How to Run a B & B (and the secrets of a baked bean supper)

Cynthia and Howard with Blacky, their Plymouth Rock hen. – Photos: Lynn Christoffers

The Cleaveland House B & B is at 620 West Tisbury Road in West Tisbury, and has been welcoming guests — mostly poets, writers, and other creative people — for almost 30 years. Cynthia Riggs, who ran it alongside her husband Howard Attebery until his death in 2017, shares the B&B’s history and secrets.

The Cleaveland House has been family-owned since it was built about 1750. I’m the eighth generation to live in the house. It became a boarding house when my great-grandfather, Captain James Cleaveland, retired from being a whaling captain, and named it the Cleaveland House. In those days, people took long summer vacations, with guests boarding here for two months at a time. After the death of my great-grandparents, it returned to being just the family house.

Then in 1988, my mother was living alone in the house — she was almost 90 at the time. I returned home after working in Washington, D.C., as a boat captain, running tour boats on the Potomac River. The house was in shabby condition; the kitchen and cookroom were pretty bad. We took out a mortgage; I made a business plan: If we could rent three rooms, we could cover the mortgage payments.

We asked Dan Bradley, an amazing carpenter, to renovate the kitchen, cookroom, and downstairs bathroom. The cookroom, which was simply a shed stuck onto the house in the 1850s, is this nice, bright, airy room where my mother used to sit and do her writing. We use this as our major dining room; B & B guests love to sit in here, with the plants hanging from the ceiling and wonderful original beams. Dan managed to keep all the beams as they were. He added insulation so it’s warm even in the cold weather. He kept as much as he could of the original shed. It’s just a wonderful, cozy room with good feng shui.

My mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, was a poet, so when we opened the bed and breakfast we decided to cater to poets and writers. We didn’t want to change our lifestyle. The house is not for everyone — it’s full of books and papers and artifacts of various kinds. It’s not a polished brass and mahogany kind of place. 

The Cleaveland House is one of the oldest houses on the Island — it may be the oldest continually occupied house on Martha’s Vineyard.

The historic problem, when you have an old house, and it’s in a historic district: Should it go back to what it was originally … or do we take into account that it should be dynamic? We have to accept modern ways of living; we can’t still use an outhouse, draw water out of a well with a bucket, use kerosene lamps, the way we did when I was a child.

Generations have added onto the house. I have, too — trying to keep the same feel to the house whenever I do anything to it. Shall we put solar panels on the roof? Is that going to change the appearance of the house? Yes, but is that in accordance with the need for change?

Our special guests

I say to inquiring guests, “This is an old house: the floors creak, the doors don’t shut, we don’t have television, we have shared baths … and there are books and papers everywhere. It’s not to everybody’s taste.” Some people say, Thank you, no thanks; some say, That’s just what we are looking for.

We get only guests we love, who come back year after year. We don’t advertise.

We have a minimum of two nights’ stay because we want people to come here who are interested in the houseknowing something about the Island. Besides, I hate to make beds for a one-night stay. 

We don’t charge as much as we should be charging, because we want artists and poets and writers and creative people to come here; people who don’t necessarily have a lot of money.

Artists, musicians, FBI agents, and Polish bikers

Two artists from Boothbay Harbor, Maine, Mitch and Kathleen Billis, have been coming regularly for many years. He is a master painter, and she certainly is right up there with him. I have a number of their paintings in the house. It’s wonderful to have these paintings by people you know: You love the paintings and you love the people and you remember their stay here.

I’ve about run out of wall space.

Pianist Mark Wright has come every year for 10 years now, the only white musician who has played regularly at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. We schedule an ice cream social at the time of his visit, as Mark brings his keyboard and Ed Rodgers of Edgartown comes with his trumpet to play for friends and guests. Mark became such a good friend that I asked him to play the organ at our wedding. Ed Rodgers played the trumpet; the two Dunkl brothers of Chilmark played a French horn duet, and one of our B & B guests sang — a promising student actress at the time.

One year we had seven FBI agents staying here. It was the first graduating group of female agents. One had been the chief agent quelling what was thought to be a mutiny on a ship in the Caribbean; another was involved in the capture of the Unabomber. An interesting group; fun to have them here.

