A gentle care

By Jason Miller

Willowbrook Manor is one of the best-kept secrets in Sedro-Woolley, if not all of Skagit County.

The elegant mansion rests on nine acres of a working chamomile farm a few miles east of the city proper, looking like something plucked from the English countryside. Owner and proprietor Terry Gifford serves tea and scones, and gives guests a quiet place to sleep.

But Willowbrook Manor is much more than a bed and breakfast inn.

In the beginning
Gifford and her former spouse, Matt, didn’t intend to design a tea house. “It was never on our radar,” she said.

The couple attended University of Washington together and loved old Tudor architecture, the feel of the houses and the campus. “We’d walk the neighborhoods at night and ooh and ah” over the architecture, she said.

They graduated and subscribed to English Home Magazine; they tore out pages and dreamed. In 1996 they purchased the property and escaped to it. On summer days she’d garden while the kids played. They lived in a tent trailer for four months with four kids, then lived in the garage. They added two more kids, then finally the house was ready.

The plan was to raise the kids, then enjoy grandkids and country living. They created a “gentleman’s farm”—“no animals, because kids,” said Gifford. They planted fruit trees, picked berries, worked on the landscaping, and tended to the plants.

But the fairy tale hit a brick wall: “Divorce came and took me places where I didn’t think I’d be,” said Gifford, “a single mom with five of the six kids.”

She knew she’d have to get a job or have the farm support itself. She started planning it as a wedding venue; every summer they’d do a large landscaping project with “Willowbrook Wedding Venue” as the end game. Another hurdle presented itself: The property was zoned agricultural.

“I had to tie in my business to the agriculture, so I decided to buy a tractor and till up the field, and I planted chamomile,” said Gifford. “And suddenly I had it: a chamomile farm and tea house. It was a road block that took me to a much better place, because I prefer the more intimate settings of English tea and glamor camping and bike tours—much preferred to the stress and expectations of weddings and bridezillas and mothers of the brides. I’m doing a fun thing.”

Gifford chose chamomile because “it’s hardy, not too many people grow it, and it has the essence of calm. Tea is about calm. It’s about gentle. It’s about connection. Chamomile is beautiful.”

In 2020 her youngest moved out, so Gifford started renovating bedrooms inside the manor. In summer 2023 she’ll have four bedrooms available inside the house. Glamor camping will be offered through the first week in September this year—and then it will be gone.

“It’s hard to give them up, but it takes a month to set them up and I need that time to work on the farm,” said Gifford.

Stepping back in time
For Gifford, Willowbrook Manor is an artistic expression. At just under 5,000 square feet, its exterior massing and interior finishes are designed to make guests feel like they’re stepping into a human-scaled home—100 years ago. She and Matt did all the woodwork themselves—“the more bunged-up errors the better.” They poured the concrete without expansion joints and let it crack. They finished the house in 2004.

The main floor of the manor holds four large rooms and includes an industrial production kitchen. The Tea Room adjoins the kitchen and is surrounded by windows. “We wanted to bring the outside in, so every wall has large windows,” said Gifford.

All the rooms are named after herbs: The Lavender Room was once the rec room; now it has a crystal chandelier and is ready for cozy gatherings. The Saffron Room transforms into a tea house four times a year. The Sage Room joins the Saffron Room as the two sitting rooms. The Tea Room and Lavender Room are always tea rooms.

A curved wood staircase beneath a jaw-dropping chandelier leads to a landing and the upper-floor bedrooms, which include the master suite, the English Thyme Room, the French Tarragon Room, the Anise Room, and the Rosemary Room.

Windows saturate all four facades of Willowbrook Manor with natural light and views to farmland and mountains, pastoral overlooks of the foothills of the North Cascades. The front yard is a sweeping lawn; Gifford is transforming the backyard into a formal garden.

The East Lawn lies to one side of the home and is the site of the biggest landscaping project, with a wisteria arbor, a rock firepit with views of Sauk Mountain, patios at each end of the lawn, and the tea tent. “It’s the perfect landscape for weddings, but it’s a beautiful place for tea, too,” said Gifford.

To the west are more gardens: an English rose garden, a vegetable garden, raised beds, and a tulip planting area for Gifford’s Tea & Tulips event each April. The cottage greenhouse is transplanted from the farm she grew up on in Ferndale. “It was going to rack and ruin, and we saved it,” said Gifford.

A reflecting pool hosts tadpoles and frogs every summer. The Cascade Trail runs alongside the property, with Coal Creek on the other side. The trail gave Gifford the idea for bike tours combined with tea and scones. “It’s quite the unique experience,” she said, “bikes, tea, scones, scenery, and area history.”

