Don Damewood was a man of vision. Sometimes the vision was blurred; often so out of focus even he didn’t know what he saw, but he never stopped looking ahead.
Right after completing high school in Princeton, West Virginia, Don joined the Merchant Marines and shipped in and out of ports all over the world. He left his high school sweetheart Helen back home where they’d made heartfelt promises to each other before he sailed away. After both had sown enough oats to appreciate each other, Don and Helen married in 1950 in a huge (for the time) ceremony at a local Princeton church. They relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, where Helen worked at the Maidenform Bra Factory and Don once again shipped out to sea. While at sea two years later, Don learned that one of his leaves home had culminated in success when he received a telegram from Helen informing him she was pregnant with their first child.
Don became a certified electrician in the service and after returning to Delaware for their first daughter Cassie’s birth, wanderlust struck again. Don and Helen bought a 30 foot Spartan trailer and started following electrician jobs. Over the next two years, they pulled the trailer through eight states, with daughter, Cassie in tow, up and down the East Coast, living here and there as jobs came and went.
In 1954, Don, Helen and Cassie hooked up the big silver trailer again and moved to Ohio. Don had a lead on a fairly stable job in Toronto working as an electrician at a local steel plant, climbing up on towers to install and maintain lighting and electrical systems. They parked their home in Brewster’s Trailer Court, a community bustling with young families much like them, struggling to save enough money to buy a house while trying to keep the kids in clothes and put food on the table.
Less than two years later, Don found a lot in a newly formed subdivision just outside of Steubenville, in a little community affectionately known as Pleasant Hill where they built their home.
Helen became pregnant with their second child while the house was under construction. Don worked days as an independent electrical contractor and worked on the house at night. Their second child, Candy, was born and immediately diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Candy was also plagued with a variety of other health problems and all of her doctors predicted she would never live past two years old. But she surprised them all and grew strong and healthy, providing decades of love and delight for family and friends. She lived at Brandywine with her mother until 2003 when symptoms of Alzheimer’s required more care than Helen could give. She was cared for at a nearby nursing home until her death in 2008.
Shortly after Candy’s birth, the family moved into the new house. But Don wasn’t satisfied; he wanted more wide open spaces, lots of land, a bigger challenge. He began roaming the hilly countryside in his pickup truck, exploring the old farms and acres of land overgrown with brush and timber to find the perfect place to build another house, a bigger house for his expanding family. One day he came home and told Helen he’d found the idyllic refuge that would keep him challenged for the rest of his life. Helen reluctantly climbed into the truck and was driven way, way off the beaten path and down into "Wild Cat Hollow."
Her fears were not unfounded. Don’s Utopia was 100 acres of hills and valleys overrun with blackberry vines, apple trees, black walnut groves, nettles, crabgrass, and milkweed. Smack in the middle was a tiny dilapidated farmhouse occupied by a tiny dilapidated old man, Homer, the farm’s owner; the only saving grace Helen could see was a huge barn that had aged well in its 100 year life. She swore she would never live in a place like that and Don assured his wife that she would never have to leave her cozy subdivision house.
But he had lied. A week later Don put their home in Pleasant Hill on the market and a month later Helen and the kids were loaded in the truck along with the furniture and taken to their new home: a house trailer parked right next to the farmhouse (where Homer still lived).
And so they began again. Don started building another house. They found an old bulldozer at an auction and cleared huge areas of brush and trees. Helen had to admit that the place was growing on her. Don finished the house and the family moved in. But his vision had changed. As he stood and looked out over the vast meadow behind the house and listened to the gurgling streams flowing in from all directions, he decided he would build a lake. Helen told him that he had even less idea on how to do that than he did about how to build a house.
Two years later, the lake was done. Don had bulldozed out the meadow and dammed up the biggest creek. He read book after book on how to create and maintain a manmade body of water, what kind of fish were appropriate to stock and how to combat kelp and algae. Helen watched from the wings, amazed and proud, wondering if there was anything her crazy husband couldn’t do—or at least wouldn’t attempt.
Shortly after the lake was completed, Don and Helen decided to open it to the public. They built picnic tables, shelter houses, a concession stand, bait shop and lifeguard chair, stocked the lake with 10 different varieties of fish, created a sandy beach and parked a dock complete with diving board in the center of the lake. But they still didn’t have a name for the place. They pondered naming it after one or both of their daughters but couldn’t come up with anything that flowed. Suddenly they recalled a river they had both loved in Wilmington, Delaware, the city where Cassie was born, named Brandywine and quickly agreed it was a perfect moniker.
Brandywine Lake was an instant success. There were no comparable facilities closer than 20 miles and there was something for everyone. Fishing, swimming, picnicking, hiking, exploring; for a year or so, there was even a riding stable onsite.
In 1960, Helen and Don learned they were expecting their third child. And, alas, there was once again a “housing” shortage so Don decided to build an addition to their house, an appendage that turned out to be bigger than the original house. Their first boy, Jonathan, was born on June 12, 1961.
