Nearly four years ago, on a windy December night, Dianne Nordt, a sheep farmer and gifted weaver in Charles City, Virginia, watched her family’s beloved barn burn to the ground.
Dianne had been up late, finishing holiday orders for her blanket company, when she dozed off downstairs. “It was about one o’clock in the morning when I was awakened by a loud noise,” she says. “I looked outside and saw the flames.” Within half an hour, the 1927 wooden structure, home to six of her family’s sheep and one pony, had collapsed. Fortunately, those 30 minutes were just enough time for Dianne and her husband, Bill, a surgeon, to rescue the animals, along with five horses from the nearby stable. “They were safe, so for that we were thankful,” says Dianne, who later learned that the cause of the fire was faulty wiring.
It took a few years, but Bill and Dianne were able to build a new barn in the footprint of the old one. And to celebrate its completion, they started a new tradition: eating Thanksgiving dinner in it, surrounded by their animals and nearly two dozen loved ones.
Dianne, a Virginia native, and Bill, who grew up in southern New Jersey, moved to the 400-acre property on the banks of the James River with their family in 2000. She started making blankets in 2009 from wool produced by her flock of merino sheep, fulfilling a dream she’d had since her undergrad years studying fashion and crafts at Virginia Commonwealth University. After hand-dyeing the skeins of yarn using black walnut, osage sawdust, coreopsis, and other plants, Dianne weaves them on giant looms in her basement workshop with the help of two part-time assistants. Last year, she produced 250 blankets for her Etsy shop and crafts shows, each one numbered and dated.
She approaches food in the same slow, handmade way. “I take my cues from my grandmother, who canned vegetables from her garden and cooked everything from scratch,” Dianne says. At Thanksgiving, she also has a secret weapon in the kitchen: her friend and neighbor Pauline Elliott, an accomplished home cook who brings dessert. Pauline and her husband, David, along with Susan Reed and Robert Walz, have rented homes on the Nordts’ farm for more than six years and are more family than friends. “We’re like a rural settlement,” says Pauline with a laugh. “We share the pool, the dock, and the barn areas; we know each others’ relatives; and we always spend the holiday together.”
After a southern feast, the entire gang goes for a long walk around the property, visiting the sheep (they now number 40), horses, and chickens, and lingering by the river. Later, back at the barn, they sit down for coffee and slices of apple cake, pumpkin pie, and a rich, gooey peanut pie, a local variant on better-known pecan pie that’s chock-full of extra-large Virginia peanuts. There, under the rough-hewn oak rafters, it’s easy to savor the sweetness of life on a farm. “It’s become trendy to have weddings and parties in barns,” says Dianne. “But ours is a working barn before anything else -- and I hope to keep it that way.”