It was February of 2011, and Scott and I were having one of those talks again. For two years, we had been praying and searching for the right place to invest our limited housing budget.
There was history behind why it was so limited. For 20 years, our livelihood had been in homeschool ministry. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992, Scott had been a constitutional lawyer fighting for the rights of homeschoolers (for 14 years with HSLDA). During those years, we wrote and Tapestry of Grace, an award-winning curriculum that we published as a business.
When the economy dipped in the fall of 2008, we were in the middle of a million-dollar redesign of the curriculum. In the next year, we barely survived a near-bankruptcy experience. By God’s grace and through making some pretty big sacrifices (not the least of which was selling the family home where we’d raised our kids) we survived that phase of our experiment in small business.
For two years afterwards, we rented housing. As usual, Father knew best. We learned from that trial that we didn’t need the family home anymore. Besides leaving a few things that had sentimental value–the June lilies planted for my son Mike’s wedding for instance–at the end of the day, we really didn’t at all mind downsizing from a six-bedroom, sprawling house into a four-bedroom townhouse and getting cozy. With only two college girls left, who were in and out on weekends, we felt comfortably snug in our new little nest, perched on the border of a 24-acre park. We called it the Treehouse, ‘cause all you could see out the back windows were trees. We were content as we worked to rebuild our finances and finish the curriculum project.
Then, God called us to a new church and a new town, about 30 minutes north. In moving there, we had had endless talks about housing because the new church was spread through a large area that offered diverse options. We could choose a house in the small, central city, or buy a larger home in a suburban development, or go for a very rural home well outside the city.
When we had had small children, we had always done a lot of hospitality and been at the center of a lot of activity. Now, we were entering a new season. Would we still need a house for hospitality? Would we be part of the counseling ministry and thus need a central location? Was God calling us to keep Scott’s aged parents in our home in the future? If so, we’d need some kind of ground-floor bed/bath situation. Would our daughters need housing during the summers off from college? And on and on. We commuted to our new church from the Treehouse, sought counsel of friends and family, and kept working at stabilizing Tapestry of Grace.
Finally, the curriculum was finished in March of 2010. Sometime during that month, I was in prayer during a morning quiet time. I was tired of the gerbil wheel of house hunting. I put my head in my hands and said, “Father, I just want to bless the most people!” Clear as a bell, in my heart I felt the Spirit say, “Buy a working farm.”
Wow. That wasn’t even on our list! I turned to Scott who was sitting nearby and told him. He nodded and affirmed the impression. Holding it loosely, but embracing the experiment at hand, we set out to find a farm. The one that we found that was most likely to serve what we understood of how a farm we owned could bless people and was in our area had an asking price of $625,000.
Nothing daunted, we set about putting a deal together. It did not work out, however, because in the lean years we’d just lived through, we had paid ourselves far less than a bank wanted to see to loan us that kind of money. They wanted to see two years’ tax returns that displayed an income that would support a farm loan. Our business was back on a firm financial footing, so we decided to wait and work for another two years in order to follow the leading to buy a working farm. We moved into a penthouse condominium that was all on one level on the third floor in the middle of the little historic city taking a two-year lease.
While we waited for time to pass, we engaged with our new church, made new friends, enjoyed our family, and continued to work on behalf of homeschoolers. In reading the newspapers and our Bibles, we became concerned about the direction that this country is taking, and began to have serious talks about going back into any kind of debt. By February 2011, we had decided that it would be wiser to work to be debt free than to purchase a farm in our area. We began to look for farms further afield that were still near on of the churches in our movement, Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Finding Storybook Farm
When we first drove up to the farmhouse, our realtor, Jeff took us up on its rickety front porch with the cheerful words, “Now, it is salvageable…” And with that, he opened the door to another world.
This really was a Secret Garden house. As we found out later, this had been the homeplace of the Harper family (and before that, the Pitsenbergers). The grandparents of the family had lived here early in their marriage, but there were no modern amenities, so they built a little brick house further down the hill, and rented it as a hunting cabin. The place looked like the clock had just stopped in about 1980.
All the shades were drawn, I guess so that no one would peek in and break in. The floors were wood and the walls were wood. The paint scheme was all bright pastels–lead paint, of course–and knotholes peeped through. The floors had rugs… disintegrating, and the wood floors that you could see around them had been painted a lovely porch-deck gray.
