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My dad and I lived down the road from Cherry Grove Farm in the late 1970s. We would buy eggs and produce at the farm stand. Chickens were running around willy nilly clucking happily; cows out to pasture, making low, calming moos; a huge hayfield a perfect backdrop for bucolic bliss. I remember riding over the property during fox hunts, galloping through the pastures and cornfields, hustling past the old white one-room Palestine schoolhouse across the road, to jump over a wooden coop fence and follow the hounds up toward Ox Hill Road.
Recently, I learned of the sale of this historic farm, owned by three generations of the Mayer family since 1912 and the Beers family for nearly a century before that. Cherry Grove Farm, with its signature white barn, iconic silo, its stylized name Cherry GROVE Farm painted in dark paint on the side.
The original farm began as 144 acres and stretched down Palestine, Hundred Acres, Platts Hill, and Beaver Dam roads on both sides for more than a century. Eleanor Mayer, the last farmer of the land, was always proud that she added more land to the farm, rather than selling off parcels, like some struggling farmers had to do just to pay their taxes. Many times she was approached by developers. According to Andrea Zimmerman’s 2005 book, Eleanor Mayer’s History of Cherry Grove Farm, “Get back in your car. I’m not interested in selling” was what Mayer told developers who wanted to build 135 houses or maybe a golf course.
Today, all that is left of the former farm is a 45-acre parcel, with the original 19th Century farmhouse, two barns, silo, corn crib, wood shed, cold storage building, and a multitude of other outbuildings, an active hayfield, just cut this year, and acres of pastures and woodlands.
Sandy Hook resident Greg Carnrick, owner of GRC Construction LLC, purchased the farm on November 1, because he said there were no takers for the farm as is. The estate would only sell all or nothing. He had hoped the town open space fund could be utilized for open space purchase, but the town had previously reported to him that it had no available funds. One of the first steps he took was to select at least a dozen acres of open space, more than the town requires, with access trails he will build from Beaver Dam and Palestine Roads for the public to enjoy.
Mr Carnrick has a history of working with the Newtown Bridle Lands Association (NBLA) to preserve horseback riding trails. He helped a client on Platts Hills Road build a new trail for the NBLA so the group could still have access to connecting trails for its annual hunter pace. Cherry Grove Farm trails have always been part of the NBLA event. If the farm disappears, will this usage be able to continue in the future?
Farmhouse And Buildings
Upon initial inspection, Mr Carnrick thought the house might be a teardown, but after it was cleaned of debris, it began to reveal large wide floor boards, possibly chestnut, throughout the house.
I got a tour of the farm and inside the home this past weekend. The house has endless possibilities — maybe a complete gut to modernize, or find a specialist builder who can preserve the charming small rooms, three fireplaces, and old latch doors; or someone to transform it to a new use such as a charming bed and breakfast. The house has two staircases, as was common in homes built in 1825. Upstairs, I found old wallpaper with illustrations of cherry groves curling off one wall, and apples on the other, a nod to the glorious farming heritage of the place.
All the buildings, and even the farm stand, are grandfathered in for zoning setbacks. If they were to be torn down, all this would be lost, and new construction would have to be elsewhere on the property. It is unfortunate that the house and some outbuildings were not maintained in the farm’s waning years. The silo has a gaping hole in its base, and needs help to survive. But, the barns seem solid, busting with this year’s hay harvest. The wood shed, corn crib, and other buildings are in varying conditions.
So what does Mr Carnrick want for Cherry Grove Farm? He’s looking for a steward, someone to preserve the house, the barns, and the farm buildings, to protect the open space and views, and perhaps promote the farming lifestyle. He is agreeable to customizing the size of the acreage and carve out whatever parcel would work for a new owner who has this vision. In the meantime, he is cleaning up the property and repairing some of the buildings.
There are ideas for the farm’s future — the land is ideally suited to northern exposure and sunlight for a winery. It could become an agricultural school, a barn wedding venue, or an equestrian property. It could also become what it once was: a farm to feed its residents and locals. While the property lost its farm tax exemption with the transfer of property, it can again be applied for by a new owner.
Here we have a local builder, a Newtown native, resident, and taxpayer, who grew up in town, and wants to preserve the farm, which was not selling for years. He stepped up, bought it, and is now trying to find the right buyer who will invest in Newtown’s open space future by purchasing its past. A time will come, if someone who shares his vision cannot be found, that the property will be listed for sale, and then there are no restrictions for what a new owner will do with the property. The parcel is zoned R-2, for two-acre residential lots. They could tear it all down, and replace hayfields, pristine cow pasture, and wildflower meadows, with more houses, more residents, and more tax burden on all of us who live here. Granted, Mr Carnrick will also develop some of the acreage around the core farm, but kudos to him for trying to do the right thing to preserve open space, protect local history, and promote the much needed agricultural lifestyle.
The last page of Ms Zimmerman’s book is a foreboding in the words of Eleanor Mayer, “I have a certain feeling for the soil, for the earth…I don’t know what is going to happen to the property when I am gone.”
As I drove away from the property pondering its future, I took a glance in my rearview mirror. Those deep, dark painted letters — Cherry GROVE Farm — on the side of the barn called to me for someone, somewhere, to come forth and give this historic Newtown farm a new life.
Lisa Peterson writes about history, horses, and hounds at lisaunleashed.com.