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Crusader Chronicles: JoAnne Ball '74

JoAnne Ball '74For the past 22 years, husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team and Holy Cross visual arts majors JoAnne Ball and Bill Fontana, both from the class of 1974, have run their own inn on the majestic coast of Camden, Maine. JoAnne stole some time out during the busy summer season at the inn to share her experiences and her passion for caring for their guests.

Q. What came before the B&B days, and was it difficult to make the leap and start A Little Dream Bed and Breakfast together?
A. No. Billy and I met at Holy Cross and have been working together ever since we graduated in 1974. We designed and made toys for places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and for Bloomingdale’s. Our first retail store was at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston in the late ’70s, then we opened three more stores in Manhattan. In New York we had movie star clientele, were featured on the CBS morning news with Diane Sawyer, and in The New York Times and our store was almost chosen as the toy store in the movie Big. But we also had a “Santa Claus” try to hold us up one Christmas Eve! Our New York years were exciting and challenging, but we started to feel like things had gotten too big and (the growth) had moved us into management and away from the hands-on kind of business we had started out with and that we enjoyed more. So it was on to a new dream ... this time, “A Little Dream!” Running our small inn on the beautiful coast of Maine for the past 22 years has been a joy.

Q. Why open a bed and breakfast?
A. We have never stayed in a B&B ourselves to this day, but we loved to entertain and cook and had a house people seemed to gravitate to. When we lived in New York, and then moved out of the city to a secluded spot up in the Hudson River area, all of our city friends would show up for weekend stay-overs bearing wonderful fish from Fulton Fish market, pastries from Zabars, wine, etc. It seemed like we always had lots of company, and we used to joke that we should run a B&B. Later, when we closed our stores, we thought of moving to Saratoga or the Berkshires or Vermont but then we saw Maine and fell in love. Here we are still gushing about it 22 years later! We thought, how about a little B&B for a while until we think of something else. At some point we’ll retire so that Billy can sculpt (his passion), and so I can do some design work, spend more time with our grandkids in California, and we would like to live in Italy for a bit ... but not YET!

Q. What are the most important skills that each of you bring to your work as hosts?
A. The most important skill is to convey real and heartfelt hospitality. We aim to make people feel welcome and at ease and to genuinely be interested in having our guests have the very best time possible, to exceed their expectations, and to offer an experience that is really special and unique. We really try to have each guest’s interests in mind ... not just a cookie-cutter to-do list, but something that is geared just toward them. Billy and I are wired the same. We aim to please! It is our joy to give guests a really wonderful and personal experience. We share our home and but also our love for the area, for instance, the perfect hidden garden, the best view, secret walk, the best hiking, restaurant, a great picnic spot, where to sail, shop, bike, or go antiquing.

Artistry is the other skill. Guests comment on our sense of style both in food and décor, and that speaks to our common background as art majors. I call it “painting with things” to create interesting artful vignettes and soothing cushy rooms. Guests take lots of photos, and we have been featured in a number of magazines and newspapers over the years. Bill’s creativity and artistic eye is the talent behind our amazing award-winning breakfasts. His breakfasts are inventive and a feast for the eyes as well. We like the old-fashioned aspects of our business and the chance to connect personally with people. Though you can e-mail us for reservations, we make sure that each and every inquiry gets a follow up call. I feel like I know a little about my guests that way before they arrive and what their needs might be. Sometimes I help them plan the rest of their trip through New England. Our guests tend to be from much further away than New England. We see lots of Southerners escaping heat, mid-Westerners, West Coast people, and lots of Brits and Germans though not so much this year with the world economy being what it is. I speak some of a few languages, thanks to growing up abroad, and that helps put foreign guests at ease too.

Q. What's been the most interesting experience while running A Little Dream?
A. Gosh ... it’s so hard to pick just one. Several movies have been filmed here in Camden since we’ve lived here, and a producer who was staying with us invited me down to the set to watch the movie being made, which was interesting. And I got to meet Glenn Close! Another memory is that we helped the late David Foster Wallace, who was our guest for a week, with an article he was struggling with on lobsters for Gourmet magazine .We had no idea how famous he was. It is too long to tell here though, and funny in a “Fawlty Towers” kind of way, but very sad now because he is no longer with us.