Because the house had been used as an unheated hunting lodge in the falls occasionally, on the ground floor there were two double beds and one twin, along with a ratty old couch that had mice living in it. Piled around these were old furniture, old magazines, boxes of old clothing, an old oil burner, a brand new dryer that had never been used, etc. There were broken lamps, seven TVs of various descriptions, and piles of Readers’ Digests from the era.
In the kitchen, there was one counter top/sink cabinet that had been stuck sideways across a window and… well… it might have been plumbed at one time, but when it was, water simply came in from the well and went back out through the wall and drained out onto the ground.
But, what the kitchen lacked in modern plumbing it certainly made up for with the stove. There was an antique wood/electric combination cook stove, all hooked up to the chimney. (NOT that I was going to use it without getting the chimney worked on, but still, it was cool and it was there!) Dingy yellow sheet vinyl caked with dirt graced the floor. Again, on the upside, there was a large pantry with ample built in cupboards!
Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a sort of “pass through” room. The window of one of the bedrooms was broken, and cold air poured into the already frigid house. This was no great loss, though, because every window in the place would need to be replaced. The house had been wired for electricity, but no one in their right minds would trust it.
Still, the house felt solid underfoot. “Maybe it could be cleaned up, repainted, updated…” I thought. Then, it hit me. No bathroom nowhere. Never had been one. So, we would be needing to install a septic system. “What does that involve in this remote setting?” I wondered.
The metal, standing seam roof was rusty, and the entire house needed painting. It looked gray and ugly, and the old, “white” paint would need to be scraped off, since we just think that vinyl siding is not an option for refurbishing an antique farmhouse. And for sure, it was lead-based paint!
In the back bedroom there was a door to a screened-in upper porch with a sloped roof (and also a sloping floor). “Hmmm,” I thought, “We could expand the bedroom here and build a bathroom if we could raise the roof some and level the floor.”
We went outside. There had been a fence around the house. It was now covered with bracken and thorn bushes and tipped over sideways in places where the cows had run loose, since the whole farm had been leased to a nearby neighbor for pasture after being abandoned. Farmer Kenny had tried to protect the yard by patching the gaps with barbed wire, so that added charm to the yard. The old clothesline poles were askew, and the two porches–both off the kitchen to the north and south sides of the house–were rotted.
But, these didn’t hold a candle to the foundation. The gutter system had broken down, and the water had dripped for decades onto the mortar between the foundation stones. The foundation was crumbling badly in several places, so the house would need to be jacked up to get it fixed, and the stones reset and re-mortared.
We decided to tour the yard. I’ll write more about that in my next post, but suffice it to say that we found the outhouse. It was a two-seater, and it leaned to one side. On the west side of the house, there was a steep bank. We decided to climb it, and found that it was a knob with a fantastic view to the northwest.
We were stunned. We looked back down the knob at the little house snuggled into the nob so securely. I think it was at that moment, standing on the nob and looking at it from the vantage point of the picture below that I fell in love with it.
After walking all around it, exploring the outbuildings (including a genuine spring house) we stood back from it and took a look. Yup, Jeff was right. It was salvageable. I could just see it, loved, painted, fixed up, and inviting. It would be a gem someday! And to me, on that cold February day, there was nothing else that I’d rather do than be privileged to be the one to save it!
And so, two months later, we bought it: the house and 40 untamed acres for $150,000. I look back at the pictures now and wonder, “What were we thinking!?” It was one of the most daring experiments yet for us to take on, at age 53. But, it answered that call that we believed I’d heard: “buy a working farm” in answer to my heart cry of “I just want to bless the most people.”
After We Bought It
We didn’t plan to move to our farm at that time. We knew that we didn’t have the finances to support ourselves there. We were looking at it more as a retreat. Scott dubbed it “The Last Resort.” If all went well with us and our children, it would be a great vacation and gathering spot for our clan–a “Clanstead” in fact. If things went badly in our nation, perhaps it would serve as the last place we had to run. We couldn’t see the future, but we strongly felt Father’s guiding hand as we purchased, named, and began to renovate Storybook Farm.
We wanted to continue to rent and live where we were, but to put our buying power towards providing a place for our kids (and our grandkids, who were starting to come along) to be able to come, relax, and enjoy the rural environment that all of our family loves so much. If times turned really tough, we thought some of our kids might need such a place to go until they could recover their financial feet.
Many of the posts on this blog center around renovations, decorating, and events. Please see the Storybook Farm category for all kinds of experiments–some worked great, others, not so much! 🙂