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Feature story: Back to the Earth

A couple moves away from the city's center and revels in the country life at their 18th-century 67-acre estate.

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Now, to many locals' dismay, Cumberland is fast-changing, as suburban bedroom communities supplant the gently rolling Piedmont landscape. Increasing numbers of cars and school buses roll where horses, goats, cows and chickens once roamed.

But Vue Mont, an 18th-century 67-acre farm with dense timberland and broad emerald fields, has resisted the metro area's centrifugal force. To spend time with Catherine and Luke Fleischman, former Church Hill habitués who bought the place in 2001 and have restored its stately, Federal-era frame house, is not just to visit a preserved landmark. It's to realize that becoming one with the land is an unspoken theme for the couple. Vue Mont is not so much a retreat from 21st-century pressures as it is a vehicle whose permanence, pace and possibilities are informing a lifestyle that is one with the earth — albeit Cumberland County's red clay.

"Can I get you some lemonade?" asks Catherine, 42, on a warm summer evening while she and her visitors navigate a series of steep, but not impossible, steps descending to the English basement.

The kitchen, like almost every other space in the rambling, 1780s structure, was restored or rebuilt by the Fleischmans themselves. Here, colorful ceramic tiles enliven the floors, splash-backs and countertops. A six-burner Franklin Chef stove dominates one corner of the room. Fresh cherries sit on the counter awaiting their fate. The overall feel is less rural Virginia and more Italiano rustico with contemporary flair.

The room has surprisingly large plate-glass windows, and through these, Luke Fleischman, 43, wearing a bright red T-shirt, denim coveralls and work boots, can be glimpsed mowing the lawn.

After filling large glasses from a pitcher, Catherine, whose loose-fitting cotton sundress accentuates her graceful movement, leads the way back to the main floor. She moves through the large light-filled dining room, where boldly painted, contemporary canvases hang on walls above the easy mix of antiques and old furniture.

Fresh, loosely arranged flowers (belying that Catherine once worked as a florist) are placed throughout the three-story house. The wide pine boards on the main and upper floors are strewn with attractive, if well-traveled, rugs.

Joining his wife on the rear screened porch, Luke settles into one of the cushioned wooden chairs that have been painted white. The porch overlooks a swimming pool (which was already in place) and a brick barbecue that the Fleischmans had a local mason build. In the near distance are a chicken house and a barn that the couple constructed. Further afield, among the afternoon's long shadows, a pony named El Nino and Arnold, a horse, enjoy the last rays of sunlight.

"We found real similarities between rural life and urban life," says Catherine of the move from Church Hill to Cumberland. "In both places the community is there for you. In both places you have to know your neighbors. I hear that in the suburbs everyone is very busy and everyone is either running around or hiding out. Here in Cumberland, like in Church Hill, there is a real diversity of people." Lest anyone picture Catherine and Luke as Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert in "Green Acres," the Fleischmans are quick to point out that both their families have Cumberland connections. Catherine's parents, Carolyn and James "Penny" Baber, live just seven miles away at Doubletree Farm, a 1760s estate. Catherine and Luke first met while attending kindergarten in Goochland County, where his parents still live.

In 1983, Catherine and Luke renewed their friendship while both were students at the University of Richmond. They shared a circle of friends that preferred urban exploits in the Fan district to most on-campus activities. And they shared a passion for rigorous outdoor pursuits — hiking, skiing and cycling. "It didn't hurt that she would play football, too," Luke says.

They were married in 1986 at Doubletree Farm and soon moved into a ramshackle house on Church Hill that they purchased and began to restore.

She works as a professional whipper (a huntsman's assistant who tends hounds) and he is a high-school guidance counselor.

Although they were city dwellers, Luke says, "We always knew that we'd find a place in the country. We'd both grown up in old houses, and whenever we drove around, we'd slow down to look at houses with those solid, straight roof lines."

One day when Catherine was motoring about with her mother on Cumberland's Sports Lake Road, she spotted a deserted but sturdy farm house that was situated at the head of an unpaved road. Almost immediately Catherine began combing county records to find its owner.

"This was the opportunity," says Luke of Vue Mont, which had been vacant for 10 years. "We spent the first night there after we closed and got up the next morning and hiked the property line. It was a misty, rainy day, and we were taken with it."

"I just didn't ever think the perfect place would be seven miles from my mother," Catherine says, laughing. "But my parents are wonderful neighbors."



Among the activities mother and daughter share is membership in the Cartersville Garden Club. Late last spring, Catherine was host to a luncheon at Vue Mont for the club's final meeting of the season.

Although the Fleischmans had held numerous family get-togethers — a wedding for one of Luke's brothers, Catherine's family gathering at Easter and his family's celebrations at Thanksgiving and Christmas — the garden club fete was a sort of coming-out for all the couple's labors: rebuilding brick foundations and porches, excavating the basement and painting the exterior.

The lunch menu had a locally grown, organic theme — "environmentally friendly," Catherine says. Many dishes, including a salmon course, were supplied by club members. The Fleischmans provided asparagus, freshly baked bread and deviled eggs. "The key to the deviled eggs is that they are our eggs, brown eggs," Luke says.

It pleases him that the chickens are supplying a return on his wife's $5.94 investment. "One day Catherine came home with six chickens — three Rhode Island Reds and three Bard Rocks," Luke says. "She'd paid 99 cents apiece. But then I spent $600 to build a chicken house!"

The couple also constructed a new barn, home to twin goats, Moja and Mbili ("Translated 'one' and 'two' in Swahili," Catherine explains).

Planned projects include a greenhouse. "We already have the cinderblocks and windows, all salvage materials," Luke says.

Also in the works is a guest house. The Fleischmans own a 1760s, hand-hewn double log cabin at another site, with two rooms up and down. They plan to transfer it to Vue Mont and restore it for their guests. "We buy things no one else wants," Luke says.



Leaving the screened porch, the Fleischmans and their hound, Wonder Boy, take a loop around their frame house to inspect the summer progress of their flower and vegetable gardens.

On the edge of a patch of woods, Catherine has planted an eclectic mix of plants — chives, iris and "a very old blackberry lily that we found in the woods and has small orange blossoms," she says. Gesturing to nearby dense woodland growth, Catherine says one of her goals is to have Vue Mont planted with flora native to the area — "Not all of the invasive stuff," she explains, adding: "If only I live long enough."

In a cutting garden behind the house, buds the shape and size of pancakes announce that the sunflowers will soon blossom.

The vegetable garden is overachieving. "We've been eating out of here," Luke says as he pulls a green pea from a vine. Lettuce, cabbage, radishes, corn, and rutabaga and tomato plants also look healthy. "We love tomatoes and tomato sandwiches," he says.

"There's a thing about gardeners, and that is we're always trading plants," Catherine says of her friends and garden-club members. "Every plant reminds me of a person. There's as much emotion in where a plant came from as in an old building."

The Fleischmans end their stroll on their sweeping front lawn, where a number of green mid-20th-century metal lawn chairs are aligned, facing the vista marked by fields and a distant tree line. It's 8 p.m. and past their usual bedtime. Early risers, they'll be up at 5.

"We spend a lot of time sitting in these chairs and watching the birds," says Catherine romantically. Somehow I don't believe her.

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