There is a quintessential town in central Massachusetts called Petersham with a population of just over 1200 people. In the center of the town, you may find music being played in the summer at the gazebo in the commons. Just west of the park is the stone library and next to it is vacant Inn that has a mysterious history ranging from ghosts to nuns.
About a mile north of the town is a 12room home called ‘The Deer Farm‘ that sat on 15 acres. It was a seven-bedroom, 6,000 Sq Ft. home with 10 fireplaces and a Wookie kept in the sketchy basement.
In 1992, Rita and I lived in this house from March to the end of the year. It was one of the most memorable places we lived in.
The adventure started when the owners of the house we rented in Lunenburg, MA. told us they wanted to sell the place. We immediately started looking for a new place to live. Rita was tasked to start the search.
“Here’s an interesting ad.” She said over coffee on Sunday morning. “Rent this 1700’s colonial mansion with seven bedrooms for $300/mo.”
“There’s got to be something wrong with that.” I replied. “It must be $3000 a month.”
“It sounds interesting. Think I’ll call them.”
She found out that the ad was placed by a company called Showhomes of America. They were a company that made arrangements with homeowners who have vacant homes they are trying to sell. They arrange for the homes to be occupied by people who furnish the home, live in it, and make it look more appealing to purchase than an empty house. It also helped with homeowner’s insurance, who charged a premium if a home is left unoccupied.
“Dad, where are we?” asked my 12-year-old daughter who woke up when we stopped. We had picked her up at a friend’s house on the way the vacant mansion that Rita wanted to check out.
“This is a house we are considering renting. They said it was unlocked and we could just go in and check it out.” I answered as I parked in the paved driveway between the back door of the house and the barn.
We walked around to the back of the house, found the patio door unlocked as we were told. We opened it and stepped into a large kitchen that had cabinets on three walls, a large island with a cooktop that looked like it belonged in a restaurant. I walked around the island and saw a room that was over 24 feet long, a bay window across the whole wall, and a Rumford fireplace large enough to walk in.
“Wow! This is wonderful, look at this kitchen!” Rita fell in love with it immediately.
“Dad, how much does this cost?” Asked Johanna, knowing that I could not afford to rent this large of a house.
“Well, they said $300 a month, but I don’t believe it.”
Just as I was leaving the kitchen when I noticed a red flashing light in the upper corner of the kitchen. It was a motion detector. We set it off and I figured we were going to get caught, arrested, and put in jail.
“Rita, are your sure it was OK for us to be here?”
“They said we could just go in, why?”
“There is a motion detector that we just set off. I would not be surprised if the local police didn’t show up.”
“Well, until they do, let’s check this place out.” She said as she and Johanna left the kitchen heading down the hall.
“Hey, Dad! Look at this stairwell I found. It looks like a secret passage. We later found that it was used by the servants to access the kitchen.
We wandered around, finding each room large, empty, and wonderfully restored. Downstairs were seven rooms which included a library, a playroom, a formal dining room, a family room, and a formal living room. There was also a sauna and two bathrooms. There were two staircases leading up to seven bedrooms and two and 1/2 baths. Four of the bedrooms had fireplaces. We found the attic had as much room as the house we currently rented which included the slave quarters. We left with our mouths still open wondering what fantasy world did we just fall into?
As we drove to take Johanna back to her Mom’s she said: “Dad! you have to get that place! It is so cool!” I’ve not seen her as excited in a while. “I want that pink room with the fireplace and the bay window.”
“We’ll have to check it out. It looks too good to be true. There has to be some catch.”
A month later, we moved in. The house was on the market for a reduced price of $300,000 at a time when the housing market was depressed. The owner was a rich executive who was moved to Europe. He purchased the house 1764 Colonial house for $300K and put another $300K into renovations. Rita did a creative job to get us qualified with Show Homes and they were anxious to have somebody in the vacant house. She had to submit pictures of our furniture which she was told could be even pictures from our friends’ house or out of magazines.
We had to furnish all the rooms. She found antique-looking furniture in second-hand stores that matched our furniture that was mostly from her farmhouse in PA that also looked like antiques. We used cardboard boxes with table cloths as nightstands and even faked a bed with a mattress box. It was sparsely furnished but fit the style of an old colonial home. The lady from Show Homes drove out from Boston and approved of what she saw.
The locals thought we had lots of money. After all, we lived in the Deer Farm. The local general store would hold Rita’s Sunday New York Times for her and when we shopped there, they treated us like we were as rich as the place we lived in. None of them knew we rented the place for $300/mo. and that 50% of my take-home went to pay child support and alimony.
