it.”
Dreaming and planning ways to improve the destination experience can be as much a joy as a challenge, says Lisa.
“With so many ideas of all that we do and wish to offer – creating partnerships, new excursions and new package offerings – the biggest challenge is being so excited I don’t want to sleep,” she says. “Staying focused on the big and little picture, goals and vision each and every day is key.”
Along with that constant dreaming, there’s a sense of imparting oneself into this unique business. New additions are necessarily a reflection of the couple’s values and passions.
“Creating experiences, beekeeping, conservation, historic preservation, healthy, sustainable sourcing of every aspect from food to bamboo toilet paper – that is actually super soft! – are not a business model; they are us,” says Lisa. “A beloved fellow business owner once said to me, regarding the concept of competition, ‘You just do what you do best. Focus on that, and the rest will follow.’ I think of these words often and have found such freedom in their meaning.”
Creating a competitive destination experience has also meant ample amounts of teamwork. Designing a five-star experience requires all hands on deck, says Lisa, to provide the care, comfort and detail guests deserve and appreciate.
“Creating a synergistic and energized team, who all embrace the business’ heart, soul and vision with passion is paramount,” she adds. “Hospitality is a 365/24/7 lifestyle. The best advice I have is to take care of your team, yourself and your family, as you would your guests, in order to be the best you can be for them. Self-care is vital to business care.”
Lisa doesn’t consider her business a job. Instead, she sees it as an immersive experience that allows her to meet people near and far, from all over the world.
“A stay at Lincoln Way Inn offers the chance to explore the allure of the prairie and experience a destination that engages you in the sights, sounds and tastes of the countryside,” says Lisa. “The area is awash in beauty and activities. The surrounding communities offer a bounty of dining, shopping, weekday and weekend seasonal markets, live music, art festivals and more. For everyone from the outdoor enthusiast to the indoor indulger, we offer limitless options.”