After 36 years, owners JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling the Gustavus Inn.

After 36 years, owners JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling the Gustavus Inn.

36 years of making people feel at home, JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling Gustavus Inn

At the Gustavus Inn, cocktail hour starts at a quarter to six with hors d’oeuvres.

It could be homemade sourdough flatbread with pesto made from basil grown in the greenhouse. Or maybe it’s sushi, kelp salsa or a smoked salmon dip. Everything is made in-house, including smoked salmon.

Family-style dinner is served at 6:30. A recent menu included barbequed salmon with parsley-buttered potatoes, garden vegetables, homemade bread and a salad made with four kinds of lettuce, shaved fennel, garlic scapes and fresh herbs, topped with nasturtiums and calendula petals — ingredients from two large gardens on the property. Dessert is homemade cheesecake with wild raspberries.

Thirty guests congregate in the dining room at three tables; most are meeting one another for the first time. The group often includes travelers from across the Lower 48 and some from abroad who are drawn to Gustavus for Glacier Bay National Park, whale watching or charter fishing.

“They don’t know anything about each other, and they have to just get to know one another for who they are, right there, as a traveler,” said JoAnn Lesh, who owns the inn with her husband Dave Lesh.

This is one of Lesh’s favorite things about running a guesthouse — cultivating a warm, social atmosphere, full of good food, good cheer and good conversation. But after doing it for almost 36 years, the couple is ready to move on. Last month, they put a “For Sale” sign in the driveway.

“Once we realized that we wouldn’t be passing it on to the third generation, we decided it was time,” Lesh said on the phone Thursday. “We’re ready to do something else.”

A true partnership

Dave and JoAnn Lesh met in Juneau the summer of 1972. After a whirlwind courtship, the two, both 21, were engaged that August and married by Thanksgiving.

“It was love at first sight,” Lesh said.

The two went to live in Gustavus, where Dave’s parents had been running the Gustavus Inn since 1965.

The inn was an old homestead building built in 1923 by May Parker and her husband. Parker was the daughter of Abraham Lincoln Parker, one of the first white homesteaders of Gustavus.

JoAnn and Dave Lesh took over the inn in 1980 and drastically modernized it with insulation, rewiring and new bedrooms. Major renovations took place throughout their ownership, the latest being an overhaul of the kitchen in 2012.

“We saved that for last, and now the inn is all done. It took us 36 years, and it’s all perfect,” Lesh said.

The couple did almost all the work by themselves.

“It’s been really fun for us. I love working with Dave. He’s a great hard worker, and I like to innovate and help plan ahead,” she said.

Lesh came up with the designs and her husband would make it happen.

“I would say, ‘I have a dream,’ and he said, ‘I’ll build it,’” she said. “Dave went from someone who didn’t know how to do that kind of stuff. He opened a book on general carpentry and that’s how he did it. Everything he’s done in there, he had to learn how to do. He’s amazing.”

That includes a water and septic system, a three-story addition and a new wing of bedrooms.

While all of this was going on, the two were raising a family. Within two years of buying the guesthouse in 1980, JoAnn and Dave Lesh had four kids. Their one daughter is disabled and has had several strokes in her life.

“For us, to own our own business gave us the control that we needed to do what we had to do for her, to attend to our family. We kept the business so long because of her. The challenges of raising our family were so great that changing anything else was too difficult. That’s kind of the backstory that no one knows,” Lesh said.

Their daughter is in 24-hour care in Kansas City, Missouri, where Lesh is originally from. The couple has been juggling running the inn in the summer and taking care of her. Their daughter is a big reason they’re selling the inn.

“We decided it was important to focus on one major thing,” Lesh said.

From locals to Walter Cronkite

JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling the inn for just under $2 million. Besides the guesthouse, the 5-acre-property includes the two gardens, a greenhouse, a root cellar, several covered storage areas and a compost pile that’s been written up in Modern Farmer magazine.

The inn can sleep up to 30 people with 14 bedrooms. The daily rate is $225 per person, which includes three full meals and transportation. Lesh said it’s profitable.

“It’s just a great family business. To be your own boss, have control and it can really be quite a nice seasonal lifestyle, so you can travel in the winter,” she said.

The couple will continue to run Gustavus Inn until it sells, but when the day comes to pass the keys on to someone else, they’ll certainly miss it. Lesh said she will miss the good food and the big garden, but mostly she’ll miss the guests.

“We’re pretty good friends with them and it would be really hard to not see them again. We have people who’ve been our guests more than 40 times. Some people come back twice a year,” she said.

She recalled when news giant Walter Cronkite stayed. It was 1982.

“Little did he know that we were full, so Dave and I had to move out of our bedroom. They had a lot of luggage and it would hardly fit in the room,” Lesh said, laughing. “But Betsy and Walter were very good small-town wanderers. They had fun.”

Guests come from all over the world, from places like Norway, Japan and Germany.

“The Germans love the front porch, so they take it over and it becomes a beer garden,” Lesh said.

Sometimes, Gustavus residents will rent out the inn.

“If a local has a wedding, they take over the whole inn and it fills up with family and everything feels generous. It’s not a business. It’s like being home,” she said.

Lesh takes pride in how she, Dave and their 10 staff members have treated guests for the past three and a half decades.

“I think our guests would say we take care of them,” she said. “They become not travelers but houseguests.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or

The Gustavus Inn serves their guests three full meals a day. Many of the ingredients come from straight from two gardens located on the property. After 36 years, owners JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling the inn.

The Gustavus Inn serves their guests three full meals a day. Many of the ingredients come from straight from two gardens located on the property. After 36 years, owners JoAnn and Dave Lesh are selling the inn.

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