Ingrid Hopkins had a burning desire to get back to her roots and return to her family dairy farm near Lewes.
After obtaining degrees in animal science, she worked as a veterinary nurse for 17 years in Florida. “I wanted to be back on the farm. You don't know how motivating it can be to be with your family,” she said.
She had a vision of converting the family's old farmhouse on Fisher Road to a bed and breakfast to create a new purpose for the farm. Little did she know that within a short time, her original business plan would change.
After opening in 2016, couples started coming to her to schedule weddings at The Covered Bridge Inn.
In 2017, she did five weddings on the grounds under tents, but she set her sights on something more permanent – refurbishing the farm's 4,000-square foot loafing shed. The barn is now a three-season wedding and special-events venue.
The attached dairy and milking barn, built in 1925, can also be used during events. Ingrid said she plans no major changes to the rustic look of the barns.
The 1925 barn is the original barn used by the Hopkins when they started their dairy farm. In 1936, when more space was needed, a block barn – using Beebe Co. blocks – was constructed, followed by a silo in 1938. The loafing shed was added in 1960.
The block barn's roof is a work of art and one of the few remaining flitch-arch structures remaining in Sussex County. Designed by Rodney O'Neil of Laurel, the interior of the bell-shaped barn resembles the bottom of a ship built in a semicircle with no angles. Hopkins said 10 O'Neil barns were built in Sussex County.
Even though the dairy operation has moved to a much larger facility to the north along Route 9 and Dairy Farm Road, the original barns were still being used as late as 2015 when renovations got underway.
A change in her business
In 2018, Ingrid had 28 weddings and operated the bed and breakfast on weekdays.
The Covered Bridge Inn is now an award-winning wedding destination where Ingrid will hold up to 30 weddings from April to Thanksgiving.
She no longer offers rooms at the inn during the wedding season. Instead, couples rent the entire facility from Friday to Sunday. “I want them there all weekend so they can slow down and not rush through their wedding. I offer a different wedding experience,” she said.
In off months, she offers a series of retreats including craft beer tours, wellness and mindfulness events, beach outings and culinary tours.
Restrictions on preserved land
Because the farm is in the state's farmland preservation program and can't be developed, restrictions are placed on activities, even agritourism events. Ingrid said she couldn't add any paving for parking, must end music at 10 p.m., and couldn't add any new structures.
“We can only repurpose existing structures,” she said.
But in order to expand her business to include weddings, she had to initiate a change in state law that restricted events to no more than 50 people on farmland preservation land.
Hopkins said the restrictions do not bother her. “We want people to look out and see the corn in the summer, the colors in the fall and winter wheat in the spring,” she said.
Diversification on family farm
The wedding and retreat venue is the second business to open on the Hopkins’ 1,000-acre Green Acres Farm. Hopkins Farm Creamery, opened in 2008, has become a popular stop for ice cream lovers.
Ingrid's brother, Burli, oversees the creamery operation and also runs the dairy farm with their father, Walter. In operation since 1942, it's now the largest dairy farm in Delaware.
Five-hundred of the Hopkins' 1,000 heifers are milked three times a day, producing 12 million pounds of milk a year.
Ingrid said the businesses are providing new opportunities for current and future generations. “These are two satellite businesses using the present dairy farm so the family can prosper and keep milking cows,” she said.
The old – now new – farmhouse
The oldest part of the farmhouse – just one room – dates to 1837 and is now the dining room. Ingrid's great-great-great-great-great grandfather William Hopkins purchased the home in 1837 at public auction.
In 1864, a second floor was added, followed by two more rooms in 1867. The front of the house was added in 1884.
She said in 1870, Census data show that 12 members of the Hopkins family were living in the house. It's been transferred six times over the years to family members.
The Covered Bridge Farm was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
The four themed rooms – Hopkins, Honey Bee, Harvest and Beach – are tied to the area and the farming operation that surrounds the grounds.
Keeping with family ties, Ingrid's sister, Amy, makes honey products – used and sold at the inn – from the Hopkins' farm bees.
This time of year, every room has a view of the expansive Hopkins' corn fields, the crop used to feed their cows.
Income from the bed and breakfast helped justify the cost of the farmhouse renovation, which included gutting the interior down to the studs, she said. Planning took a year and construction took nine months.
Ingrid said an unexpected benefit occurred during planning and construction. “I learned my dad and I could work together and trust each other. I couldn't have done any of this without him,” she said.
Her father, Walter, and his wife, Jenny, live on the same property. Ingrid lives full time on the farm in a renovated grain barn across from the inn.
Ingrid said the centerpiece of the wedding venue is a covered bridge built in 1985 by her uncle, Alden Hopkins, over an irrigation channel to a pond. “Little did he know he was building my future. It's the showcase that welcomes all people,” she said.
It's also one of the key locations for wedding photographers.
Next phase of the project
Ingrid has hired an events manager so she can focus on the next phase of her plan – to turn the large, second-story barn loft where hay was stored into a wedding ceremony sanctuary. She said the barn will need a new roof and a sprinkler system for starters. “It's going to take a lot of work and lot of fundraising,” she said.
For more information, go to www.thecoveredbridgeinn.com.