Remembering Turkey Hill

Photo: Eric Piasecki

Revisit all of Martha's Turkey Hill memories in our photo gallery.

In 1970, while I was living in New York City with my husband, Andy, and our young daughter, Alexis, we were told about a beautiful farmhouse for sale at 48 Turkey Hill Road South, in Westport, Connecticut. The house, on a tract of land that stretched south toward Long Island Sound and had once been an onion farm, came with two acres of deep, loamy soil, a few large trees, and not much else. There was no garage or barn, just a rickety picket fence and an unkempt yard. The house had been rented out to myriad families (including the famous novelist John Hersey) and had suffered obvious neglect. There was not much of a kitchen and no usable bathroom. The basement was damp, and there was no porch, terrace, garden, or driveway. But it had good bones, lovely windows, wide-plank floors, and seven fireplaces. To us, it was perfect: a do-it-yourself project resplendent with opportunity for a reasonable price, $46,750. We closed on the property on April 22, 1971, and the first thing we did was plant an orchard of old-fashioned fruit trees.

In July 1975, we were able to purchase an additional two acres on the south side from Raymond Nylen, greatly enhancing our property and giving us a great deal more growing space. The price of those two acres was $47,000 without a house -- a good sign that prices were already climbing in this very desirable neighborhood. By then we had become avid gardeners and more experienced builders, having already constructed a two-story garage and installed a wonderful swimming pool, and we were eager to expand our opportunities further.

For Father's Day in 1976, I gave Andy a wonderful present -- a disassembled 1900 Connecticut tobacco barn, purchased for about $15,000. The pieces were delivered like a gigantic Tinkertoy or a Lincoln Logs set: chestnut beams, aged red-stained siding, slate roof tiles, wonderful wide planks for the floor. We reconfigured the barn for both storage and parties, using its original dimensions, and began more excavation and land sculpting. By this time we had become best friends with Victor Perkowski, who worked wonders with his bulldozer -- never even nicking the bark of a tree trunk. We discovered another local talent, George Hoyland. Working solo or with only a single helper, George could move giant rocks and create amazing stone walls, fireplaces, and chimneys. He instilled in me a respect for stone and taught me to look at stones as significant elements in landscape. Indeed, what I learned while building and developing Turkey Hill was an appreciation of the old and antique -- the materials and methods used in our house's construction had withstood the ravages of time better than any new house ever would -- and an appreciation for craftsmanship. I began to look for experts and artisans trained in the old school. Our plasterer was a wiry old man who had spent his life throwing wet plaster on lath, and his ceilings and walls never cracked or collapsed like so many skim-coated wallboard constructions I've seen.

Because of the modest proportions of its rooms, Turkey Hill also needed antique furniture of the period in order to look right. I went to every local tag and garage sale, and there were great ones almost every week. I found so many treasures -- four-poster beds, Sheraton settees, beautiful 19th-century tables, and my collection of gilt-framed looking glasses. We made mistakes along the way: A wonderful Sheraton sideboard we had bought at Sotheby's in New York (I recall paying $90 for it) and used in our much larger Manhattan apartment was just too big for the dining room. I tried it for several years, loving its copious drawers and cupboards, but it was totally out of proportion. I sold it at a consignment shop in Westport for $900, and just last year I saw it at an antiques show for $21,000. Good antiques, like good real estate, do increase in value.

And of course, I learned a great deal about gardening, landscape design, and plants and trees while creating the gardens at Turkey Hill. Looking at the property from a small plane or helicopter was the biggest eye-opener for me about the importance of symmetry, layout, and planting. I was able to see very easily where I had erred and what I could do to correct the situations. Trees can be moved, hedges can be removed, and new plant matter can be installed. All of this takes investment and time, but a successful plan results in a glorious garden.

In 1983, we bought 54 Turkey Hill Road, the last vacant lot on the street. But the adjacent property, number 52, never came on the market, no matter how much I hoped. So I began gardening on number 54, planting a double perennial border several hundred feet long and another long garden that I filled with berry bushes and pumpkin plants. But separated as it was from the rest of the property, it never felt right, and in the 1990s, I sold it for a nice profit. A beautiful home was constructed, and a lovely family enjoys some of my plantings to this day.

Turkey Hill was a dream place for my family and me for many years. It taught us, it nurtured us, it fed us, and it occupied us in so many wonderful and instructive ways. I would not be who I am today without the vast knowledge I gained there, on that small bit of paradise. I was always so pleased when friends exclaimed about the lushness of the gardens, the beauty of the tree peonies, the vigor of the climbing roses, and the size of the cabbages. I knew that the special exposure -- the gentle sloping of the land to the warmth of Long Island Sound -- and the protection of the high stone wall and the cedar fencing created a sheltered garden of great possibilities. Almost every gardening experiment was successful. Transplanted trees always took root, and once established, the beeches and fruit trees and magnolias grew magnificently. It seemed there was always a gentle breeze, with no bugs, no pests, and no need for air-conditioning. Even the animals, domesticated or not, coexisted very well. One night, late, with a full moon hanging above the treetops, I went looking for my errant Blue Max, a black chow. He was down at the chicken coop with the chickens safely inside, an opossum perched atop the perimeter fence, and a cat or two curled up on the warm stone steps. It seemed just as if I was looking at the Turkey Hill version of Peaceable Kingdom.

Was it hard to leave Turkey Hill? Yes and no. I definitely miss certain aspects -- the soil with no rocks; the trees I planted with my own two hands; the rare and exotic specimens I searched for in catalogs and nurseries everywhere; the beautiful stones, lovingly placed by George at entryways and in pathways; the outdoor kitchen, where I cooked so many wonderful meals; and the mudroom, where I wrote my books, so many books. The house itself was so comfortable to me, me who never sits down except to eat or write. Alexis is happy I have moved, as I now have more places to relax and much more land to develop into gardens. I guess I am, too.

And if you ever have to leave a beloved place full of memories, remember these words of advice: Do all the packing and moving and emptying out yourself. It will help cure nostalgia and urge you onward.

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