We are lucky in that the beauty of the area and the number of important people who live here have given us a level of guests that would probably never have landed on our doorstep otherwise. Among them have been lots of famous photographers, several well-known writers (Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Russo, a neighbor, organized our Maine Literary Festival), luminaries in the technology industry, producers, actors, artists, lots of sailors, but mostly just wonderfully kind, lovely, everyday folks, who have blessed us with return visits year after year, and who have showered us with all kinds of gifts, the best of which is friendship.

The area is a hotbed of the arts and wonderful art galleries abound due to the caliber of the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center. Andrew Wyeth called this area home for all of the summers of his long life and Maine and Mainers starred in many of his most famous works. Will Barnet, Alex Katz, Robert Indiana, and Neil Weliver too. Thinking about it, we would have to say that the most compelling story was that of Ryzard Horowitz, the famous avant-garde Polish photographer, who emigrated to the United States. We knew him as a guest but he was, in fact, the youngest survivor of Auschwitz and the youngest name on Schindler’s list at 5 years old. In the movie, at the end, he is one of the real people who walk down to Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. It was a great privilege to meet him. Another really interesting experience that came my way because of owning A Little Dream is that I am head of our National Register Historic District and got to speak to our legislature on its behalf, and float a law that affects Maine Historic Districts. It passed unanimously and became a Maine statute in 2007. That was a truly interesting experience on so many levels.

Q. How do you separate work and personal life when your work is always literally so close?
A. We don’t really, when we are in season anyway! And it kind of melts together because many guests have become old friends after 22 years of visits. We see them more than family sometimes. Billy and I have a real division of labor. I attend to the guests, reservations, and decor, greet guests, plant and set the gardens, and make up all the rooms. Billy maintains the gardens, along with two acres of grounds, creates amazing and imaginative breakfasts, troubleshoots maintenance issues, and has put his expert touch and artist’s eye to all the renovations. After breakfast service, we go off and do our various jobs and sit down to one of his great meals each night together. I’m up latest. He’s up earliest. We are really lucky and the commute is the best part — just down the stairs to work! We run our place entirely by ourselves without staff, but we mostly like it that way. For that and for our longevity in a business where people usually last 3-5 years we have been given our industry’s highest award, “The Golden Plunger”!

Q. What’s your favorite memory from Holy Cross or most important Holy Cross experience?
A. Meeting Billy, of course, and for him I am sure it is playing football for Holy Cross as a defensive line-backer with his roommate Pete Vaas’74 at quarterback. I graduated in the first class of only 16 women. Here’s a bit of HC trivia: I became the first woman to get a diploma from Holy Cross thanks to luck of the alphabet and my last name starting with a B! Other favorite memories are our son Chris graduating from Holy Cross and our niece Maggie Fontana ’05 being such a star in women’s Holy Cross basketball.

Q. What's your favorite place at A Little Dream?
A. The third floor deck of a room we call Treetops. It is, as its name implies, high in the Treetops and has the loveliest view of Camden Harbor and Curtis Island, which sits in the middle of our much-photographed harbor. I never tire of the changing view. One minute the sun is hitting it and the water dances like an impressionist painting, the next, it is being swallowed up by fog or a sailing class will dot the horizon with tiny white sails. Majestic multi-mast windjammers sail by regularly and if you are lucky, once a month, the full moon lights up the water and the little island is engulfed in a path of white light. Breathtaking!

Q. How about your favorite season in Camden?
Q. All of them! I never lived in a place where I have appreciated each season so much, nor where they are more beautiful. Spring, because I am a gardener and that is when my favorite flowers bloom, lilacs in particular. I love the first two weeks of June when the wild lupines grow in every field and byway and make Maine look like a Monet painting. In summer it’s the sailing, but not the heat. In fall it’s because of foliage and wood smoke in the air, but maybe I love winter most of all because I am a winter girl (I was born in December and grew up in Switzerland). Maine winters are perfect with sugary snow, blue skies, snow- covered pines, sparkling ocean, sea-smoke around the islands, constellation Orion bright in the sky, cozy “foodie” get-togethers with friends, climbing Mount Battie, and taking in the panorama of Penobscot Bay and its hundreds of islands from the top with mugs of hot chocolate, then sledding down. Even a good nor’easter howling outside is nice while you are cozy by the fire. I still pinch myself that we live in such a beautiful place!

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Brought to you by the College of the Holy Cross General Alumni Association Communications Committee. Maura Fredey '94 is a member of the College of the Holy Cross Alumni Board of Directors