Giving back
Gifford has a history of humanitarian service, and she uses Willowbrook Manor to further her goals.

She has in her past humanitarian work in Bolivia and Kenya. When she was only six months old, her grandparents traveled to Afghanistan and ran a restaurant with a staff of 15 Afghani men. Fast forward to 9/11, when news from Afghanistan was overwhelmed by reports of war and terrorism. Gifford published her grandmother’s “Letters from Afghanistan” and toured with the book.

“We met a woman at a presentation who ran Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries,” said Gifford. “We decided we should use the book as a fundraiser for peasant people. So we set up a microlending opportunity for impoverished women. I baked bread for the farmers markets in Bolivia. We set up a nonprofit there—Serving Women Across Nations—and provided business training for women, along with microloans.”

As the 100th loan went through, though, Gifford’s “world crashed down” with her divorce and she mothballed her SWAN Foundation. Years later, though, after her youngest child graduated, she saw the need again, locally.

“So I took the foundation out of mothballs and linked it to our farm,” she said.

The foundation raises money in support of numerous nonprofits and local organizations. In March each year, she hosts “seeding and tea,” which includes chamomile seeding and tree propagation. That event raises funds for Friendship House; last year she raised $2,200.

Chamomile planting and tea happens in June, to support Family Promise. In July it’s harvest and tea, for Lydia Place in Bellingham. Gingerbread tea in fall helps to support Lighthouse Mission. Teacup sales around Christmas raise funds for Skagit Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

During the Blast from the Past event in June, a bike ride event transforms a leisurely bike ride (or walk) into a history lesson for Sedro-Woolley. Bring your own bike, drop a $25 admission fee, get smarter about the city, and support Helping Hands Food Bank.

“Every year it grows a little bit,” said Gifford of the event. “And I really want that fundraiser to take off. I want to see that grow to 150 people getting on their bikes and heading into town.”

Most recently, gatherings for seeding, planting, and harvesting chamomile raise funds for homeless shelters.

“That’s probably been the most gratifying part of the farm—the outreach that we’re able to do,” said Gifford. We can give a voice to the needs in our own area. You don’t have to run away to Bolivia to find the need; it’s right here.”

Gifford’s nurturing approach is almost a philosophy unto itself.

“What I love about my work is that it’s an extension of my role of being a mom: making food, doing laundry, keeping up the farm … but there’s something about tea that feels like you’re giving care. There’s something about sitting down to a fine china teacup with a close friend or family, or alone, and having the yummy scones and little sandwiches … It’s a form of care. It’s a gentle care. It’s an extension of nurture that you do when you’re a mom. Everyone who comes for tea feels that ‘yum.’ I love what I do; I feel spoiled that I can host people in my home for special occasions and for everyday events.

“If people have something in them that isn’t well, they find wellness here. That’s what I love about my job. Two women visited once; one was caring for her elderly husband, who was failing. She sat with her tea and said, ‘I feel like I want to weep.’ It was a gift for her.”

Future plans
Terry Gifford dreams with the ferocity of a 20-year-old. She’s carved out a niche, but wants to whittle out a bigger space. She serves English Tea four times each year—and that’s perfect, she says—but she wants Willowbrook’s reputation as an inn to grow.

“When you have out-of-town guests and you want them to have a beautiful experience, I want Willowbrook to be known as the place to stay for overnight guests in the area,” she said.

She hopes her “tea and tour” offering, which provides electric bikes for guests, becomes known in the Skagit Valley as “the thing to do.”

Some of her plans aren’t quite “ready for primetime” yet, but other elements of the farm are out there for consumption.

“Most people who come say, ‘I’ve been in the valley all my life and I’ve never known about this,’” said Gifford. “I feel it’s the best-kept secret in the Skagit Valley. I like that, but I want more people to know about it. People have to know it’s there to be able to bring their guests there.”

This fall, Gifford will send mailers to businesses, encouraging them to choose Willowbrook for their corporate retreats, business meetings, staff appreciation tea, team-building bike tours, and more.

“I want to focus on businesses because the people who’ve had their staff retreats here have said there’s an aura here, a gentle, caring experience. To bring their staff and business meetings here … I’ve had some say they’ve been able to address very challenging topics in an atmosphere that’s calming and effective.”

Willowbrook Manor is located at 27420 Minkler Rd., Sedro-Woolley. It is a working farm, so visits are by reservation or appointment only. For more information, go to teaandtour.com, call 360.218.4585, or e-mail [email protected]. For more information about SWAN Foundation, go to www.SWANfoundation.org.

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