What kind of crazy person buys a derelict farm?
The only person crazier than someone who takes on a derelict farm to restore is someone who does it twice! That would be me. I am Mary Jane Augustine, Lia’s mother and Jason’s mother-in-law. So far, I have been the quiet member of the trio, but since I am also very much a part of the Gaia’s Way Farm restoration team, I want to share my perspective on our current project.
My affection for old farms began even before Lia arrived. In 1979, I moved to New Jersey from the South, where I was born and had most recently lived in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Atlanta. I came as a recent bride, full of enthusiasm for my new home and with lots of energy for challenging projects. After a short rental stint in the old grist mill at the intersection of Snydertown and Linvale Roads in Ringoes (which, coincidentally, Jason would own some years later), Lia’s late father, Kris Nielsen, and I bought the farm on Rocktown Road that is now the beautiful Unionville Vineyards and Winery. I lived there until 1986.
Given the state of that farm in 1980, it is hard to know what the attraction was, although the farm is set on rolling hills and has a beautiful view of the surrounding valley. Both Kris and I did have extensive farming history in our families, and I had been an old house buff since the preservation/restoration movement began in the early 1970’s. Nonetheless, we were starry-eyed about the project to say the least, and so profoundly naive that we could never have anticipated the full extent of the project we were taking on.
The farm, which we called “Unionville” after a Revolutionary War hamlet in approximately our location shown on maps from the period, was much larger than Gaia’s Way Farm (100 acres vs 7 acres), but in much the same condition. Unionville also had a larger main house (which was habitable, but just barely), a tenant cottage and larger barns and outbuildings. The red brick main house dated from 1856 and had been built by the Blackwell Family, which remains prominent to this day in the Hopewell Valley. It had floor-to-ceiling windows with heavy molding and a graceful central staircase. I thought it was beautiful despite the peeling paint and disrepair. We plunked down $16,000 as a down payment and negotiated a $300,000 purchase price with the high-level corporate executive who owned it. He had bought the farm originally to entice his horse-loving daughter to stay in the area, but she moved to California anyway, and he was so desperate to unload it that he even took back the first mortgage. That was fortunate, because in 1980, interest rates were north of 20%, and we had few financing options and very little money.
The first reality which hit me was that it was going to be a long time before I would be able to do any “decorating”. Within weeks of moving in, we discovered that the main beam in the large barn was so damaged that the entire structure was in danger of collapsing. Kris had a friend who was a professor of structural engineering at Lehigh University, and he came to the rescue by bringing a crew of students out on several weekends to rig guy wires to support the barn – a modern-style barn raising! The brick on the main house needed repointing so badly that the wind whistled through our bedroom like a freight train, and both the main house and the large barn needed new roofs. My make-shift kitchen, which was in what had originally been the back parlor, consisted of one tiny sink, a stove and refrigerator, plus 3 feet of counter space. We added a massive antique table from a thrift shop, and that served as my work space for several years. I added a playpen in the kitchen area in 1982 when Lia was born. We did much of the work ourselves and I soon learned that scraping paint off the 6-inch molding around those beautiful floor- to- ceiling windows for hours was not as much fun as I thought it would be, although they eventually turned out beautifully.
The other thing I remember so graphically from my first old farm experience was how close we were to nature and what a large role animals – both wild and domestic – played in our lives. We were greeted when we moved in by a raccoon that loved to roll an old bowling ball around in the attic, progressed to baby owls with eyes the size of saucers that fell down the chimney, a rat the size of a cat that greeted me in the middle of my hallway one evening, and a crazed wood-chuck that I had to attack with a hoe to keep it from killing my dog, an ancient Springer spaniel that came with the farm (not bad for a city girl from Atlanta!) However, the most memorable interloper by far was George, the buffalo bull, an apparent escapee from a beefalo herd, who appeared in our yard one morning and took up residence for the Summer. A handsome giant, he courted our tenant farmer’s cows, drank out of Lia’s wading pool, leaned against (and crushed) our galvanized metal fences and gates, and grazed peacefully in the grassy area in our driveway turnaround for weeks. Such an anachronism! No one (police and animal control included) was willing or able to help us. George came to a sad end which I won’t recount, but his sojourn with us was especially memorable for Lia who was very tiny at the time, but still remembers him.
In addition to the Springer spaniel, we played host to a series of retired race horses, numerous cats, and said herd of cows that would occasionally escape their field and greet me in a phalanx around the front porch when I emerged in the morning. Other animals were simply dropped off at the farm by well-meaning people who thought we would, without question, provide them with a good home. This included Miss Nanny, a baby Toggenburg goat with three legs (the fourth leg had been injured at birth, and it drew up so that she was never able to walk on it), a Persian cat whose hair became so matted that we had to shave the poor thing, and Bronco, a demented Australian shepherd, who tried to herd everything in sight including the Fed-Ex man, who refused to get out of his truck when he came to deliver parcels at the farm. I insisted on keeping Miss Nanny in the kitchen during the very cold weather until I finally realized that you couldn’t housebreak goats, and a neighboring farmer convinced me that the barn, plus a companion (Tinkerbelle), was a more appropriate living arrangement for her. We quickly learned that the goats were both smart and funny. Their favorite treats were berry bushes (including the thorns) and brown paper grocery sacks, which toddler Lia happily fed them.
While all of this may sound like the lunatic fringe, we had a lot of fun, and it was a wonderful place for Lia to spend her early years, tromping though the woods (always with a plastic bag to collect “treasures”) and the two of us splashing together in the stream during rain storms. Her experiences at Unionville made her self-reliant and cemented her lifelong love of animals and nature, and her desire for her own farm, which she now has.
Looking back on my first old farm experience as I was writing this blog, I reflected on what it was that drew Kris and me to Unionville Farm in the first place. I believe that it was the same emotion that caused Jason, Lia and myself to go through the crazy bidding situation for Gaia’s Way Farm: the desire to preserve and protect a historic treasure that is part of the cultural fabric of a community, and with it, a lifestyle and set of values that is slipping away. Rather than being crazy, I now consider myself blessed to again, many years later, have the privilege of preserving and protecting yet another derelict farm.