Labor of Love at Eden Vale Inn
Discover the romantic start behind Placerville’s Eden Vale Inn.
By Thea Marie Rood
Photography courtesy of Eden Vale Inn
I. THE DOG
Amusingly, it all started with an Irish setter named Maggie. “Gayle needed a dog sitter,” says Mark Hamlin. “And I needed a cheap place to stay while I started a business.” His wife, Gayle Erbe-Hamlin, looks across the room at him, and laughs: “He just never moved out.”
And so began a relationship that would include a long-lasting marriage and a successful—albeit unexpected— business partnership as innkeepers. “If you knew ahead of time, you might not do it,” Hamlin says good-naturedly about running an inn, which in fact took 24 years to happen. “Life just goes on here and we just kept expanding.”
II. THE BARN
“We were newlyweds, we wanted something cheap and affordable, so we were attracted to the Sierra foothills,” Hamlin recalls. They started working with a local—and colorful—real estate agent named Shirley West, who drove around Placerville in a VW Beetle, and showed them property after property, but nothing clicked. Meanwhile, Erbe-Hamlin frequently drove up Springvale Road for her job with the county, where she thought to herself, from her air-conditioned car, “This looks like a really, really hot place to live.” But then one day, a for-sale sign caught her eye. “I walked onto the property and went home and told Mark, ‘You need to look at this; it’s kind of interesting.’”
What Hamlin saw was 10 barren acres, but it had good water and a large barn, with cedar shiplap and a frame that was in good shape. So they made an offer and West started moving forward. One day, however, Hamlin panicked and tried to call her off the deal: “I was working for Intel, and I told her I was afraid I’d lose my job. Shirley said, ‘Well, you can always chop wood.’ Then I told her I didn’t have enough for a down payment. And she said, ‘How much do you need?’ I told her $2,500, and she said, ‘No problem, I’ll lend it to you.’”
So in November 1985, just six months after getting married, they were the owners of a technically uninhabitable structure, and they both had full-time professional jobs, with no money to hire out the work.
“It took us five years of weekends, from 7 a.m. Saturday to 9 p.m. Sunday,” says Hamlin. “We did all the design ourselves.” Not to mention all the dusty, sweaty, challenging physical labor. “I remember one day, we were filthy, we’d been working on the fireplace,” says Erbe-Hamlin. “And this big Cadillac pulls up, a guy gets out with a big cowboy hat, and this little petite wife. She said to him, pointing at the barn, ‘Oh, this is so romantic! Can we have one of these?’ I wanted to say, ‘I don’t feel very romantic right now.’”
Fighting a common enemy raised their passions, however, like the time in 1986, the Friday before Thanksgiving, with a fleet of concrete trucks scheduled to arrive, the couple came home to find they’d been red-tagged by the county, with tape across the front door and an order to cease all work. They went down to the county building department for a “meeting” that could easily have turned into a brawl. “She had to hold me back from going over the counter,” says Hamlin, still a little hot even today. “She had me by the belt loops.”
The final county inspection was done in 1989, the barn was officially “finished” in 1990, and what had once housed draft horses and hay was transformed into a light-filled home with hardwood floors and, of course, that fireplace. They gradually filled the spacious-yet-cozy interior with overstuffed, comfortable sofas and chairs, books and art.
But work never really stopped. Erbe-Hamlin built her garden. Hamlin built the pond. On a trip to Italy, they got the idea for a wood-fired oven, and came home and built that. And finally, in 2007, they took “Innkeeping 101” with the California Association of Boutique and Breakfast Inns. “They made it seem very possible and fun,” says Hamlin. The Hamlins also had the help of a consultant, Bill Bullard, who said, “Guys, you’re selling romance.” So he suggested every room have a private soaking tub (preferably outdoors), a fireplace and a big TV, advice they took.
III. THE INN
“We opened (Eden Vale) in 2009 with three rooms,” says Hamlin. “And by 2011, we had seven rooms, and we added the spa for guests at that time.” But—no surprise—they didn’t stop there, and moved next into weddings. “We’d always done little weddings,” says Erbe-Hamlin, but she felt they needed a dedicated space, “just some decomposed granite under an oak tree” somewhere. “He always accuses me of having all the ideas,” she laughs. “But he can’t do anything halfway. That’s how we ended up with a ‘wedding pavilion.’”
They did 20 weddings last year, using this gorgeous rustic space Hamlin built, and many of the wedding parties booked the entire inn. “Or for elopements, the couple can have a massage, get married, stay the night,” she says, and both she and Hamlin are legal officiants.
But what of their own marriage? They live at work, they are each married to their business partner. How have they lasted 31 years? “We learned to separate the roles,” says Erbe-Hamlin, with a smile. “We also learned to be honest and direct. And we take a lot of good vacations.”
Hamlin agrees, adding, “There’s also a lot of satisfaction in creating a successful business—in a special place we share with special people.”
By the way, there is also still a dog— Sydney now, a Lab-pug mix—who the guests, and the UPS driver, must feed a treat from a jar at the front desk.