‘Mr. Balsams’ begins a new chapter in his life
Steve Barba can remember a time when The Balsams grand hotel and the beauty of New Hampshire’s northern White Mountains were not a part of his life, but he has to go back a long way. In fact, so much of his personal and professional life has been wrapped up in the famous Dixville Notch resort that virtually no one else can remember when Steve Barba was not “Mr. Balsams.”
“But I’m not,” he said, half-protesting the unofficial title. “I mean I am, and my wife knows me as that. I met her there. My kids only know me as that. My current friends know me as that. But there was a time for 13 years that I wasn’t.”
That was back before Barba first arrived at The Balsams as a 13-year-old from Needham, Mass., spending the summer of 1959 at a caddy camp. Forty-six summers later, the former senior partner of The Balsams Corporation is still at the mountain resort, now working on a one-year contract to help a new management team — Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts — with the transition. It is surely one of the longest stays in hotel history.
“My mother had died when I was a little kid and my father had just remarried,” he said, recalling that first summer at The Balsams. “And I needed to get out.” The Dixville Notch resort, back then a 7-1/2-hour ride from Boston, was the perfect getaway.
“It wasn’t just the mountains,” said Barba, recalling his early fascination with the place. “I became completely enthralled with the game of golf — not so much the playing, but the whole protocol and the discipline and courtesy and the wonderful depth of experience that golf provided.”
He returned through his teenage summers, caddying as well as taking on “inside jobs” at the 19th century hotel that Neil Tillotson purchased from the Reconstruction Finance Corp. in 1954.
Tillotson, a manufacturer in Barba’s hometown of Needham, bought the property out of a sentimental attachment to the land, where his great-grandmother, an Abenaki Indian, had lived.
“He didn’t know how to run a hotel,” Barba said. “Each year it was seeing less and less business, and as I got older and I got work inside the hotel, could see for myself that no one was spending any money on the place. It was just getting more and more dilapidated, more and more used up, and fewer and fewer guests used it.”
Barba went off to Michigan State University, where he majored in political science. He took a year off from his formal studies for a personal field trip.
“I hitchhiked to California, reading ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ going right on the same trail as those Okies did.” In the spring of 1970, he was back at MSU, pursuing a master’s in English literature, when the university was shut down by a nationwide strike after four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a riot at Kent State University in Ohio.
“So I came back to The Balsams. At that point, Mr. Tillotson was at his wit’s end and didn’t know what he was going to do. Each year the kind of managers he was able to find were all people at the end of their careers, who were just looking for one more season before they hung it up. And many of them should have hung it up seasons before then.”
Eventually, Tillotson offered Barba and ski area manager Warren Pearson the job of running the resort while he figured out what to do with it.
“So we, in our youthful exuberance, took it over,” Barba said. “And lo and behold, things got better. Our first summer, we doubled the business from the previous summer just by showing up every day and being sober and solicitous and interested in what’s going to happen.”
After four years, The Balsams was making a profit and the management team was expanded to include the hotel’s chef and the superintendent of maintenance. The foursome formed The Balsams Corporation and signed a lease on the property, renewable for up to 50 years. In the years to come, Barba would see his own mission and purpose in life wrapped up in the hotel.
“I sat in the same chair for 35 years,” he said. “It was easy for me to think the world revolved around me because the guests would come and go, the staff would come and go, the weather would come and go. I opened and closed the place 70 times.” (The Balsams closes for about seven weeks each year between the end of foliage and the beginning of ski season.) “I had the place to myself. It’s the only time I had weekends off.”
With the hotel accommodating 15,000 parties for 75,000 guest-nights a year, Barba has met people of “all walks and dimensions of life,” though none more interesting than a special guest named Gail, who came up from Rhode Island some 34 years ago.
“We met through a mutual friend who came up with her,” he recalled. “The only trouble was she didn’t like driving in the mountains. So I would leave Dixville Notch frequently on a Friday afternoon and drive to Rhode Island, pick her up and bring her back to Dixville Notch and spend the weekend. Then on Sunday afternoon I’d take her back to Rhode Island and get back to Dixville Notch that night, so I could be at work the next day. I did that a good many times in our courtship.”
The marriage that followed saved the couple considerable hours on the road, but Barba still considers 35,000 a conservative estimate of the miles he drives each year in his travels to “the New Hampshire of the world down below the notches.”
He serves on the boards of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire Historical Society and several other public and private institutions and is on “six or seven other committees” throughout the state.
On the road or at the hotel, his role at The Balsams has always been highly visible.
“First, I drive with The Balsams seal on the side of the car, so I get associated that way. And secondly, I sit in this office with this great big picture window where everybody sees me. When I took my kids to Disney World 10 or 15 years ago, I had to take my Balsams hat off because it was just too many guests coming up to me.”
Death and retirement left only Barba and chef Philip Learned as partners of The Balsams Corporation. “He’s 20 years older than I am, and at 78, he was interested in retiring,” said Barba. “I figured it would be best if we both went out together the way we came in. That way, I won’t have to look around for another partner.”
They sold the remainder of the lease to the Tillotson estate, which has contracted with Delaware North to manage the hotel and resort. When Barba finishes his part of the transition next spring, he plans to close the book on 47 years at The Balsams. And then start a new one.
“I’m going to write my story, about what it’s been like to live in this place and to meet the people I’ve met,” he said. “It’ll be a great story.”