Mountain Home Ranch reaches century mark

Weekly Calistogan January 2013






January 31, 2013 12:00 am  •  Michal Nissenson

About 100 years ago, a young family of German immigrants established a homestead in the Calistoga hills in hopes of fulfilling their American dream. Like many people of their generation, Ludwig and Emma Orth were not discouraged by the hard work needed to improve the land.

A century later, their grandson John Fouts and his wife Suzanne Pasky Fouts follow in their footsteps and let their love for the land guide them as they keep improving Mountain Home Ranch, a family-style resort and retreat center that attracts visitors from all over the world.

“The ranch is Lonely Planet’s No. 1 choice in Northern California for the second year in a row,” said Suzanne. The endorsement of one of Europe’s most popular tourist guidebooks brings in the right crowd, she said.

“Europeans enjoy the ‘old’ sense of the ranch,” she said. “They enjoy connecting with nature.”

John enjoys walking into a multilingual dining room in the morning. “We don’t travel internationally as much and so the world comes to us now,” he said.

The ranch has 24 rooms and 70 beds and offers several lodging options with prices ranging from $70 to $155.

“It’s a good family-friendly alternative to Napa Valley’s posh reputation,” Suzanne said. “We are children-friendly and we offer many activities that are children-friendly.”

“We have a one-carrot-per-hand policy where we encourage children to feed the cows, horses, sheep and goats and they can go back and forth as many times as they want,” John said.

The rooms come with fresh-cooked breakfast, served in a communal-style dining area. At the ranch they take comfort food to a new level, with John teaching his technique of bread-baking as a meditative activity. The owners accommodate all special cooking requests.

The sense that you get when you enter Mountain Home Ranch is that you’ve walked into a relative’s country home, where you will spend a week or two of summer. John said that this is what they’ve been hearing from many guests. “People who come to the ranch feel like family, and that is what makes us different.”

A century ago, his grandmother Emma Orth started the resort as a way to be compensated for her hard work cooking and cleaning for friends who visited and stayed again and again at the family’s new mountain home from the city.

“Grandma said that if guests would like to come over and stay at the family’s ranch that’s OK, but she intends to charge,” John said.

After running a summer camp for orphans from the city, Orth realized the ranch could be a sustainable hospitality business and invested more in the development of the lodging, dining and activities.

Yet running the ranch, which has been burned twice, while dealing with the financial impacts of the Great Depression and two world wars wasn’t easy. As they celebrate the ranch’s centennial, John and Suzanne are proud to say that for the first time, they are able to support themselves solely from operating the ranch.

The ranch’s former proprietors, John’s parents Emmy and Bob Fouts and later John’s brother George and his wife Joey, had to take additional work to make ends meet. Suzanne said that the transformation of the ranch into a group retreat in addition to a bed-and-breakfast has helped the business become self-sufficient.

The Fouts gave up high-profile jobs to live the ranch life. John was a labor lawyer and Suzanne had worked as a wine broker, marketing director and executive director for a food bank. They have applied many of the skills they acquired in their former professional lives to making the ranch more sustainable.

“An important part of staying here for 100 years is the ability to change with the times,” Suzanne said.

The two strive to be good employers. “We house most of our staff here,” she said. “I don’t understand people who look at their staff as numbers. We celebrate Thanksgiving with our entire staff and their families.”

John said, “We feel our staff members are more family than employees. We do a lot of stuff together.”

“It is important to us to have people who love the land,” said Suzanne with regard to guests and staff members. The Fouts, like their European fans, find that connecting with the land is one of the most important parts of running the farm. They consider themselves to be stewards of the land.

Four years ago, Suzanne attended the permaculture (permanent agriculture) program at the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas.

“It looks at life on the land as a whole — from eater management to land management,” she said. “It’s about making closed systems — using existing resources while minimizing your outside import.

“We are able to harvest fresh soil to create bed gardens, where we grow vegetables. It’s about reusing natural resources instead of bringing in fertilizers,” she added.

“We wanted to create a sanctuary here for the animals and to preserve the natural unspoiled,” John said.

Many wild animals that have been captured or wounded are released back into the wild on the ranch. The Fouts are very soft-hearted when it comes to taking in animals. Some of their chickens used to belong to neighbors who wanted to find them a new home after they had stopped laying eggs.

In addition to their commitment to the land, the Fouts see a great importance in giving back to the community.

“One part of our vision is that it takes a village to raise a child,” John said.

As a result, they participate in many nonprofit programs that involve children and education.

“We donate the facility or offer a greatly reduced rate for children,” Suzanne said. “We work with foster kids and host a graduation party for them. It’s consistent with the way the ranch started, by hosting orphanages from San Francisco during summertime.”

In addition to working with foster kids, they host the Napa High School choir every year right before Thanksgiving and host anti-drunken-driving programs three or four times a year.

With their commitment to the land and their passion for giving back to the community, it’s no wonder the last thing that the couple has in mind is selling their land.

“We had offers to buy the ranch, primarily because of the location and the permits,” John said.

“Developers wanted to built a high-end resort here, and while there are many of those in the area, there is nothing like us,” he explained, saying he’s never been tempted to sell before and never will be.

Four times a year, on the two solstices and two equinoxes, the Fouts have a community hike and a potluck. “We invite locals to come and take hikes on our land, to see how beautiful it is and help us preserve it for future generations,” John said.

The Fouts invite the public to join their year-long centennial celebration. “We’ve been here 100 years and we’re going to celebrate a whole year,” Suzanne said.

For their special celebration, the Fouts will host a community barbecue on the afternoon of Sunday, April 21. They are also planning a family reunion for July 19-21 and hope to see familiar guests there, too.

Those who would like to attend either of these events should RSVP to Suzanne at 942-6616 or email suzanne@mountainhomeranch.com.

To learn more about the ranch, visit MountainHomeRanch.com.

(2) Comments

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    BRGMGB - February 04, 2013 10:03 pm
    What a difference between this resort and its owners’ philosophy and that of the proposed Enchanted Resort! These owners live here, are part of the community, love the land, treat their employees as family, truly love children. They are a big part of what makes Calistoga special.
    This is what we should all strive to preserve!
  2. CoombsGuy
    Report Abuse
    CoombsGuy - February 07, 2013 4:30 am
    I’ve been living in the valley off and on for over 20 years and have yet to visit this place.
    Good to hear a (German) American family business is still successful – Bravo!
    Thanks for the scones recipe :)