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Thetford's Gove Hill Retreat Put Up for Sale

Thetford — The historic Gove Hill Retreat, a sprawling property on one of the town’s highest peaks that has been beloved by neighbors and visitors for decades, is for sale.

And as the owners await a buyer who can afford the nearly $1.3 million price tag, neighbors wonder what will happen to the fenceless property that has quietly anchored the neighborhood since the mid-1960s and earlier, opening itself up to the likes of runners, dog walkers and horseback riders.

“I think anybody that’s lived around here and been any part of it was sad to see it go because it’s been a landmark for such a long time,” said neighbor Lauren Harhen, who has lived on a property abutting the retreat for nearly 30 years. “But given the economy and the way things have been going, you could see that it’s probably been a burden on (the owners), so it’s sad.”

The American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire closed the 190-acre retreat in January. The Rev. Dale Edwards, the Baptists’ region minister, said the decision came following years of declining revenues, rising tax bills and a gradual change in the preferences of visitors, who, more and more, desired more modern amenities than the early-1900s mansion and surrounding campground could offer.

“Bunk beds didn’t do it any longer,” Edwards said Wednesday. “People like to have a private bath versus a communal bath.”

Edwards said the retreat, which could accommodate up to 50 people and was donated for a small sum of money to a Vermont Baptist group in 1966, struggled to pay its property taxes, ending its most recent fiscal year $46,000 in the red. He said the property’s annual tax bill was about $22,000 when he took the post nearly three years ago and was most recently about $24,000.

Town Treasurer Jill Graff said the property is current on its tax bills.

The Baptists went to the state’s high court twice, Edwards said, to try to win tax-exempt status on the property as a religious organization, but were turned down because its use — which Edwards described as similar to a commercial bed and breakfast for church groups and non-religious organizations alike — didn’t meet the criteria .

The difficulty in paying the property tax bills was compounded by a drop in donations caused by the recession in 2008. As donors got back on their feet, Edwards said, they redirected their money to groups whose burden was increased by the recession, such as homeless shelters and food shelves. Donations to the retreat never really picked back up.

“To give to brick and mortar to subsidize the maintenance of a conference center, or to give to pay a tax bill, is not something that captures people’s imagination,” Edwards said.

A roughly 64-acre piece of the property on the south side of Gove Hill Road, home to a red one-story house, has already been sold separately, Edwards said, because of the boundary created by the road. It is currently being rebuilt into a two-story home.

The remaining 125 acres, including a three-acre deepwater pond, a two-bedroom “A” frame house, several bunkhouses, barns, garages and sheds — and the three-story, eight-bedroom Seymour Mansion at its centerpiece — are on the market for $1.28 million.

Edwards said the Baptists have had “several interested parties” but have not yet accepted an offer. Williamson Group Sotheby’s International Realty owner Laird Bradley, who has listed the property, said some potential buyers have expressed interest in renovating the property into an inn.

“Our preference would be to sell it to an educational institution or somebody who’s conservation-minded, so we’re not looking to milk it for everything it’s worth,” Edwards said.

A 40-page document written by former retreat coordinator John R. Burbank in 1979 describes the history of Gove Hill, named for John Gove, who lived on and farmed the hilltop property from before 1820 to his death in 1878, and Gove Hill Road, a 2 1/2-mile rural road connecting Route 132 to the western edge of Thetford.

Shortly before the year 1900, much of the southern part of the property was purchased by the Tyson family, who had owned the nearby Elizabeth copper mine — named for the wife of James W. Tyson Sr. — for much of the 19th century.

A Tyson family friend and lawyer for the mine, Origen Storrs Seymour, came to own the northern chunk soon after, and the Seymor Mansion, also known as the Gove Hill Mansion or “the big house,” was built around 1905 or 1906, Burbank wrote.

Burbank’s paper details the following seven decades at the property, including early “frequent problems in retaining (the) city oriented maids” for the Seymour family” and the Baptists’ acquisition in the ’60s. Most recently, Edwards said, the property had become a favorite retreat for groups ranging from Alcoholic Anonymous to quilters’ groups to midwifes’ associations, while also being cherished by nearby residents.

Neighbor Bill Craig, who has lived in the area since 2000, said the retreat’s long-time caretakers who lived on the property, Bill and Bernice Clark, are “wonderful people” who “made this neighborhood a community probably more than anyone else who lives up here.”

“And of course they made the Gove Hill conference center a community for a generation of people by offering a welcome and making the whole thing run,” Craig said. “They’re much missed.”

Craig said the Clarks moved out of town following the property’s closing. Facebook messages sent to the Clarks on Thursday were not returned and they could not otherwise be reached for comment.

Harhen, Craig and others along the road said the neighborhood is waiting with bated breath to see who might take over the property, with hopes of avoiding development.

“The neighborhood is concerned but hopeful, wondering what will happen up there,” Craig said. “We’ve been very lucky to have this neighbor that is dedicated to quiet and beauty. ... We hope that the property is not developed in some way that, we don’t mean to be selfish, but that removes that quiet capstone to the neighborhood.”

Kathy McQueen, who has lived on the road for 40 years and runs a tack shop, shared similar hopes. She said she’s been grateful to be able to ride her horses and hike there when camps aren’t in session.

“I hope whoever buys it utilizes the cabins and everything,” she said. “It’s such a neat place.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.