Toms's Letter 2015

HISTORY OF THE HOSTEL

The hostel idea came about while backpacking on a solo trip to Europe in the early 70’s. Traveling on trains, I met a number of young people who told me they were staying in a place called a hostel. I’d never heard of such a place. I decided to join them and soon became overwhelmed at how much I liked the idea. There, I could talk to other travelers and learn about interesting places to visit not mentioned in my guidebook.

I came home enamored, if not obsessed, with the idea of having my own hostel. One large impediment faced me and that was the fact I had no money. Throwing caution to the wind, I went in search of a spot to put my hostel. I found a man who wanted to sell 75 acres and was willing to finance it 100%. “But I don’t need 75 acres,” I told the realtor. He encouraged me by saying the seller would allow me to make annual payments. He further added that each year when the time came around, I could sell off enough property to make the payment. That sounded fine to me, so, in short order I became the owner of 75 acres.

I searched the property thoroughly to find the proper location to place the hostel, but no spot seemed right. One day, while walking along the back property line, I spotted a group of large live-oak trees towering through a sea of palmettos. Curious about this area, I wandered over. I sat next to the trunk of one of the giant oaks and meditated. It became obvious that I’d stumbled upon a spiritual place. There was no logical explanation for my strong feelings, but I was convinced this spot was magical. Each time I returned, I felt that same spirit overwhelm me.

The big problem, however, was that this mystical place was not on the 75 acres I’d just purchased. I then had to find the owner, who turned out to be a crusty old farmer a few miles away who frowned upon long-haired boys. In his eye, we were hippies and nothing good could come from a hippy. That’s when the price of his 15-acre-tract doubled. Undaunted, I was convinced this place was pre-destined to become the location of the hostel. He gave me the same deal as the other seller, so I became the owner of a whopping 90-acre-tract of swampland to build my hostel. From then on until the day he died, the old farmer always referred to the hostel as “the hippy hotel.”

What kind of building should I have? My neighbor, an architect, showed me a picture of a geodesic dome, a very popular construction in the seventies designed by Buckminster Fuller. That seemed to be a perfect idea. The cedar shake covering over the domes, once constructed, made the buildings appear as if they grew out of the ground like mushrooms. And the construction of them turned out to be a “happening.” Many of my friends came out and participated in putting these domes together on January 25, 1975. The weather couldn’t have been better – warm with bright sunshine. With good music filling the air, delectable food from the barbeque grill, and a keg of cold beer to drink, it turned out to be like an old-fashioned barn-raising. The merriment of that day signaled that something very special was about to happen. And special, it was. The hostel opened its doors for guests on July 4, 1975. In the beginning very few hostellers came. My marketing technique consisted of chasing down cyclists who appeared to be long-distance travelers and convincing them to come to my hostel, the overnight fee being $3.00.

After being listed in the American Youth Hostel Guidebook, more and more hostellers began arriving, mostly from other countries. Very few Americans knew what a hostel was. The first fifteen to twenty years, practically every manager of the hostel was from another country.

In the mid-nineties, Americans discovered the place. The hostel then changed somewhat from a backpacker’s hostel to a week-end get-away. After a few years, it became obvious we needed to move away from the reputation of being a party-place and change the focus of the hostel by “going green.” I’ve always been an avid environmentalist, and that’s what I wanted the hostel to become – more of an eco-tourism destination. The hostel is a non-profit organization and with the help of a former manager, Murray Wilson, we received a 501-C-3 designation from the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt corporation by having retreats and seminars on subjects that relate to the environment.

I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve come a long way. The hostel is now governed by a board of directors made up of former managers. We have very qualified people to manage and an excellent staff. Our chef prepares great vegetarian and vegan meals for the guests each night with food grown in our organic garden. In baking breads and pizzas, the chef uses our cob oven, fueled with wood gathered from the forest floor. After dinner, we usually have entertainment from guests who bring their musical instruments. The lake continues to be a favorite with the guests for swimming and sunbathing, and on the nights of the full moon, we conduct a sweat lodge in the Native American style.

What pleases me most is the number of comments from guests who say their life has been changed for the better by spending time at the hostel and having learned more about what they can do to improve the environment and live in a more sustainable manner. We encourage travelers from everywhere to visit our hostel to see for themselves what we’re doing. I’m convinced that the hostel is an important place that not only changes lives for the better but in some small way fosters peace for the rest of the world.