We have these wonderful Polish guests — a mother and daughter — who come and rent bicycles that the bike shop delivers right to the house; they’ve been coming here for four years now, bringing friends from Poland. They stay for a week, sit out by the fish pond having their breakfast, and talk and talk. We love having them, they’ve become friends. I hate charging them.

Vermont College fundraiser exchange

We once had a couple staying here who had bid on a two-night stay at an auction fundraiser to benefit Vermont College of Fine Arts. Right after my mother died, a B&B guest, Arlene Silva, said to me, “I noticed you like to write a lot; you ought to go for your master’s degree at Vermont College.” I was 68 at the time, and didn’t see college in my future. However, she was so insistent that to shut her up, I applied to the college, and to my surprise they accepted me.

My friend Jonathan Revere suggested that I write murder mysteries, so I did, and now I’ve written 13 books. The college made such a difference in my life — it was life-changing. Every year when the college has a fundraiser I offer as an item a stay at the B&B and the donor’s name in my next book.

Writers’ groups

We have two writers’ groups that meet weekly at the house on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Guests who are here on Sunday or Wednesday nights are welcome to sit in. The Cleaveland House Poets also meet here on alternate Wednesday afternoons. According to the late William Waterway, the group is the oldest continuously meeting poetry group in the U.S.

Grounds and garden

The entire family property is triangular in shape, about 15 acres. My two sisters and I share this parcel. I’m in the old family homestead, and my sisters have built houses nearby. I’m an avid gardener with a large vegetable garden, an herb garden, and flower borders. Really too much to maintain. As a result, much of it grows wild along with the weeds.

A kiwi vine grows along the vegetable garden fence, and several years ago I planted hops. The local pub, Offshore Ale, once a year makes a brew called Hopps Farm Ale. They take hops from Islanders who grow them to make this special brew. A group comes over every year to pick our hops for Offshore Ale. Last year we contributed about 3 percent of the hops.

Howard was in charge of bird life 

I hadn’t kept chickens before, but Howie said that as a kid, his grandparents had chickens in Napa, Calif. So we got five full-grown chickens from a neighbor. They are such neat hens, and so friendly. There’s nothing like fresh eggs from your own chickens. Then we decided that we would get guinea hens — the poultry growers can ship 1-day-olds by mail. Once they are old enough to roam the property freely, we lose a few to red-tailed hawks. Right now we have eight full-grown chickens, six full-grown guineas, 16 baby guinea keets, and six baby chicks. Guineas are great tick eaters, eating every tick in sight. 

Victoria Trumbull

Victoria Trumbull, the 92-year-old poet/sleuth in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series by Cynthia Riggs, serves her Boston baked beans to friends every Saturday night, as she has done throughout her long life.

Dried beans are put to soak on Friday night, boiled Saturday morning, then cooked all day Saturday in a crockery bean pot. Serve them for company (or family) on Saturday night with brown bread, hot dogs, and salad, with pie and coffee for dessert.

1 pound dried yellow-eye beans (or navy beans)
1 medium onion
chunk of salt pork, about 2 in. x 2 in. x 2 in.
⅓ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard

On Friday night, rinse the beans, then put them in a large kettle and cover them with water. Set them aside to soak all night. Saturday morning, boil the beans in the same water until the skins crack when you blow on them. Score the onion and set it in the bottom of the bean pot. Drain the beans, but keep the water you boiled them in. Empty the drained beans into the bean pot. Score the chunk of salt pork and tuck it into the beans, rind side up.

Mix the brown sugar, molasses, salt, and mustard together with some water from the beans. Pour the mixture over the top of the beans in the bean pot. Add the rest of the water and, if necessary, add enough fresh water to cover the beans. Cover the beans and set the bean pot on a pie pan to catch drippings, and cook at 300° for five hours, checking occasionally to make sure the beans are still moist. Add water if necessary. Uncover the beans and let them cook uncovered for another hour, or until you’re ready to serve. The time is flexible, anywhere from four to seven hours cooking.

(Excerpted from Victoria Trumbull’s much-used cookbook by Cynthia Riggs)