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The experiences we most keenly anticipate often tend to be disappointing when we finally realize them. This was not the case when, in August of this year, I fulfilled my long-held wish of visiting Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio. There had been several missed opportunities; I had crossed through Ohio many times but always further north on I-90 or when pressed for time en route to an engagement further west.
I first read Louis Bromfield when I was 19 years old and soon after began collecting and reading nearly everything he has written. From his early novels, which I loved so much because of his strong-willed women, I moved on to his later books, with exotic settings in India and war-time Europe, and then to his books on sustainable agriculture, conservation, and rural life in Ohio at Malabar Farm. This summer, when Ron and I set out on a book scouting journey through the Midwest, I made a visit to Malabar Farm our primary goal, and it truly was the highlight of our trip.
Following the long winding roads leading away from I-71 through Pleasant Valley, the rolling fields and peaceful ponds looked every bit as lovely as they had looked in my mind's eye while reading Pleasant Valley, Malabar Farm, From My Experience, and Out of the Earth. Everything was as it should have been - and even better than I had imagined. The 32-room farm house with its terraced gardens is maintained just as it was when Bromfield lived there with his family and boxer dogs, entertaining friends from around the world. His hat rests on the grand piano in the foyer, his clothes are in the closet, his books are in their wall cases (in every room!), and the furniture, paintings, decorations and lamps are all the original items used by the Bromfield family. His Underwood typewriter rests near his desk; even his fine music collection remains intact. His Jeep is still in the shed. It's almost as if he could walk in the door and resume his life at any moment.
Over 350,000 people visit Malabar Farm each year, and it has been an Ohio State Historic Site since 1976.
When we arrived for the 4 p.m. tour, 35 people were gathered. We were very fortunate to be led through "The Big House" by Mark Jordan. Not only is he a superlative tour guide with extensive knowledge of Bromfield, the Bromfield family and the history of the area, but he is a writer himself. His plays about Malabar Farm and the folklore of the surrounding area are regularly presented at the site. He generously stayed after hours to give us a private tour of the house and the beautiful land.
As the Cushman cart wheeled to a stop on a hillside meadow, I asked, "Where is Louis Bromfield buried?"
"Look behind you," Mark replied. There, in a simple old cemetery plot enclosed by a white picket fence, lies Louis Bromfield - at rest in the place he loved best, among departed family members and a few long-time valley residents from a much earlier generation.
Just beyond towers Mt. Jeez, the hill where people from around the world came to hear his talks on sustainable agriculture.
Malabar Farm is so named because the setting for Bromfield's novel The Rains Came was the Malabar region of India. It was a hugely successful book and in 1939 was made into an equally successful movie starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power (and remade in 1955 as The Rains of Ranchipur.) The resulting revenue enabled Bromfield to acquire the land and build the big house at Malabar; he wanted to acknowledge the book and the setting which made it possible. Ironically, the word "Malabar" roughly translates to "pleasant valley".
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married here on May 21, 1945, in the great entrance hall of the house between the open staircases. They had planned to be married on the terrace, but according to our tour guide, the local telephone operator had eavesdropped on the phone arrangements and spread the news across the valley. When about a thousand uninvited guests showed up outside the house, the nuptials were moved indoors. Bogart and Bromfield had become friends in their early days while living in New York City, long before either had achieved fame. The friendship lasted throughout their lifetimes. Their honeymoon suite at Malabar:
The family brought over most of the furniture in the house from France, after years spent living in Senlis just north of Paris. Beautiful paintings grace the walls, including two original oils given to Bromfield by Grandma Moses in thanks for his writing an introduction to her autobiography (Grandma Moses: American Primitive, Doubleday, 1947). But the house is far from ostentatious. The furnishings are beautiful in a classically comfortable way; the house was well enjoyed by Bromfield, his wife Mary, three daughters, a parrot, and a rollicking bunch of boxer dogs, not to mention a constant stream of houseguests.
The small bed in Bromfield's office is the only piece of furniture which is a replica (and it is built on a slightly smaller scale than the original). Like the original, it has a pull-out bed at one end for his favorite dog, Prince.
The long table in the spacious dining room once held breakfast for such notables as Jimmy Cagney, Dorothy Lamour, Errol Flynn, Fay Ray, and other notable stars. But these celebrities became regular people here, and perhaps that's why they liked it. A list of farm chores was placed by the plate of each guest in the morning. If they weren't interested in doing chores, they were welcome to book a room at a nearby hotel. Imagine driving up to the vegetable stand and finding Jimmy Cagney selling melons!
