Finding a future in a house with a past

PART ONE: I think the house was waiting for us.

Whittaker Chambers’ Pipe Creek Farm as we first saw it.

Many things conspired to bring us here, many of them not particularly good but then again we never know the plan, do we? And you can really appreciate the concept of Fate when it happens to you. Here tucked away on a 450 acre farm in Westminster Maryland was a charming house that had been cared for by the Chambers family and let out to people who cared and sometimes didn’t about preserving this place a home.

We had been living in Monkton Maryland since our daughter had gone off to college. We had what we called an artist’s cabin on the Gunpowder River. But it had issues and it was time to go after 7 years. Moving all the way to Westminster was not met with enthusiasm by anyone and it did mean an hour commute to work but then again- work was secondary in a pandemic. I argued to make the move because I thought that this house needed the kind of work that Spider and I had always been good at- hard work, physical labor and zero patience work- pick a project and get it done work.

The house had been put into very good shape by the owners and the Realtor. It had its typical and amusing old house issues- like light switches that dont seem to be attached to lights and actual lights that dont appear to have a way to turn them on. If you’re smart, you call that Charm and move on. A pickier person will spend $5000 putting it all in order. Plus we needed things to tackle what wasn’t perfectly fine!

A good decorator could turn these rooms into any style you imagine yourself living in. But I took a cue from a great decorator, Barry Dixon and a home he did in Virginia that I was lucky enough to visit. Let the house be what it is supposed to be. We are living in a farmhouse. Get used to it. Not a cottage, not an Estate- its a house on a farm. Now with a few channelings from Barry Dixon-make it the best farmhouse it can be. Good thing I am an antique dealer. But you never own what you need so, Oh I wish I had a budget and a credit card!

Nestled in trees on top of a hill whose precipice is way too close, it has both shade and sun and, more importantly; its quiet. It looks over forest within feet on one side and hay fields on the other that stretch out forever. It has a sky that has a blue that you only see in paintings and at night is pitch black with layers of twinkling lights- the stars, an occasional airplane and the lightening bugs- all doing their part to keep you outside. The back of the house looks doooowwwwwnn into a pasture and at one end of that is a pond. The front of the house looks up to the big red barn. A long formal driveway under oak trees can be perceived but has long ago succumbed to falling trees and ever growing thorn bushes. You can see at once that things GROW here.

We determined it best to shelve our house muse and call upon the teachings of another master, John Saladino whose exterior rooms are as magnificent as his interiors. The exterior needed to be done first! (and it costs less). I remembered a lecture I attended once given by Mr Saladino in Washington DC where we went on a tear about suburbanites who plant azaleas in the sun and have dogwood trees in their front yards. I never enjoyed a lecture more- rear ends were twitching and sliding throughout the room as women were scolded for not having natural exteriors- you know, lawns vs yards. I remember thinking that someone should take Mr Saladino through Bethesda on the way back to the airport. But still a great lesson because he was right! So years one and two will be for clearing and creating great soil. And….as funds permit peonies and daylillies will replace grass in the sun and azaleas, rhododendrons and even a dogwood or two will find themselves settled in the cleared woods.

So the house could get the breathing room we should always give a home before we redo it and make it our own. And Spider and I could get to what we do best- labor. What I had not realized was how ill equipped we were to take this on. Living in the artist cabin on the river, we had a cappuccino machine not a chainsaw not to mention a riding mower. Normally you would just go to Lowe’s. But with no work and no open stores- and good heavens, these new mowers are 5000 dollars. So I started driving around looking for signs of life in the towns around me and found Jerry. Jerry has a junkyard and a lawn service. I was able to make 2 payments and get Scott, my first lawn mower for 350.00. Scott will cut anything. He has heart. Only when I run up on unseen, downed trees will Scott get fed up and turn over- pinning me in 5 foot tall grass screaming for Spider, who responds, “Where are you?” and to which I can only repeatedly yell louder, HERE!. Scott is my friend and he and I spend romantic late afternoons together looking out over whatever plot he has mowed that day. I have a glass of wine and he sighs and moans and coughs up oil as he settles. Jerry has also created Frank or Frankenstein as no two parts fit perfectly together, a John Deere with a wicked turning radius but no heart. I will always prefer Scott.

Other tools had to be found- a wood chipper, push mower, tiller, hoses, sprinklers, edgers, weeders There is just nothing in our urban tool box that can do this kind of work. And there is no point even starting with out the hedge hog- especially if I was going to reach the pond which at first was inaccessible but held forth such promise- as I could see Geese overhead. So everything went on Ebay that we had and we worked our way down the Need List as things sold. Slowly pasture was cleared and just as fast, it needed to be replanted or put to some use. So we named everything the gate, the drive, the garden, the glen, the orchard, the pasture, the upper field and the pond- we made each area our friend and we set about defining them with love and a chainsaw.

Working here on Pipe Creek Farm has another wonderful advantage. You are never lost for something to do. That feeling of what do I do today when you first wake up was decided when you put your rake down the night before. And as I work in the peace of the land, I have come to understand people in my past better. My grandparents, for instance would look at something you offered to buy them and simply say, “this one works fine”. Or when they would excuse themselves from family and company that had come to swim or vacation and slip away and back into chores- because they loved the work. They saw the result even if it was not admired by anyone else and they enjoyed each other – because they shared the same Need List.

Year One we uncovered the brick pathway, added a few feet and planted Hostas (the best plant in the Universe)- a few Birch Trees that we got for $5 dollars from Tractor Supply and now we wait for the trees to lend shade.

The Front Door now a bit more Georgetown than Westminster

It helps to be an antique dealer! I have carted the zinc panel in the background to every home for the last 25 years. It fits, like so many fated things- perfectly.

PART TWO: The Garden- you dont know what you dont know.

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