by Barbara de Vries
In the fall of 1988, soon after selling my flat in London, I noticed an ad in The New York Times for a historic farmhouse on 10 acres. Like a tourist in a Ralph Lauren store, I made an impulse buy. I simply had to own land with trees and streams, and fly a star-spangled banner from a wrap-around porch. I’d never heard of Pike County—didn’t really know anyone outside New York City—but at least in Milford I wouldn’t be waiting around all Saturday hoping to be invited to the hottest, celebrity-studded fundraiser. I’d rented a house in the Hamptons the previous July and invitation anxiety had almost ruined my summer. In this small Pennsylvania town, I’d be way off the cool radar and could wear Carhartt overalls, go without make-up and talk to nobody but my cat.
The owner first had to evict a tenant called Joe, who kept a large gun collection on the living room wall and two trained-to-kill German shepherds in the yard. Apparently was also wanted for shooting a cop in Staten Island. It was all a bit creepy but I only saw the house as it would be, not how it actually was. Like a memory from the future, it promised me love, babies and creativity in return for liberating its pioneer legacy. As soon as the house was mine, I bought a crowbar, ripped out ceilings and walls and found a 200-year-old “walk-in” fireplace, hand-hewn beams and newsprint wallpaper from the late 19th century. I trashed the ceiling tiles, Porta-shower and shag carpeting, dragged them all outside and set them on fire. My new life in America had begun, and for the next few years I was there every weekend and vacation. In the summer months, I even commuted into the city.
During those early days, the locals called me “the model on the hill.” (I don’t know what they call me now, but “over the hill” inevitably comes to mind.) Over the past twenty-seven years I became director of design at Calvin Klein, fell in love with the man I’d marry and moved to Princeton. We had our first daughter, then twin girls and I started a children’s clothing line called Baby Gordon. Sometimes we went to the house every weekend; sometimes we didn’t go for months. At one point I put it on the market, but when someone made an offer, I freaked out. I couldn’t imagine anyone else there, in my place. In 2001, my friend Nancy Pinchot introduced me to the Homestead School and we tentatively enrolled our daughters for the school year. Then 9/11 happened. Overnight, Milford was the only place my family wanted to be. It became home.
We weren’t the only family that felt safer in Pike County. Suddenly, the playground was filled with toddlers dressed in Oilily and parents dressed in black. Weekenders who’d always been reclusive now “came out” during the week. My husband made a new buddy by admiring his Prada shoes, while they pushed their children in the swings. My daughters made friends in Valerie Meyer’s art class, and I met my BFFs, Marsha Comstock and J Morgan Puett, through the school.
Over time, Milford also evolved. Nancie Simonet opened the Waterwheel Café; Jerry Beaver started the Black Bear Film Festival; Sean Strub and Dick Snyder painstakingly restored the iconic Hotel Fauchère to its former glory; and the Milford Enhancement Committee changed the face of the town from old to historic. Grey Towers, a National Historic Landmark, was renovated and landscaped to be a destination for forestry. Visitors now come to shop for antiques at Forest Hall, have coffee on The Patisserie’s porch, take canoe/tube trips downriver and hike in the Delaware Water Gap National Park. During the summer, there’s a farmer’s market and the Milford Music Festival and in September there is the Readers and Writers Festival.
When I bought the house it barely fit two people, but we built an addition so now it’s big enough for our family of six. We all come and go throughout the year—work and school still pull us in many different directions—but when we feel homesick it’s for Milford and our house on the hill.