Over the next few years, the mental and physical tolls of living right in the middle of business mounted. From March to September, the lake opened at 6 am, seven days a week, for fishing and closed at 9 pm, after the last waterlogged swimmer reluctantly came ashore. The yard behind the house wasn’t fenced so kids were constantly playing in the backyard and people did not hesitate to knock on the Damewoods’ door at all hours of the day and night. The off-season was devoted to repairing fences, rebuilding the beach, dragging the lake to maintain its depth, and general upkeep of the farm, house, concession stand and picnic shelters. They decided to close the lake to the public in 1964.
Three years after Jon was born, the Damewoods welcomed daughter Tricia on January 2, 1965. Due to be born on December 25th, she was hailed as the final addition to the Damewood clan of children and Don celebrated their latest “triumph” by giving his wife a special Christmas present: a cherry red Triumph TR7. Unfortunately, since Tricia arrived late, Helen could not fit in the driver’s seat of the present that she had secretly desired for many years.
Right after Don had purchased Brandywine, he had bought a few horses. He had a lifelong love of the animal and had always wanted one. He paid $250 total for three at an auction. They were just nags but they were great pleasure horses, perfect for exploring the trails and teaching the kids horseback riding basics. But true to his nature, Don soon wanted more and ventured out into the world of purebred horses. After considerable research, he decided that American Saddlebreds were his breed of choice. He loved the simplicity of English saddles, the challenge of double-reined bridles, the elegance of English riding attire and the high spiritedness of the American Saddlebred. He set out to find the perfect American Saddlebred mare to sire his first farm-born colt.
Soon after, the gentle mare Peachette arrived at Brandywine and a trip to Lexington, Kentucky, led to Ace, a high-spirited stallion joining her there. Peachette and Ace hit it off right away and a string of colts and fillies were born over the next few years. In keeping with the name of the farm and lake, Ace’s name, as well as most of his offspring, was preceded by Brandywine on all the registration papers. As the horse family grew, the Damewoods were growing as well with Jason, the second son and final child, born in August of 1970.
Cassie, Jon, and Tricia all showed horses along with their dad throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. None of the horses that Don and his kids showed ever brought home a lot of blue ribbons but many memories and friends were made as every summer was spent pulling the combination horse trailer/camper from show to show. Beating all the odds, one horse, Baron Von Steuben, ended up with a professional trainer and went on to become the World Champion Three-Gaited Saddlebred in August of 1977. To have a world champion come from a small Ohio farm with just one mare and stud was beyond uncommon, a dream come true, but one that would not be witnessed by the man who would have most enjoyed it.
The victory was shrouded in incredible loss and sadness. In July of 1977, just weeks before the win, Don and Jon were found dead in their car at an empty construction site near a Steubenville hospital. Officials cited carbon monoxide poisoning from the car’s exhaust system as the cause of death but rumors and suspicion ran rampant since so many details of the accident were unknown and this type of poisoning occuring in a moving vehicle was unheard of. Many suspected foul play though nothing could ever be proven.
Over the next few years, Helen struggled to hold on to the farm and her sanity. At the time of Don’s death, they owned over 50 rental properties and had several houses under construction. Twelve-year-old Tricia became the unofficial head of household as Cassie remained in California, Jason was barely six at the time the deaths occurred and Candy needed constant care. Tricia struggled to care for the horses, mow the grass and keep up with large amount of household and outdoor maintenance that came with where they lived. She also helped with her dad's business that he had left behind, collecting rent, cleaning out rentals after tenants moved out and helping in the office. Her support continued through her college years when she drove home almost nearly every weekend from the University of Akron, a school she chose so that she could be near enough to help.
Although Tricia had never planned to live in the area where she had grown up, after she graduated from college, she and her fiancé Dave moved back to the area to start a business. Her mother and Candy still lived at Brandywine and time had taken its toll on the house and property. She and Dave began the long process of making it the beautiful place she remembered, moving into the downstairs apartment at the family home so that they could save for their own home.
Tricia and Dave married in 1990 and built their home down the road from Helen’s place on two acres that they purchased from her. A few years later, their first child Taylor was born and five years later, Evan became their first-born son.
After a very short and unexpected illness, Helen died in June of 2005. Immediately, thoughts turned to the family farm. The thought of it leaving the family was torturous to Tricia and since she and Dave had just added a large addition to their own home, they didn’t want to leave it and move into the now empty house. She and Dave had often thought of a retreat where people could enjoy the peaceful setting that she had grown up with, a tribute to the hard work that her parents had put in to turn an overgrown piece of land into a beautiful santuary. The plans for The Inn began to take shape.
They began the long, emotional process of cleaning out the home, going room by room to sift through, organize and remove nearly 45 years of accumulated “stuff”. Renovations began soon after and one year, nearly to the day, after Helen’s passing, in early June of 2006, The Inn At Brandywine was ready to welcome its first guests.
The plaque near the front door, simple yet important, reminds guests of the history of Brandywine and the two people who started it all. It reads:
“The Inn At Brandywine, dedicated on the 15th day of June, 2006, in loving memory of Helen & Don Damewood, whose dreams, determination and hard work transformed an isolated valley into a warm haven for family and friends. May every guest leave with memories that reflect the warmth, love and laughter on which Brandywine was built.”