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A writer’s haven: Ashfield’s Wellspring House is starting a new chapter

  • Preston Browning, left, Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery talk about Wellspring House, the Ashfield writers’ retreat Browning and his late wife, Ann Hut Browning, started in 1999. Colwill-Brown and Escoffery are writers-in-residence, assisting Browning in managing the retreat. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning discusses the future of Wellspring House in Ashfield. Browning founded the retreat for writers and artists with his late wife, Ann Hut Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Colwill-Brown works outside at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. She, along with Jonathan Escoffery, have taken on new management roles at Wellspring to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jonathan Escoffery talks about his expanding role at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. He, along with Sarah Colwill-Brown, has taken on new management duties at Wellspring to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery discuss the future of Wellspring House. The young writers have taken on new management roles at the retreat for writers and artists to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning discusses the future of Wellspring House in Ashfield. Browning founded the retreat for writers and artists with his late wife, Ann Hut Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning, co-founder of Wellspring House, responds to emails at the Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning, left, Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery talk about Wellspring House, the Ashfield writers’ retreat Browning and his late wife, Ann Hut Browning, started in 1999. Colwill-Brown and Escoffery are writers-in-residence and assist Browning in managing the retreat. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning, co-founder of Wellspring House, responds to emails at the Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A photograph of Preston Browning's late wife, Ann Hut Browning, who envisioned and co-founded Wellspring House with him, is displayed above one of Browning's books. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jonathan Escoffery works outside at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. He, along with Sarah Colwill-Brown, has taken on new management roles at Wellspring to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Window light falls on stacks of books in the main room at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Flowers bloom outside Wellspring House, a retreat for writers and artists in Ashfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Wellspring House, a retreat for writers and artists, is located in a restored carriage house in Ashfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery discuss the future of Wellspring House in Ashfield. They have taken on new management roles at the retreat for writers and artists to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The main room at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning, left, Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery at Wellspring House, the Ashfield writers’ retreat Browning and his late wife, Ann Hut Browning, started in 1999. Colwill-Brown and Escoffery are writers-in-residence there and assist Browning in managing the retreat. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Colwill-Brown works outside at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. She, along with Jonathan Escoffery, have taken on new management roles at Wellspring to assist the co-founder, Preston Browning. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The kitchen space at Wellspring House, an Ashfield-based retreat for writers and artists. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Preston Browning, left, Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery talk about Wellspring House, the Ashfield writers’ retreat Browning and his late wife, Ann Hut Browning, started in 1999. Colwill-Brown and Escoffery are writers-in-residence and assist Browning in managing the retreat. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2017

Looking for a quiet place in the country? An historic building without cell phone service or air conditioning but lots of serenity, surrounded by green space and flowers? A living room with a beautifully finished wood floor, a large fireplace and lots of books?

A place you might want to do a little writing yourself?

Ashfield’s Wellspring House might be one of the better-kept secrets in the Valley. But among a growing number of writers, particularly in the Northeast, this restored carriage house has been a popular retreat for 18 years, a place whose physical and aesthetic dynamic is designed to spark creativity.

Author Susannah Cahalan wrote much of her bestselling 2012 book, “Brain on Fire,” at Wellspring over the course of several visits during 2010-11 (her book, recently made into a feature film, chronicled her discovery that she suffered from a rare autoimmune disease that attacked her brain, inducing a sudden period of paranoia, seizures and psychotic behavior when she was 24).

“There’s really a magical element, a creative energy, to that house,” Cahalan said in a phone call from northern New Jersey. “I found being there was so productive — I couldn’t have written my book without it.”   

 And after opening and managing the writing center in 1999 with his late wife, Ann Hutt Browning, Wellspring’s longtime director, Preston Browning, has begun a new chapter at the retreat: hiring two young Bostonians as writers-in-residence to help him with day-to-day business and to use social media to spread the word about the center.

“We’ve probably had over 1,000 writers, poets and the occasion visual artist stay here since we opened,” said Browning, 87, during a recent interview at Wellspring, which is set back from Main Street, or Route 116, in Ashfield.

“We’ve had a lot of people come back, too, and sometimes they’ll stay for several weeks,” added Browning. “People form friendships here. Sometimes they fall in love.’

Browning, a Virginia native who still exudes Southern courtliness and hospitality, says Wellspring owes it charm to the work that his wife, who died in 2011, put into renovating and redesigning the house, which dates from about 1890. The couple had decided western Massachusetts would be a good place to retire to; they had previously spent time in New England, and one of their daughters, Sarah (a poet), was then living in Montague, where her husband was a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

When he and Ann discovered the building in 1999, it had been vacant for years and “was full of holes, wallboard was coming loose, and there was trash everywhere,” he said.

But his late wife, an architect (and, like their daughter Sarah, a poet), had a vision for restoring the home and making it a place where writers could find the quiet and calm they needed, Browning noted.

“Every inch of this house reveals something of her spirit,” said Browning, a former professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of several books. “And I think it’s her spirit that helps animate the ethos and the camaraderie that writers find here.”

From Boston to Ashfield

Sarah Colwill-Brown and Jonathan Escoffery, the new writers-in-residence — they began the year-long assignment in May — say they can feel that spirit at Wellspring themselves.

The couple — Brown is 30, Escoffery 36 — call the retreat, and the town of Ashfield itself, a welcome balm to writers who, like them, find that the frenetic pace of urban living can impede their writing.

