'It's really a Walter Mitty existence," says one of Washington's most famous farmers, weatherman Willard Scott, who lives on 15 1/2 acres somewhere between the tiny towns of Delaplane and Paris in the hills of Virginia.
Scott, like thousands of other country folk, commutes two and a half hours a day to deliver his good-humored combination community bulletin board and weather forecast on WRC-TV's evening news. He comes into town around four in the afternoon and is home by one at night. The rest of the time, the ebullient weatherman spends in the Virginia countryside tending his 180 JJ Warren chicks, smoking meats in his smokehouse, spraying his 80 apple trees, planting vegetables and beefing up the property into what he hopes will one day serve as a retirement business for him and his wife.
A lifelong dream and the contrast in lifestyles is what attracted Scott and so many others like him to the country life. Not all are frustrated farmers - some have moved out, way out, because they wanted a little space around them, couldn't afford closer in. Others have moved as a reaction to living in the suburbs.
From 1970 to 1975, 58 percent of all growth in the area took place on the fringes of Washington's Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA). Places like Middleburg, Leesburg, Warrenton, Frederick have all seen population increases and new demands for housing. While much of that 58 percent growth can be attributed to increased availability of jobs in suburban areas, a percentage (no one is sure how much) are young professionals moving out of the city and close-in-suburbs, seeking the kind of home and environment they can't have any other place but in the country.
"The classic request," says Ruth Miller, a broker with Middleburg Country Properties, is for an old stone house, on 10 to 15 acres, with a pond, surronded by large estates." Another seasoned country property expert, Harold Morency, with Middleburg Real Estate, says about 25 to 35 percent of all the people he sees are young professionals looking for a way to move out into the country. "They're people who want to get back to nature, back to the earth. They want an older house, with charm, a great view, a stream and some woods on anywhere from 10 to 50 acres." As Morency says, "they come and they become enchanted with the place."
It was just that kind of enchantment with the land that led Alan and Pat Ullberg to their Calvert County, Maryland, home back in 1966. "We had just come east from San Francisco," recalls Pat Ullberg. "Out there, we had friends who lived in the Napa Valley and rented a wonderful farm. In the late '60s, there was a real feeling about getting back to the land, a kind of romance about it. What we could afford close-in was not who we wanted," she recalls. "We drew a quadrant outward from the place my husband worked, the Smithsonian, and began to look."
What they found was a large old house built with what local legend claims was bootleg money. "The original owners had no money, only the land (about 15 acres) and suddenly, around the time of prohibition, they built the most expensive home in the county. It cost around $25,000 to build in 1923."
The frame house has eight rooms, but all are 15 feet by 17 feet with 10-foot high ceilings, wide baseboards and big windows. The Ullbergs keep some chickens and tend a one-acre vegetable garden (and a small greenhouse); they raise enough fresh food to see them through the entire summer and into February before they are forced to buy from a local market. Ullberg, associate general counsel for the Smithsonian Institution, commutes the 33 miles each way, first dropping the couple's two children off at their private school in Landover and heading on into town.
The Ullberg say they thrive on quiet, clean air and the open space, but feel somewhat schizophrenic about living where they do. "We might be tempted to move back in closer to town," says Pat Ullberg, "if we could afford and find the right place. Our interests and social life are in the city, so we find ourselves torn between the tranquility of life out here and wanting to be closer to many of the things we enjoy about city life."
For many, the pleasure of city life can be confined to the work day. For Howard Paine, art director of the National Geographic magazine, anytime he wants to stay in town, he simply walks to his efficiency apartment, the same one that once made him feel imprisoned by city life.
"I was divorced, living in an efficiency after having spent some 15 years in suburbs," recalls Paine, describing the mood that led him to his pre-Civil War home in Fauquier County, Virginia. "My three kids, who are with me on weekends, were getting bigger and I was getting tired of going to museums and ballgames with them. I wanted a place for them, a place for me. I couldn't afford anything in town, and I knew I didn't want anything in the suburbs. I abhorred the shopping centers, the homogeneity of the suburbs where everyone is white, has two and a half kids and two and a half cars. In my apartment building, there are blacks, Chinese, little old ladies and people like me. I love the mix," says Paine, who commutes all but one day a week to his country home.
"Now," concludes the countrified convert, "I love living with the bad heating, in an old house, with dirt roads aroung me. I love the feel of the weather, the crackle of the stars at night."
Unlike many other country folk who commute to the city, Paine, with his wife Jane D'Alelio (art director of the Geographic's World magazine), has very little land - three quarters of an acre in the heart of a tiny town he'd prefer we left anonymous. What he does have is an his toric home in which all seven rooms are 17 feet by 19 feet with 11-foot high ceilings. The kitchen is an old log cabin attached to the back of the house which may date as far back as 1800. To make the house habitable, Paine and his wife spent 18 months living in a small apartment over their little town's Post Office as they supervised the rehabilitation.
An old house with lots of space is the dream of every would-be country gentleman or woman. Paine and D'Alelio and two of his boys had to do a lot of work to make it habitable after years of neglect. Unlike many old house owners who agonize over old plumbing and heating systems, Paine and D'Alelio only had to worry about meeting the payments for such modern the payments for such modern luxuries. The house had never had indoor plumbing or heat! The quaint log cabin section of the house now has shiny metal foil of insulation material showing through where the clinking once rested. There's much to be done and great plans for the future, but the location, the fires in the bedroom every winter night and the warmth of the neighborhood make the spot ideal for the couple. The boys, who have lots of space to play in and projects to pursue, were recently featured in World magazine building a tree house on the property - their contribution to country life.
