By Jessica Wiant -- email@example.com
STRASBURG -- While a debate continues about the entrance corridor to Strasburg off I-81 -- with its gas stations and restaurants and bright lights -- just down the hill along a gravel path, no signs of modern development are even in view.
In fact, at Caroline Stalnaker's Mt. Pleasant Farm, though the sounds of traffic are still within earshot, stepping into the secluded manor house -- built in 1812 by Revolutionary War hero Capt. Isaac Bowman, a nephew of the man who built the much more recognizable Belle Grove Plantation -- seems a lot like stepping back in time.
The Shenandoah County property, surrounded by land that's been annexed by Strasburg, has been largely untouched aside from farming activity.
Amazingly, not even the Civil War brought action to the farm, a rarity, according to Stalnaker, that can probably be attributed to the fact that Cedar Creek surrounds it on three sides, making it a "one way in, one way out" location poorly suited for a military encampment.
Stalnaker has taken great pains to keep the brick mansion and surrounding land at bay from development, scoring a permanent preservation easement in 2006 and applying for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
She's also waiting on a new septic system and an inspection to make the hidden historic site more available to the public -- as a bed and breakfast.
It used to be that "if you didn't live on a farm you had an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent who did," she said earlier this week, sitting in a living room with tall ceilings, fireplace, toile wallpaper and original woodwork that give off a vibe not unlike a room in Belle Grove might.
But that's no longer true, she said. Developers look at farmland and see it as empty space, and children are less aware of nature's seasonal changes due to heat pumps and air conditioning, according to Stalnaker.
That's why, she said, she wants to offer people the experience of staying at a working farm -- a tenant on the property still keeps sheep and heifers, hay is made from the land and Stalnaker's propensity for plants is another topic altogether.
"Just because of the way I'm put together," Stalnaker, about to turn 74, said, she thinks it's "basically immoral for one old lady to be sitting on a historical property."
Even visiting other historical sites, people often only get to walk through, she said.
"People don't get to see what it's like to sleep on a rope bed or stay in a room with 12-foot ceilings without air conditioning," she said.
And so, inside the dim and somewhat musty house that has, at least on the outside, little of the grandeur that its relative Belle Grove possesses, upstairs four rooms await future guests, decked out with feather mattresses, antique furniture and little "Mt. Pleasant 1812 Bed & Breakfast" note pads.
A dining room with impressive floral wallpaper and more antiques stands ready to entertain a hungry audience.
Stalnaker, with the help of goddaughter Carrie Hamby, has even chosen soaps and linens and is working on menu items.
Of course, all those little choices aren't inconsequential to Stalnaker.
She jokes that she has the "gene for green," making being eco-friendly a priority even when cost or common sense might lead her to do otherwise.
As she's renovated the house, she's installed tankless hot water, a whole-house water filter, insulated draperies, bamboo floors, an Energy Star dishwasher, all LED or CFL light bulbs -- even in her antique chandeliers -- and many other "green" details, down to cork bath mats and recycled toilet paper.
As for a clothes dryer, Stalnaker simply relies on the sun for that, even in winter, using the coin laundry if necessary.
Waiting for a more sustainable alternative septic system is mainly what's kept her from opening sooner.
"It's a 200-year-old house that's not finished," she said.
Stalnaker, originally from West Virginia, studied food and nutrition at Iowa State University and has always been involved with many causes, she explained, from advocating for the poor to civil rights.
"Life's been a big adventure for me," she said. "Even at my age ... I'm still becoming rather than being."
A granddaughter of gardeners on both sides and a chicken keeper herself from an early age, Stalnaker jokes that the family story is that she boycotted the game of Monopoly at age 4 because no matter how many buildings you could afford to buy, you couldn't have a barn.
She's stayed committed to simple living, volunteer work and striving for balance throughout her adult life, she explained.
It was in the late '70s that fate brought her to Shenandoah County. When her children were grown and she found "no reason to be any one place more than the other," she was driving through the county in her MG Midget, she said, when she got stopped by a "humongous" thunderstorm, right in front of Sager Real Estate, where she saw a farm for sale in Star Tannery that was "perfect."
Stalnaker lived there for many years, raising goats and designing and knitting wool sweaters, before moving to her future husband's Mt. Pleasant Farm more than 20 years ago. They married in '99, she said, and he passed away a few years later.
Food -- and one might add, farming -- has been the thread running through Stalnaker's life.
It's not surprising then that she and Hamby also have been working on a cookbook of recipes for the farm that they hope to have completed by Christmas, and they both get excited talking about the breakfast offerings they have planned, made from scratch, and of course, from local and organic ingredients.
They strive for "good food and good-for-you food," Stalnaker said, but that doesn't mean it won't be tasty.
The bed and breakfast's website, already in service, has photos of Swedish Tea Rings and Fish & Grits that will be choices, and the two are in agreement that pie (a wineberry pie made from berries picked on the farm was on hand earlier this week) will be a staple offering on the breakfast menu as well as the granola they make themselves. Pie for breakfast is an old Virginia tradition, explained Stalnaker, well-versed in her history even down to the roots of the heirloom flowers that grow around the house.
From the dimmable LED lights in the sconces to the gluten-free recipes she's experimented with, a big part of what Stalnaker is doing with the farm all comes back to offering an experience for other people. By letting guests see some "green" practices up close, she hopes it will be more likely to make them active in some way as well.
"I can remember as a kid saying, 'What do I do next, Papa?' And he always said, 'Do what's in front of you,'" she said. "Everybody doesn't need to do the same thing, but we all need to do something."
The farm's motto, she said, is "An historic farm with a sustainable future."
She hopes that proceeds from the bed and breakfast will be able to continue to fund the working farm as well as allow her to contribute to Habitat for Humanity and other causes.
"I see community as the only way we're going to turn around our big problems," she said.
Also to that end, Stalnaker has hosted house concerts and welcomed artists who sketch or paint the views from the property. She's even hosted dog trial events.
"A place like this needs people," she said.