“I don’t fish,” says Anthes, 66, a semi-retired technology and computer science writer, “but I thought a pond would be nice.” And woods, Mayer adds. And, as things turned out, lovely lichen-covered rocks and a stream.
What they settled on was an old clapboard farmstead set above a small pond in a secluded corner of Virginia’s Rappahannock County. “Rappahannock is as close to D.C. as you can get and be in the country; go in any other direction, and it’s three hours,” Anthes says. “There are no stoplights, no fast-food places, no housing developments, no shopping strips.”
The farmstead fit right in with the county’s character. “Before the 1970s, it had crops and a cow, which the young girl of the farm family had to track down each morning before she could milk it,” Anthes says.
He describes it then as a “humble place,” a two-story dwelling with a main room that was about 16 by 20 feet and shedlike additions that added two tiny bedrooms. Recent, basic plumbing allowed for a small bathroom and kitchen. One bedroom wall was exposed logs, Mayer says. The couple thought those logs might indicate that an entire structure lurked inside the clapboard- and drywall-sheathed walls; many old log cabins had been entombed in siding added by homeowners in search of a modern “update.” But more than 25 years, two daughters, two careers and a succession of lively dogs would come and go before Mayer and Anthes could act on that speculation.
After plunking down $72,500 for the 30-acre property in 1980, the couple had only basic work done on the home. Castleton, Va., builder Peter Winfield exposed another wall of logs (this time in the living room), removing drywall and sanding off years of paint. But beyond that, the couple decided to keep the house, even the kitchen, very simple. “We had the cheapest stove because the mice ate all the wires, so I knew it wouldn’t last,” recalls Mayer, 62, a former reporter for the Washington Star and The Washington Post who is now a part-time consumer-advice blogger.
“We had a party line [for the telephone], no TV, no dishwasher, one bath,” Anthes remembers. “The place was barely heated.” It was shabby, he adds, “but we just put up with it. Almost a matter of pride: roughing it without AC, etc., and sharing it with the critters that got in.”