“This place can really open a lot of opportunities — you can have breakthroughs here,” said Escoffery, who studied at Florida International University and then the University of Minnesota, where he earned a masters in creative writing before landing in Boston. There he has been a teacher and consultant at GrubStreet, a nonprofit writing center.

Wellspring “is kind of a safe haven for the artistic spirit,” added Escoffery, who’s working with his agent to finalize and sell his first short story collection, tentatively titled “If I Survive You.”

Colwill-Brown, originally from Yorkshire, England, studied writing there and at Kansas State University and Boston College (she also spent a year at UMass Amherst during a study abroad program). She has worked at GrubStreet, too, and she continues to manage a number of online programs there such as communications.

At Wellspring, Colwill-Brown has begun her second novel, and she’s working with her agent to sell her first one, “The Delusionist.”

“It’s a great environment, a place you can really find your focus,” she said. “And one of the things Jonathan and I will be helping Preston with is finding ways to grow the community here” through social media and other venues.

That’s an important goal, said Steve Almond, a Boston writer also affiliated with GrubStreet, who has stayed at Wellspring and helped Browning set up the writer-in-residence program over the past year.

“I can’t tell you how many writers I know just in Boston who would love to stay here,” said Almond, the author of both fiction and nonfiction; his 2005 book “Candyfreak” was a New York Times bestseller. “It’s a space where you can really feel this sustained attention to writing. But it’s still something of a best-kept secret.”

Not 9 to 5

On a late warm morning in mid June, things were just starting to get rolling at Wellspring. A little confusion about the expected time of a reporter and photographer’s arrival had Escoffery greeting the visitors in sweatpants and bare feet; Browning and Colwill-Brown were still getting dressed.

Yet that seemed a reflection of the unhurried pace central to the retreat’s raison d'être. Soon enough, everyone was seated in the enclosed sun porch, just beyond the book-lined living room, that looked out on a small patio with a table and chairs; beyond was a spacious yard, screened from Route 116 by a thick band of trees.

Wellspring has three single rooms and three doubles (one room is being used by Escoffery and Colwill-Brown). Unlike in some other retreats, short stays — even just a night or two — are permitted, and writers say the rates are quite reasonable. A single room, for example, costs $280 for a week ($260 in winter). 

There’s also the downstairs living room, an upstairs common room and a kitchen and dining area open to all guests. That kind of setup, said Browning, gives writers plenty of privacy but also lets them spend time with their colleagues, whether fixing a meal, chatting about writing or taking part in one of the retreat’s informal readings, where guests might share some of their new work.

“It can be a very social place, depending on how many people are here and their personalities,” he said.

Within walking distance, meanwhile, are some of the town’s key attractions, like Elmer’s Store, a restaurant and occasional live music venue, and Ashfield Lake, where the Ashfield Lakehouse also offers food and live music. A few miles to the east on Route 116 is Double Edge Theatre, which aside from its own ensemble performances hosts community events such as poetry readings.

It’s the kind of town, Browning says, where conversations about books and art can take place in unusual places. One time, Browning recalled, as he was taking a late evening walk along Route 116, a man he knew from the post office stopped his car to talk with him “with great excitement” about a book he was reading.

Almond, the Boston writer, says he has enjoyed the ambience in Ashfield and Wellspring even in the depths of winter. A few years ago, he led a workshop at the retreat for a group of writers and writing teachers, and he recalls talking to the group in the living room, a warm fire crackling behind him in the fireplace.

“It was idyllic,” he said.

It was his wife, Erin, also a writer, who first alerted him to the Ashfield retreat about six years ago after she stayed there. “She said ‘You’ve got to go out there — it’s this amazing house with a great vibe.’ ” The couple, who have three young children, have since taken turns at the retreat, staying there a number of times.

Over the last few years, Almond became concerned with getting Browning some assistance in running the retreat; he’d had a daytime manager, but that man had left. “His mind is sharp as a tack, but he’s lost some hearing, and he needs some help,” he said.

The two developed the idea of a one-year writer-in-residence program, one that was aimed at younger writers and outlined the job’s responsibilities, like dealing with emails and phone calls from writers looking to stay at the retreat; in return, there’s a stipend and accommodation. Almond says the position, advertised early this year through social media and the GrubStreet website, drew over 50 applications.

“It was an incredible response,” said Almond, who helped screen the résumés and forwarded to Browning 12 recommended candidates, including Escoffery and Colwill-Brown.

“They both met with Preston and got the vibe, and he really took to them — and since they’re a couple, he has two people to help him out,” said Almond.

Indeed, Browning says he “likes the energy” of the two young writers and their commitment to Wellspring. When he looks back at his time at the retreat, particularly with his late wife, and the writers he has met there, plus the annual visits of his three daughters, his son, and his five grandchildren, he calls it one of the best periods of his life: “I’m a happy man.”

As they moved to the patio to enjoy the sunshine and do some writing — Escoffery on a laptop, Colwill-Brown in longhand in a notebook — the writers-in-residence figured they were in a pretty good spot, too.

“This is sort of a homecoming for me,” said Colwill-Brown, referring to the year she spent in Amherst as an undergraduate. And with a nod to the Valley radio station, WLZX-FM, she laughed as she added, “I’ve even got my favorite station back.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.