You can hear the water rustling outside The Firelight Inn on Oregon Creek Bed and Breakfast. Step through a wraparound patio into the main floor to see a red-carpeted staircase, cozy chairs, a built-in bookcase and dark wooden ceiling beams.
There, Joy and Jim Fischer sat in front of a cove fireplace. After 23 years, the innkeepers are ready to embark on “the last unwritten chapter of the business plan,” said Joy Fischer, 67. The couple’s business and residence are listed for $949,500.
Nestled on a dead-end street next to Oregon Creek, the 120-year-old mansion at 2211 E 3rd St. is 9,000 square feet with seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms. While it wasn’t a dream of Joy's to be an innkeeper, it was a way to be her own boss — and the accolades didn’t hurt either, she said.
The Firelight Inn has been recognized as a top honeymoon destination by Better Homes and Gardens, Minnesota Bride, and Coastal Living Magazine, among others. The mansion and its owners are known in the industry.
The structure was built in 1910 for grain baron George G. Barnum, the namesake for Barnum, Minnesota. Architects Carl Nystrom and William Bray designed the home to accommodate guests and display Barnum’s art.
The Fischers weren’t in hospitality when they bought the Barnum mansion, but they were ready for a change. In 1996, she was working as a legal secretary; he was in sales in the Twin Cities when they stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Stillwater, Minnesota. That sparked the idea to start their business.
“People fall in love with the idea of living in a historic home and meeting people from around the world,” said Jim Fischer, 66.
They considered a couple cities but landed on Duluth for its rich tourism, selection of historical homes and deep roots.
They wrote their business plan and made several trips to the mansion before committing.
The Fischers moved in February 1998, hired a contractor in late March and opened June 17.
They updated the electrical and plumbing; they added a fire escape, skylights, authentic reproduction wallpaper; they painted and furnished.
“We didn’t go to bed that night before we opened,” recalled Joy. “I was hanging curtains and wallpapering. As I look back on it now as an old woman, I don’t know how we did it.”
Innkeepers are people of many hats. During the summer, their days can run 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Fischers do their own cleaning, laundry, cooking, meal planning and administrative work.
Joy is more detail-oriented; she handles the marketing. Jim often engages more with guests and he works as the inn’s handyman.
Over the years, they’ve learned how to read people, recognize the ones who want to be left alone, those who need more attention and those who want to sit and chat.
They receive a lot of positive feedback for their food.
A recent breakfast boasted raspberry croissant puffs, sausage, a banana crumble, zucchini raisin pecan muffins, a fruit dish. Both learned how to cook by their parents, and they have a repertoire of family recipes.
Those along with others are included in the Fischers’ three cookbooks.
While they closed during this spring’s shutdowns, Jim said, “One thing that COVID has taught us is that business can be as good or better than what it was.”
Technology has played the biggest role in their business. They recalled considering whether to invest in a website in the beginning.
Innkeepers used to keep everything, reservations, recipes, etc., on a 3-by-5 recipe card, Jim said. You used to need your phone on you at all times to take reservations. Now that that’s all done online, it has freed them up for other tasks.
As spouses and business partners, they are often asked how they balance it.
It’s pretty natural, said Jim. “See, I married my best friend. I married my soulmate this time around. It doesn't mean we don’t have our days, and we don’t have our 'what sets us off,' but for the most part, it’s pretty easy for us to work together. We’ve become a team.”
“There are some days when I’ll tell Jim that he needs to go fishing. There are some days when he needs to tell me to go to my craft room,” said Joy with a laugh.
“We also learned early in the industry, before we bought this place, make sure this is both of your passions. It can’t be one dream and the other’s on for the ride,” she added.
While they love what they do, working and living at your business can become taxing.
“We have grandchildren and adult children, and stuff happens. People die, get sick, we have to sometimes leave that at the kitchen door, and it’s hard. … People don’t want to hear our sad stories. They’re here for laughs and vacation and celebrating anniversaries and honeymoons.
“To have to put away that hurt and pain, sorrow, sometimes, to be an innkeeper that a guest needs is a challenge,” Joy said.
Most of all, the Fischers said they will miss connecting with others.
They’ve had visitors from Australia, Israel, Brazil and England. They have clients whose children eventually marry and come to the inn, and those who visit like clockwork each year.
Miles and Sandy Oustad of Bemidji are one of them.
They’ve been visiting the bed-and-breakfast for their anniversary for more than 10 years. Before the Firelight, they traveled around Minnesota and Wisconsin to stay at different B&Bs, but they were hooked with the Firelight.
“Gorgeous” and “immaculately maintained,” Miles Oustad said, adding: “They treat all their guests like they’re friends.” Soon, that treatment came true.
The Fischer and Oustad husbands get together for fishing trips, the wives for quilting get-togethers, and they all meet for dinner as a group a couple of times a year, he said.
While they didn’t stay at the inn during the April anniversary due to the pandemic, they hope they can again next year if they don’t sell.
“We continue to be customers and friends,” he said.
The home was previously listed in 2016 as a bed and breakfast. Currently, it has been on the market for a year and a half as a private home. When it sells, the Fischers likely won’t stay in Duluth.
They hope to rent an RV and drive to Alaska. There are a lot of fishing holes and quilt shops to visit; Joy would like to volunteer as a candy striper.
“I need some time before the nursing home,” she said. “I love what I do, but it was always a dream to have some years of retirement to take it easy.”
They hope whoever moves in will preserve its history; it has a lot of years in it.
They put everything they had into the space. They’ve been married for 26 years; 23 of them have been on East Third Street. There will be “a few tears” when they drive off for the final time, Jim said.