In addition to restoring their century-old small manor house on 30 acres in Middleburg, Tim and Pam Radford are in the process of converting their barn into two rental apartments. For the Radfords, this is their second country renovation project in three years since they moved from Alexandria to the small but fashionable community. Like Paine and D'Alelio, both husband and wife commute to work he to Harpers Ferry where he is a filmmaker with the National Park Service and she to Washington where she is project manager for interior design in the Washington office of Perkins and Will, an architectural firm. During the day, the couple is separated by about 120 miles, with the kids in the middle.
For the Radfords, the idea of moving out started with dreams of a weekend retreat. "We quickly realized that we couldn't afford to buy a weekend place and that we really didn't want to be tied down to one - so we decided to pack up the kids and move the whole show out here," recalls Pam Radford.
Their first home, also about a century old, came complete with stables (for their two horses) on seven acres. Unfortunately, the land was too close to the greatest enemy of most converted country folk - development. So the Radfords sold the first house and moved onto a better insulated 30-acre parcel of land.
So far, they have completely redesigned the kitchen and are working on the final touches in the living and dining rooms. "The house is so small that we find ourselves using a lot of white paint just to open up the space," says Pam Radford. Unlike many antique-prone country folk, the Radfords prefer an electic combination of period and modern pieces, giving the interior a fresh up-to-date look.
Unlike the Radfords, Willard and Mary Scott began coming to the country on weekends in the early 1960s. They bought 15 acres of Fauquier County for $7,000 cash. The next year, 1962, armed with plans purchased at Peoples' Drug Store for a two-bedroom Cape Cod house, they hired a local builder and for $23,000, put up what is now the core of a home that has grown through a number of additions to a four-bedroom place measuring about 40 feet by 130 feet. Although it's all new construction, old wood from a Fredericksburg house has been used for a grand old fireplace and wide plank floors in part of the house.
"The girls finally convinced us to move out here in 1975," says Scott. "Every weekend we went up to the country. We all got tired of lugging stuff. We had two of everything and no time to see friends. We were neither fish nor fowl."
Today the girls have their own horses, help tend the chicks and weed the vegetables garden. In the summer, they don't go to the ol' swimmin' hole but jump into the family's 20-foot-by-40-foot pool on the property.
For Alexandria-born Willard Scott, living ona farm brings back fond childhood memories of summers on his grandfather's rural Maryland farm. "My people are originally from North Carolina," says Willard in a tone more serious than most of his fans hear. "I know it sounds corny, but I talked to my Aunt Minnie in North Carolina the other day, and I thought, 'I'm looking at the same mountains she's looking at, and I am living in the place where my people came from - I'm home.'"
Scott and his Mary hope to develop their spread into "Willard's Birthday Farm," a place where city kids can celebrate their birthdays on an old-fashioned working farm. In the meantime, he takes great pleasure in selling eggs - around 30 dozen a day, at the station or wherever he might find himself.
"If I have some eggs in the back of the car and a little time to kill, I just stop at a shopping center or wherever," says Willard. "Most people know me, so I say 'Hi, how about some fresh eggs,' and I sell 'em - every one of them. Why the other day I went to see my tax man and I had a crate of eggs in the back seat - sold every one of them. I'm one of the few people I know who can say he walked away from his tax man with money in his pocket!"
In addition to the mountains, the farm life, and the contrast from the pressures of city living, the Scotts like the small town intimacy of living in the country - a feeling echoed by many other ex-urbanites. One Saturday, not too long ago, Mary Scott went to her local market to buy a roast beef for Sunday dinner. "You don't want to buy that Mrs. Scott," said the butcher, "You're going to have that tonight at the Wilsons." For many city folk, such advice from the neighborhood butcher would be a shocking invasion of privacy - for the Scotts, it's one of the delightful things about country living.
When sculptor H.I. Gates and his artist-wife Elaine moved to their Frederick, Md., pre-Civil War town-house in 1965, they were greeted with a different kind of invasion of their privacy. "The doorbell would ring, and I'd open it," says the bearded sculptor, "and some strange guy would flash an American Legion card in my face and walk right into my house as if he owned it. It was incredible." It's not hard to understand why Legionnaires would mistake the 22-room house for Frederick's area headquarters (located directly across the street). Once inside, the specter encountered by the Legionnaires would defy the flights of fancy of any Fourth of July float ever conceived by anyone in their group. The house is filled with antiques, fell body casts of nude women, chains and bold foundry gears hung on walls as bas-reliefs and a series of wonderful boxes filled with a variety of delightful and distressing images that are a part of H.I. Gates' approach to sculpture.
One would think that two people living in 22 rooms with 14-foot ceilings would be knocking around in a lot of wide open spaces. Instead, the couple confines their living space to a small living room, located behind the three rooms reserved for their antique business, and a wonderful kitchen, filled with Mexican masks and marvelous antiques. There are two bedrooms upstairs and the rest of the house is given over to objects that will someday become sculpture H.I. is an assemblagist, and every room, every spacious landing is crowded with things that may someday find themselves into his sculpture. In addition, One room is devoted to some furniture restoration projects, another to some painting restoration. The place is so crowded that Elaine has to find studio space in town for her work and rents in enormous area over a paint store not far from the house. For H. I., even 22 rooms cramps his style. He is forced to lease a barn in the country just to store his foundry parts. Gates, who has been a professor at George Washington University for the past 14 years, commutes to work in the District three days a week during the regular school year and five days a week in the summer. They originally moved to Frederick because Elaine got a job teaching at Hood College (where she is still a member of the faculty), but continue to live there because of the small town atmosphere. Like many other "country folk," both grew up in small towns. "I think an artist has to be off a little, isolated to do his work," says H.I. "For me, the city would be too distracting. And I feel safer out here. When I'm in the District, I practically run to my car at night. Even though I've been commuting all these years, the city still scares me. Up here I have space, access to the kinds of materials I need for my work. And I have peace."