It was late afternoon and the sun, already low in the sky, was casting long shadows over the brown hills, giving a chill to the air. There was a mystery about the place. I had never driven on this road, and yet I felt I had been here before. Sturdy square Quaker farm buildings studded the rolling countryside. The sign I had passed said, "Chadds Ford, two miles." I drove slowly through the quiet town. An old brick two-story house close to the highway seemed oddly familiar. Wondering what lay beyond the highway, I turned off Route 1 and drove up into the farm country.
After a mile or so, against the pale blue horizon, I saw a white stucco farmhouse with curiously placed windows. Suddenly I recognized the farm. Even before I read the name on the mailbox I knew it was Karl Kuerner's place. I was in "Wyeth Country."
If you know Andrew Wyeth's paintings, you know Chadds Ford -- the tiny, pre-Revolutionary town nestled in the hip pocket of Pennsylvania -- the town that Wyeth documented on canvas. The house I had seen by the highway had been the subject of "Tenant Farmer." The texture, the browns and grays of the landscape, the way the light skipped across a stubbly field -- it was all right out of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
The Kuerner farmhouse was the inspiration for dozens of Wyeth's paintings like "Brown Swiss," "Young Bull" and "First Snow." I stood there a long time. Of course the scene was familiar: I knew it through the eyes of the artist.
Chadds Ford is in Chester County, Pennsylvania, about 110 miles northeast of Washington, 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Chester County is scattered with covered bridges and country inns left over from the 18th century. N. C. Wyeth, Andrew's father, came to Chadds Ford in 1903 to study under Howard Pyle, known as the father of American illustration. Wyeth went on to become one of America's most prolific and greatest children's illustrators. He died in 1945 when his car stalled on the railroad tracks and was hit by a train, right near the Kuerner farm.
But it was Andrew Wyeth who put Chadds Ford on the map of the modern art world. Andrew and his wife, Betsy, spend half their time in Cushing, Maine; but each fall they return to Chadds Ford for the winter. Their home is the old Brinton's Mill, which Betsy had remodeled into comfortable private living quarters.
During the cold winter months Andrew, a bundled figure, can be seen bounding across open fields, making sketches and capturing moods of the countryside. He is excited by the interaction of sun and shadow, and by surface textures. He can find unexpected beauty in the commonplace.
After hours out in the cold, he often stops at Hank's Diner for hot coffee, or at the Chadds Ford Inn to drink with friends. Although he likes his privacy, Wyeth is a familiar sight to the townspeople, "dressed in raggy clothes, racing through the streets in his T-Bird, loaded with his dogs."
I decided to see more of Chadds Ford. There are about five motels in the area, and a few country inns such as Mendenhall, the Red Fox Inn and, a few miles north, Coventry Forge Inn. Built in 1717, Coventry Forge Inn has limited but comfortable rooms, and is renowned for its superb French cuisine. Although it was fairly expensive, the trout was fresh, the veal excellent and I wasn't disappointed.
The next morning I visited Longwood Gardens, two miles west of Chadds Ford. The gardens are an unexpected delight in any season. In January, February and March the heated indoor gardens are bursting with spring bulbs. Around Thanksgiving thousands of chrysanthemums bloom, and for Christmas there are banks of poinsettias and 50,000 colored lights in the holiday display. The outdoor gardens cover 300 acres with flowers and fountains during the summer months.
Another year-round attraction in Chadds Ford is the Brandywine River Museum. The building, which overlooks the Brandywine, was formerly an old grist mill. Today it's an attractive modern museum with an impressive collection. A huge glass tower adds light and contrasts pleasantly with the more traditional interior, where paintings hang on the original white plastered walls. All the Wyeth family is represented, along with the works of local artists such as Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, Harvey Dunn and Frank Schoonover. During the holiday season a model railroad with five trains and 1,200 feet of track is an attraction for the whole family.
For two and a half centuries, American history has passed through Chadds Ford. First came the Indians and the early settlers, then the merchants and soldiers. In 1777, during the Revolutionary War, the British under General William Howe defeated General Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. That history is well documented in the many small galleries and antique shops in Chadds Ford. The Pennsylvania Dutch culture is reflected in the many fairs and festivals throughout the year. Local crafts are featured, as well as tours, races, entertainment and home-cooked food. There are fresh apple butter and the traditional funnel cakes -- large, lacy cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar that taste like donuts.
I made one more stop before leaving. The Chadds Ford Barn Shops are famous for their fine selection of such local crafts as handmade wooden toys, candles, jewelry and quilts. After buying a few gifts I drove past the Kuerner farm once again. The haunting quality was still there. Somehow I had the feeling that if I looked carefully at my Wyeth prints at home, I might find my footprints in the painting of that farmyard.