Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Lisa Liu
As a boy, Ken Fry delivered papers to the matronly piano teacher who lived on Main Street, thinking of her place as a “spookhouse” because it was obscured mysteriously by shrubs.
And as an adult, he later owned that very same residence, converted into part of the Shelby Historic House and Inn.
“Back then, you’d never have thought that one of the places you delivered papers to when you were 10 or 15 years old, you’d end up owning,” he said. “It was kind of a big deal in those days.”
The inn, dating back to the early 1900s, exudes both a Victorian grace and a sense of vintage coziness. Floral wallpaper backs old posters advertising Coca-Cola. A black typewriter rests on a table by the reception desk. On a stand nearby is an old-fashioned book on homemaking, its yellowing pages bound with a peeling green cover.
All of this achieves an antique effect. Though Ken Fry and his wife, Freddie Fry, have made renovations in the past, adding a new building alongside the main house, they always aimed to keep aspects of the house’s original appearance. This, they believed, boosted the inn’s attraction.
“The only reason we have success, we think, is that we married the architecture of the new buildings to the old house,” Ken Fry said.
Originally owned by his parents, and before them, another family, the Shelby Inn has had a long history. Though it has belonged to the Frys since Ken Fry’s parents bought it in 1961, the family tradition may someday have to end.
“I’ve got a son that’s president of a hotel company and has 40 hotels,” Ken Fry said. “He’s not interested in us.”
In other words, he may have to sell the inn eventually. Sixty-nine this year, he doesn’t quite know when he will retire or what will happen to the inn then, but the transition, whatever it entails, will not be easy.
“At some point, you age out of something in retirement,” Freddie Fry said. “But when you’ve invested your life in your livelihood and you have ownership of it, there’s probably a little hesitation to just give that up. That struggle, [my husband] is probably having more so than me, because I’ve transitioned out of that.”
Freddie Fry no longer helps him run the inn, though she’s put in around 30 years doing so. She now works as the executive director of the Shelby County tourism center.
But Ken Fry still oversees everything about the inn. He has watched it expand from eight rooms when his parents owned it to the 49 it has now, has maintained the original seven paint shades of the main house’s design scheme throughout renovations, has seen it named to the National Register of Historic Places.
So what will happen when he one day retires?
“That’s a pretty good question,” he said. “I have to think on that a little. I’ve got to give that some serious thought.”
For now, he is still comfortably running the inn he’s owned for decades. From his desk he answers phone calls in a booming voice: “The Shelby Inn.” He good-naturedly turns the inn’s resident cat, Brody, out of the seats in his office. He calls out to people who pass by the office door, asking if they need him for anything.
So change may come some day, but it’s not here quite yet. Until then, the inn’s customers and the Frys can still appreciate its present state and the memories of how far it’s come.
“I have to say, when I drive by on the way to work, there’s something about seeing the way it looks now as opposed to when it began,” Freddie Fry said. “There is always change, and if somebody else owns that property, they may decide not to keep that old mulberry tree we fought so hard to save. And I think that’s something you just have to live with.”