WAUPACA — Cindy Oerter said she approached the first 25 years of her health care career from the perspective of treating illness after it was diagnosed. She spent the next 25 years focusing on wellness and prevention, but the venue wasn’t a hospital or spa. Instead, she operates a four-room bed-and-breakfast in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home once owned by one of Waupaca’s most progressive physicians.
“To me, this has always been where I’m supposed to be. If you ever feel in your heart that you have a calling, this is my calling,” said Oerter, owner of the Green Fountain Inn in Waupaca.
Oerter’s journey started on a farm outside of Waupaca where she grew up. Her father farmed and her mother was a nurse. After high school and college, Oerter worked in hospitals around central Wisconsin as a medical technician. Eventually, she and her husband, Greg, moved their growing family to a hobby farm near Waupaca where he had a job as a social worker.
Oerter said she found herself becoming uncomfortable with the typical approach to treating sickness. Instead, she got more involved with teaching and studying about spiritual, physical and nutritional elements of wellness. Ready for a career change, she went back to school to get a master’s degree in business. She and two friends planned to form a business partnership where they would teach health and wellness.
“During that time, I prayed a lot to find the right job and the right place where God could use me and that it would be beneficial to society and not just myself,” she said.
She found it at a rummage sale in 1994.
Owners of a beautiful historic home on Waupaca’s main street were clearing out household goods and had their half block of property up for sale. Their 2½-story Queen Anne Victorian home had been built in 1901 for the Dr. P.J. Christofferson family. An upstairs room doubled as his surgery. Next door was the city’s first hospital, built in 1921 by Christofferson and his brother A.M. Christofferson and later developed as a Community Based Residential Facility with eight residents. The property also had a fixer-upper duplex and a smaller cottage tucked behind the main house.
“I knew it would be a beautiful environment for learning,” Oerter said. “I knew though, from business (school), that we needed cash flow, and there was a lot of money that needed to be put into it, and a lot of sweat equity.”
The partners’ first job was to update the CBRF and get it up to code as an income-producing entity. One of the partners dropped out, but Oerter and friend Patty Vaux — a nurse and artist — put their creative spirits into the project.
“Both of us are real foodies,” Oerter said. “My background was in nutrition and health, and she loved to cook, so we started making really healthy food for everybody over there, and they started getting better. We made a family for people who didn’t have family.”
Next they turned their attention to the main house where they replaced all the major utilities, stripped carpeting down to original wood, replaced wallpaper, installed bathrooms, made curtains, and created four rentable bedrooms with a sitting room and breakfast area. Furnishings came from close-by communities, friends and family. Every light in the house was replaced with vintage pieces from a local lamp shop. Looking at the house now, few pieces of furniture match in period or style, and dishes come from several different patterns, but the end product is homey and inviting. The inn opened in 1995.
“I’ve always loved old homes, and I’m a big recycler, and I believe in keeping the old and preserving the old,” Oerter explained. “This house was just so beautiful.”
That penchant for recycling and sustainable practices like composting, gardening and using energy-efficient appliances earned the Green Fountain Inn its Travel Green Wisconsin certification in 2016 from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
With the main house finished, the duplex next door was renovated for long-term rentals, and the fourth small building was tidied up. Over time, it has been used for massage therapy, a nutrition center, counseling center, apartment rental and finally as overflow for the inn.
With a bed-and-breakfast designation, the inn could not offer more than breakfasts to guests. Food for parties and weddings had to be catered in, and Oerter wasn’t happy with the quality. When Vaux retired from the partnership in 2000, Oerter put in a commercially licensed kitchen. She ran a bakery there briefly but redirected its focus to become the Secret Garden Café after two years.
“We had this wonderful bread, so we started serving soup and sandwiches and desserts,” Oerter said.
The main floor of the house was gradually reworked to accommodate small tables, and Friday/Saturday high-end suppers were added to the offerings. Earlier this year, Oerter hired two new chefs. Lydia Walters Bluma manages the lunch menu, and Salvatore Friedel is expanding evening offerings to Wednesday through Saturday beginning in a few weeks. The two source their ingredients locally wherever possible, including right out the side door where the inn maintains an herb garden.
Oerter also uses the kitchen to teach food and nutrition classes and opens the inn as a venue for community fundraisers with food as a central element.
Twenty-five years after jumping into her second career, Oerter said she still gets excited when she talks about the inn.
“I love this house. This is a place where happy is,” she said. “I worked all those years where I was working with sick people, but this is birthday parties and anniversary parties and weddings. You’re dealing with happy here, and making people’s lives better.”
Now 71, Oerter’s job has shifted from hands-on work to management. The CBRF has capacity for 14 residents and employs 13 people. The inn has a staff of six, including a manager and groundskeeper. Oerter still bakes occasionally, makes beds and fills in where needed but is trying to pull back from the workload. She said she plans to keep doing the things she likes but will ask for guidance from above as she moves forward.
“When you ask for it, ask for the doors to be open, and when it’s not right, ask for them to be closed,” she said. “I’m hoping that someone else will be able to use this beautiful building and share the joy of sharing beautiful nutritious food in a beautiful environment for the community. I don’t have it for sale, but I’m waiting for the person to come along.”