Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas at Moss Mountain Farm

Christmas has come to Moss Mountain Farm. The first winter gusts are frosty coming off the Arkansas River below, rattling the leaves of Big Sister, the largest of seven pin oak trees on the property.

On one’s first visit to Moss Mountain Farm, one is likely struck with the sense of antiquity, a farm meticulously kept over time. This isn’t actually the case. The house itself is just four years old, built with an emphasis on green efforts and on portraying a sense of place, built in the shadow of the largest of the Seven Sisters, the seven pin oak trees that grace the property. They’re all 300 to 350 years old.

Most of the furnishings in the house date back to the 1830s or earlier. Smith is an avid collector of pre-industrialized furniture. The pieces he showcases from that collection are all handcrafted and unique. They lend a feel to this house, aging it considerably. In the front room there’s a Kentucky sugar chest that dates back to 1810. A Maryland sideboard graces the foyer. There’s an 1800s piece from Mason County,

The oldest piece in Smith’s collection is a 1794 corner cabinet made in North Carolina. Smith can give you the stories of most of the pieces. He appears to enjoy sharing the details of these very personal pieces; in a way, the craftsmen that created them live on through their works.

Throughout the house you’ll find a combination of artworks, many of which are changed out with the season. Many of these are sketches and paintings done by Smith himself. There’s a gorgeous oil painting on the wall opposite the fireplace in his front room of the family farm in Tennessee where Smith spent much of his boyhood.

For the holidays, it’s all about two things -- natural and red. This year’s holiday decorations were inspired by the colors in the print of Osage chief Black Dog, a Native American whose image overlooks the den.  George Catlin painted the chief's portrait in 1834.

Smith obtained a postcard at the Old Statehouse Museum in Little Rock when he was younger and was fascinated. He had it blown up just for this particular room, large enough to show Black Dog’s seven feet of stature.

The reds, especially in this room and throughout the house, come back to the red of this print. Smith’s tree is decorated simply and lushly with red glass ornaments and soft white lights, with muted globes of color and bits of red and gold ribbon. The red of nandina berries and crabapples from the farm peeks out from the mantle amidst bundles of cinnamon sticks and branches of evergreen. Simple red and white table settings are accented with the tiny crabapples.

There is this pleasant evergreen scent that permeates the house during the Yuletide… tied into the scent of cinnamon and fresh brewed apple cider. It is a comforting scent.

Slipcovers are used on furniture in the house to change the mood of the room with the season. For instance, right now the formal living and dining space features brown couches (their normal non-slip covered appearance) and other chairs and couches in the house bear reds and golds. The sofa in the den appears to be a burlap-ish sort of cover, but it is very soft. The floors are all pine oiled with tung oil, somehow both ancient and new at the same time.

The holidays are celebrated in the kitchen, too. Smith’s white cupboards, gray marble and nickel-plated fixtures are accented with the fruits of the season. Baskets of nuts, kumquats and red peppers picked on the farm bring deep color amongst the evergreen boughs and berries. Fresh made cookies are just out of reach under a fancy glass dome, an edible work of art.

The back porch connects the outdoors with inside, with muted browns and greens for slipcovers, potted evergreens, tablecloths and burnished lamp fixtures. This is the place to capture the last Southern warmth, those final few mornings before winter sets in for good. I suspect it is also a grand place to bring out a hot cup of coffee or cocoa on a frosty morning to feel the brace of the cold and
see one’s breath form into a foggy lace before oneself.

The foyer is decorated whimsically with pheasants in a variety of poses, sitting atop the Maryland sideboard, perched atop the light fixture and balanced on stair railings. Smith loves the natural beauty of birds like this. The pheasants are whimsical and delightful.

They also tie in the first and second floors of the home, where the stairwell connects the foyer with the library. Here the pheasants have taken roost amidst Smith’s books, shells, fossils and knickknacks. It is here he looks the most comfortable, fielding questions about his home and sharing bits of his knowledge about antiques, gardens and life on the farm.

When it comes to the stuffed pheasants, the animal skulls and the shells, Smith says “I know it’s not PC, but I like it.” There’s an early Victorian ethic and feel to this room, a quiet place for reflection.

Smith’s bedroom sprawls forward from the library, a quiet retreat for the busy gardener and entrepreneur. The bed is the star of the room; it once belonged to the last territorial governor of Arkansas, William Fulton, who served our state from 1836 until his death in 1844. It’s an impressive rosewood bed, built by hand in New Orleans, tall and lavish yet startlingly simple. The pheasants and game birds celebrated elsewhere in the house are evidenced on fat accent pillows.

Even here there is a cele-
bration of the season with fresh seasonal boughs of evergreen from the property. The muted golds in the room are mirrored with simple ribbon. Reading chairs and plenty of reading material are on hand.

Smith’s love of a good book is well known. “I like to read when I can, when I go to bed. Sometimes I read downstairs on the couch. I take a stack of books and have a fire in the fireplace. I have thousands of books at my house in the Quarter.”

The winter months ahead might bring for good reading, if one wasn’t as active as Smith. Currently there’s work downhill from the house on a special Google/YouTube production, where Smith and his crews are building a 1600+ square foot house for $150,000 in just 150 days.

Further along, out towards the back end of the property, we found more livestock… the Dorper sheep that serve as organic lawnmowers for the property. These sheep were quite fat with lambs, and a few very young lambs stood amongst their mothers, bleating softly in the crisp air.

Dorpers are succulent sheep, bred for their excellent flavor. They don’t require shearing like most sheep, and as we discovered crossing the land they do an excellent job of shearing down the grass… and providing fertilizer!

Thanks to the warm Arkansas December, the chickens are still out and about, providing pest control and feeding loose on the lands. These beautiful Buff Orpington chickens are excellent egg layers, and each is fat and happy. The heavy breed chickens tend to be in the eight to nine pound range, and there’s no squeamishness about what they’re around for. We heard about an old rooster that had become coq au vin the previous night.

Moss Mountain Farm is a tranquil place, despite all the business that goes on about it. Even with a large crowd of visitors to the farm we were taken by its pastoral nature. With its mile and a half of Arkansas River shoreline, its 600 acres of rural seclusion and its ancient pin oaks, it feels like something out of antiquity, a perfect retreat for a comfortable holiday observance. I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like in spring, when thousands of daffodil blossoms will bloom and the first blossoms will appear in the rose garden.

Entranced with the idea of a visit? You can! You can schedule a tour by either joining an existing tour or gathering up a bunch of folks to go out and make a day of it, by visiting the P. Allen Smith Garden Home website. Smith makes sure there’s some good old fashioned Southern hospitality to your visit; those visits are arranged either around lunch or dinner and include dishes in his cookbook, Seasonal Recipes from the Garden. Check out Eat Arkansas for a sampling of what we discovered there.

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