Kristian Holbrook reaches down and playfully rubs the wool of one of his East Fresian sheep, one of a small herd grazing on a grassy hillside of the old Thouron estate.
We are near the intersection of North Chatham Road (Route 841) and Doe Run Road (Route 52)—a stretch of bucolic countryside between Unionville and Coatesville where country estates still dominate and where horsemen still ride to the hounds.
On the other side of the valley, perhaps a half-mile away, a new dairy barn is being built to Holbrook’s exacting specifications next to an old stone farmhouse and the skeleton of another large barn, soon to be renovated.
Until recently, Holbrook was a manager at Blackberry Farm, that well-known culinary destination in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. It is where, among other duties, he created an extensive gourmet cheese-making operation.
But Holbrook was brought north late last year by Richard Hayne, the founding chairman of Urban Outfitters. Holbrook’s mission: to oversee Thouron’s historic Doe Run Farm and the adjacent Tony Young property, both of which Hayne had recently purchased.
A few months later, Holbrook was joined by his wife, Haesel Charlesworth. Charlesworth feels equally at home as an interior designer and as a professional gardener, having performed both functions at Blackberry Farm; she also oversaw its “preserves kitchen.”
Hayne, Holbrook, and Charlesworth do not dream small. They do big—and, suddenly, local sourcing in southern Chester County just got a lot more interesting.
“First and foremost, I purchased the property as a home,” Hayne says, “but I also see is as a culinary arboretum,” defining arboretum expansively. We’re still exploring the possibilities, but I don’t expect us to be on the shelves of Whole Foods.”
Hayne, now in his 60s, has a genius for reconfiguring business models. He grew up in the small town of Ingomar, Pa., north of Pittsburgh, and studied anthropology at Lehigh University. At that time, the man whom Forbes has calculated as currently being the 773rd-richest individual on planet Earth had a decidedly left-wing bent. He and his first wife, Judy Wicks, joined the Vista program and worked with Native Alaskans before funding was cut.
Back in Ingomar, a college friend urged the couple to come to Philadelphia, where in 1970 they started a fledgling business, Free People’s Store, on Locust Street, living in back and taking baths in friends” houses. They soon split, she going on to found the famous White Dog Café, while Hayne repurposed the small student-oriented Free People’s into the Urban Outfitters empire—which also includes Anthropologie, Leifsdottir, and Terrain, the gardening and gourmet mecca near Brinton Lake. Now, Doe Run is getting a similar re-do.
But by the time this article is in print, the produce Charlesworth has been raising in her spring and summer gardens, as well as the first of the cornucopia of Holbrook’s cheeses, will have begun flowing out of Doe Run, destined at first for Hayne’s nearby Terrain.
While the timetable is still a little jumbled, Holbrook foresees the time when Doe Run Farm is dotted with new and renovated greenhouses; herds of cattle, sheep, and goats; a variety of gardens; grain fields; orchards; and most likely an upscale farm market. The latter would sell handmade cheeses, a variety of produce, and home-made culinary goodies.Doe Run will also sell to restaurants in the region.
Holbrook says that cider-making is in the works, and hops are being planted for beer. “If I can convince Dick, I would also like to see a complete butcher shop on the property to process meats,” he says.
The history of the “property,” or “properties,” is almost as interesting as the people who are now repurposing it. First, there is the 200-acre Doe Run Farm where Sir John Thouron, a plant fancier, philanthropist, and horseman, lived until 2007, when he died at 99. “There once were 18 or 19 buildings on this farm, but some were torn down because they incurred more taxes,” says Holbrook, a history buff. He says the farm was once owned by James M. Taylor, a Quaker who sheltered runaway slaves as a station on the Underground Railroad.
The other part of the new Doe Run was owned until earlier this year by Tony Young, a financial advisor now charged with swindling millions in a Ponzi scheme: “our local Bernie Madoff,” one nearby resident calls him. Young’s faux Tudor mansion on the 57-acre property was also the butt of local jokes, and Holbrook indicates that, too, will be repurposed.
A former chef, a profession he practiced for years, Holbrook fell in love with cheese production. “We hope to have hard cheeses here year-round,” he says, pointing out where the milking parlor, cheese making rooms, and cheese cellars will be situated in the emerging building.
Already the cheese-making equipment has started arriving from the Netherlands as has an expensive yogurt machine from Israel. He is now stocking the farm with “48 small ruminants—half of them sheep, half goats” and a herd of a dozen cows.
Holbrook, a tallish, friendly-but-quiet native of western Pennsylvania with a slight schoolboy slump and a five-o”clock shadow, does not plan to cheat and call his cheeses by the European originals which they may resemble. “I”m thinking about naming them after local legends,” he says.
“The owner of The Whip”—the popular tavern down the road from the farm—”told me about a guy called Sandy Flash [aka James Fitzpatrick], who was a double-agent during the Revolutionary war,” Holbrook says, warming to the subject. “They hanged him from a tree next to the tavern. A cheese named Sandy Flash? How could you resist?”
“Kristian and I are quite different in personality,” Charlesworth laughs as she works in the precisely organized three-quarter-acre spring garden she has laid out and works primarily by herself. “He’s the laziest home cook, and, being used to working in restaurants, is not great at washing dishes.” The two have been married 12 years.
With their 7-year-old daughter, Violet, off at school for the day, Charlesworth is hard at work, dressed in a pair of bib overalls and a straw hat that covers her blonde ringlets and shades her peaches-and-cream face. “Coming here was a little like coming home,” she says with a quick Southern drawl. “I went to school in Newark,” she
says, but spent much of her time in Georgia. “Being a DuPont brat”—her father was a company engineer—”was a little bit like being an army brat. We moved a lot.”
Charlesworth studied fine art and historic preservation in college and supported herself for three years as a portrait artist before joining Blackberry Farm’s design department. There, a mentor, John Coykendall, talked her into becoming a gardener, which he thought would be a better challenge for her.
“He was a Southern gardener who detested Midwestern gardening,” she says. “I learned a lot of practical things from him.”
Most of Charlesworth’s spring vegetables—peas, onions, lettuce, fava beans, and Savoy cabbages under white “hot caps”—are planted in raised rows of soil to give better drainage and control.
Meanwhile, Holbrook has been thinking about having a dovecote erected, and he has thoughts about selling Christmas geese. “This has been a low-pressure start,” he says. “We’re just getting deeper into how the property works.”