By Barbara Devries
In the fall of 1988, soon after I’d sold 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, but I didn’t know anyone outside New York City anyway, and 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, had two trained-to-kill German shepherds in the yard and was wanted for shooting a cop in Staten Island (I didn’t know this until he was caught a few years later). It was all a bit creepy, but I never saw the house the way it actually was, I saw it the way it would be. 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 and ripped out ceilings and walls and found a 200-year-old “walk-in” fireplace, hand-hewn beams and newspaper 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, every vacation and 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 creeps into my mind. So much has happened in the past twenty-seven years. I became director of design at Calvin Klein, fell in love with my husband-to-be and moved to Princeton. We had our first daughter, then twin girls and I started a children’s wear line called Baby Gordon. Sometimes we went to the house every weekend; sometimes we didn’t go for months. 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 July 2001 my friend Nancy Pinchot showed me the Homestead School, in August we tentatively enrolled our daughters and then 9/11 happened. Overnight, Milford was the only place where my family wanted to be. It became home.
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 creeps into my mind.
We weren’t the only ones who 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 each pushed their child 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 changed, too. Nancie Simonet opened the Waterwheel Café, Jerry Beaver started the Black Bear Film Festival, Sean Strub and Dick Snyder painstakingly restored the iconic Hotel Fauchere 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. Walmart, Home Depot and a multiplex cinema opened on Route 209. Visitors come to shop for antiques at Forest Hall, have coffee on The Patisserie’s porch, take canoe/tube trips downriver or hike in the Delaware Water Gap National Park. During the summer there’s a farmers market and the Milford Music Festival.
When I bought the house it barely fit two people, but we built an addition and 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.
Barbara de Vries is a designer and activist. She splits her time between Milford and Miami Beach. Through her company, Plastic is Forever, she raises awareness of ocean plastic pollution.