We were in heaven all by ourselves in a massive house. We tried to make love in every room except the one with the cardboard bed. My daughter visited every weekend. She took the pink bedroom she wanted and helped us fill the library by visiting used book stores. My sons stopped by and gawked in envy at how we were living.
The basement was sketchy with an old oil-fired boiler that looked like it came out of the civil war. We joked about keeping a Wookie in the basement and bears in the barn. Rita put her potter’s wheel in one of the horse stalls in the barn in hopes of setting up a pottery studio there.
About two weeks after we moved in we got a call from a gentleman we had met in London. His name was Kostas and I never expected him to take me up on my offer. We met him in a restaurant on our last night there on my business trip. Rita had gone with me to see London while I worked. It was the only evening we had free. We were exploring around the hotel checking out places to eat when we had opened the door to this small restaurant. Before we even checked out the menu we smelled the food and heard piano music. It drew us in for a serendipitous evening. When the piano player took a break near the end of our meal, I invited him over for a drink. He was from Greece and had been living in London for about a year, trying to get established as a musician. I complimented him on his music and gave him my phone number and said: “If if you are ever in the states, look us up.”
Kostas was arriving in a few days and needed a place to stay and wondered if we could get him a piano gig while he was here. A place to stay was not a problem for we had plenty of empty bedrooms. As for a piano gig, Rita worked in an Inn in Groton that had live music every Friday evening in the bar. She convinced the owner to have a guest piano player from London play the next Friday.
We picked Kostas up in Boston on Friday around 6:00 PM. As we drove out of Boston, Kostas asked if we were able to find him a place to play.
“Yes, you are playing tonight before we go home.”
“What? Tonight? How can that be? I have no keyboard.” His Greek accent added to his charm.
“There is a group playing that will let you use their electronic keyboard. I assume that will work for you. We have an hour before we get there, you can use that time to prepare what you want to play.” I grinned seeing the shock on his face in my rearview mirrow.
Kostas blew away the small group of locals who we at the bar as well as the band that was the main attraction. He played a collection of music from Randy Neman to Elton John and even some he wrote. As we drove home, we tried to set Kostas’s expectations about the Deer Farm and the possible perception of us being rich. We tried to tell him that we were far from that.
Kostas stayed for 8 months. He used my electrical piano to practice and play for us after dinner. He had the use of three rooms, one of which he turned into a music studio He got weekend gigs at a Greek bar in Lowell, bought a car, and proceeded to try to break into the music industry. While there, he wrote new pieces and created a CD. One of the pieces was titled: “The Deer Farm” which is the piece included above.
On a Sunday in August, I was getting ready to take my daughter back to her Mom’s when she declared: “I’m not going home tonight. I going to stay here and live with you.” That started a flurry of calls and a six-month-long battle with my ex-wife, lawyers, and her school trying to work out custody arrangements and child support adjustments.
A few weeks later, my two sons moved in.
The Deer Farm was a wonderful place to party. We had cook-outs, dinner parties, and yard games. One weekend I invited my co-workers from Wang Lavatories to a pot-luck cook-out party. When my manager, Paul Conway walked from the back patio, he looked around and asked Rita:” How many units are in this condo?”
“Condo? No Paul, this is only one unit. We have the whole house to ourselves.”
Two weeks later, he laid me off.
This was just after we got our first fuel oil delivery. I figured it was going to cost us about $1000 a month to heat the house. Rita had lost her job at the Inn and we had no savings. I predicted we would be out of money by January.
In November, I found myself in the Middlesex courthouse in front of the Judge that presided over my divorce. I was trying to get the order for child support and alimony changed. I stopped paying when I found out I was laid off, but by the time I got into court, I was behind in payments.
“So, why did you stop paying Child Support and Alimony?” he asked.
“Well, your honor, all my kids were living with me. I had no income or savings so I decided in order to keep us from freezing and starving, I would use my severance pay to help us survive.”
“That is not a justification for you to take the law into your own hands. It is the court’s job to decide that, not you. I order the judgment for Ms. Wilbur for the amount of $5,000 in arrears and you to pay 1/2 of your unemployment income to her as alimony. You two work out payment plans for the arrearage.”
Winter set in with cold, snow, ice, and heating bills. One dinner in early December, I announced that we had to move. We were out of money and unemployment would not cover the bills. I had accepted a job in Eastern PA. My boys moved back to their mom’s. Kostas returned to Greece. Johanna declared she was going to move with us. That started a battle with her school administration to get her records transferred and another court battle to get permission to take her out of state.
We moved out of the Deer Farm in a snowstorm ending one of the most memorable living adventures we had.