The centerpiece of Bromfield's library/office is a huge semi-circular desk constructed of local walnut and designed by the boss himself, with bookcases built into the front face. It is built in one piece and is so large that it had to be brought in while the house was being constructed. On the wall hangs his Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel Early Autumn and also the O. Henry Prize awarded to him for the short story "The Scarlet" (McClure's Magazine, January 1927).
The spacious living room has French doors leading to a porch overlooking the valley. There are windows on each side of the fireplace, and the mirror above the fireplace reflects the windows from the opposite side of the room, so one can actually see out toward four corners of the property from one vantage point. The layout was carefully designed in this manner by Bromfield. A charming and lengthy poem written by E. B. White about Malabar Farm for The New Yorker (1948) is mounted on the wall in this room. Here there were often live bands playing at parties that would last all night long.
The house was designed by Bromfield and architect Louis Lameroux. It is a blend of Western Reserve architectural styles and is meant to look as if it had been added on to over the years, as was the case with most older farm homes. Tours of the home are offered year round for a very reasonable fee. Hay rides, bird walks, plays, barn dances and other activities also take place year round on the farm.
The original Bromfield home, just a short distance down the hill, is a 1919 Sears & Roebuck farmhouse which now operates as a 19-bed international youth hostel. The Bromfield family lived here before the construction of the "Big House." It opened as a hostel in 1976 and is operated through Hostelling International-USA, a non-profit organization devoted to outdoor recreation and world travel for people of all ages.
Nestled among towering trees is the old Pugh Cabin, an authentic rustic log home with two enormous native stone fireplaces. It was built in the 1940's by Louis Bromfield's friend and neighbor Jim Pugh and features two ornate chandeliers which once graced a Mansfield bank. The cabin overlooks the creek, and is available for rental (daytime use only) for such events as receptions and company retreats.
Ceely Rose's house still stands on the farm. This is the miller's house mentioned in Pleasant Valley where a young mentally-challenged girl named Ceely achieved folklore status in the 1800's when she murdered her mother, father and two brothers by mixing arsenic into their cottage cheese. She had felt they stood in the way of her hoped-for romance with a neighbor boy, who in reality only treated her with more kindness than others in the valley. There was an investigation, and ultimately an arrest and a trial. (This local history made excellent material, by the way, for one of Mark Jordan's plays).
The vegetable stand is still located on Pleasant Valley Road, in front of the famous cold spring which comes out of the hillside and feeds water into stone troughs beneath the baskets of farm fresh produce, keeping them cool. All the produce is fresh picked and organically grown on Malabar Farm.
Next to it stands the old Schrack house which Bromfield purchased in 1941. A big brick house built in 1820, it now operates as Malabar Farm Restaurant, serving organic meat and vegetable dishes grown on the farm. Of course, we stopped in for dinner -- I had the chicken pot pie and Ron and Mark had pot roast-delicious home cooked fare, reasonably priced, with a glass of wine followed by pie & coffee for dessert (being the light eaters we are)!
A new Visitor Center was nearly complete and scheduled to open in September 2006. As a premiere center for sustainable living and education it will preserve Louis Bromfield's legacy. The Visitor Center was built using "green" construction techniques, including the incorporation of geothermal energy, solar and wind energy, recycled materials, and water conservation technology. It will include a conference room, educational offices and over thirty interactive exhibits to enable people to learn about sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, ecology and our environment. The Center will include space for the sustainable agriculture library, which up until now has been housed in an outbuilding which suffered some water damage in the floods earlier this year. Fortunately these books - approximately 2,000 volumes which contain much of the information on which Bromfield's farming methods were based - survived.
Malabar is still a working farm. There are approximately 950 acres of woods, fields and farmland, interlaced with miles of lovely trails for walking, hiking, skiing and horseback riding. During our visit, the fields were fragrant with fresh-mown hay. A young boy and his father stood on the bank of a farm pond, fishing for bluegills. Cattle and several draft horses were pastured near the barn, which was rebuilt some years ago exactly as it was after being destroyed in a fire. As we left, a large group of people had assembled there for a barn dance with live music and food, and on the horizon, two riders guided their horses across a meadow in the evening light.
In Pleasant Valley, Bromfield wrote: "Every inch of (the house) has been in hard use since it was built and will, I hope, go on being used in the same fashion so long as it stands."
Malabar Farm is alive and well-Louis Bromfield would surely be pleased.
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Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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