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Back to the Prairie

A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered

Foreword by Timothy Busfield

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About The Book

The New York Times bestselling author and star of Little House on the Prairie returns with a hilarious and heartfelt memoir chronicling her journey from Hollywood to a ramshackle house in the Catskills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Known for her childhood role as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the classic NBC show Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert has spent nearly her entire life in Hollywood. From Dancing with the Stars to a turn in politics, she is always on the lookout for her next project. She just had no idea that her latest one would be completely life changing.

When her husband introduces her to the wilds of rural Michigan, Melissa begins to fall back in love with nature. And when work takes them to New York, they find a rustic cottage in the Catskill Mountains to call home. But “rustic” is a generous description for the state of the house, requiring a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for the newlyweds to make habitable.

When the pandemic descends on the world, it further nudges Melissa out of the spotlight and into the woods. She trades Botox treatments for DIY projects, power lunching for gardening and raising chickens, and soon her life is rediscovered anew in her own little house in the Catskills.

Excerpt

1. Escape from New York Escape from New York
Tim found the house on Zillow in early fall 2019, though calling the structure he saw a house is generous.

He was scrolling through properties in upstate New York. The Catskills, to be specific. We were living in New York City and wanted a second home where we could escape into peace, quiet, and nature. We wanted space to think and breathe and stillness to help us slow down. We wanted to recharge and feel inspired. That kind of thinking led us to the… house.

Scrolling through Zillow is something I have done since I heard that other people do it to pass the time. Like them, I look at homes around the world. Castles, mansions, lake homes, oceanfront palaces, architectural gems, my childhood homes, tree houses, houseboats, and cool-looking structures that are served up randomly.

It’s better than doomscrolling, which is about searching for and reading the endless flow of articles that confirm the world is screwed and so, by proxy, are we. Pick your poison. There are plenty out there. Global warming, pandemics, uncompromising politicians, the end of democracy, conspiracy theories. We didn’t need to get into doomscrolling the way others did. We could turn on our favorite cable news network for all the news that was fit to panic over.

Admittedly, some of that life-is-getting-out-of-control mindset did contribute to our desire to find a place outside of the city. Not too far, though. We didn’t want to be more than two or three hours away by car in case one or both of us had to work, cracked a tooth, or craved sushi. In that respect, we were kind of like kids learning to ride a two-wheeler bike, yelling at their parents, “Don’t let go! Don’t let go!” Then, suddenly, and without realizing, we were pedaling on our own in the country with gardens, chickens, and bears, oh my!

That’s kind of the whole story in a nutshell—but not really.

The story encompasses divorce, bloodshed, Botox, an unhealthy relationship, love, pulling up roots, marriage—or I should say remarriage—blended families, snakes, rodents, growing food, roosters and hens, power tools, generators, a pandemic, wild animals, and survival, among other things. Some might say this is about a midlife crisis. I call it a midlife reassessment of priorities and my realization that real satisfaction and meaning, for me, at fifty-six years old, came from canning tomatoes and cleaning the chicken coop rather than implants and hair color and other efforts to stop time from marching across my face.

The word that comes to mind is simplification.

I’m not sure getting to the point where I am now was always simple. But maybe it was. Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe the decisions we make, even the bad ones, are bread crumbs on the path we’re supposed to follow. Maybe I was destined to hear my husband, the actor, director, and shoulder-rubber extraordinaire Timothy Busfield, look up from the Zillow listing on his computer screen and say, “I think we should investigate this place.”

At that point, Tim and I, as a couple, were relative newcomers to New York, though we had both lived there for various stretches over the years. Married for five years, we had begun our legal life together in Michigan but transplanted ourselves to Manhattan after numerous conversations that went like this:

Tim: Where do you want to go for dinner tonight?

Me: New York.

Me: What do you want to do this weekend?

Tim: Go to New York.

Tim: Should we go to the movies tonight?

Me: Sure. What’s playing in New York?

So we went to New York, a fine place for two people in our line of work, though, after four years in Michigan’s slow lane, we weren’t sure that we wanted to stay. To underscore the point, we moved into an Airbnb in Harlem. It was the lowest-level commitment available. No first month’s rent, last month’s rent, security deposit, broker’s fee, bribes to the building’s board. In other words, none of the usual welcome-to–New York expenditures. It was like we were visiting. And almost immediately I was cast in a play. When that ended, I got another play. The message was as clear as my name was on the theater marquee. We decided to stay.

We found an apartment on the Upper West Side, which turned out to be too noisy. I actually listed our upstairs neighbors’ phone number in my contacts as “Stompers.” From there, we moved to a smaller one-bedroom, one-bath in a great building that’s in an equally great location, where we still rent. It’s a block and a half from the train station at Seventy-Second, which was convenient when I had to get to the theater, or anywhere, for that matter. The building is seven stories, with only four apartments on each floor, so we don’t have a ton of neighbors. They may say the same about us: We don’t have a ton of Melissa and Tim.

Both of us did well in the city. I had my theater routine and Tim was directing and acting on a variety of TV shows, including Law & Order: SVU. We were busy, and our friends and family kept us busier. One of our favorite things to do was to send out a group text saying that we were going to the five o’clock showing of whatever movie, and everybody, including Tim’s son Willy and my son Michael, both of whom had recently moved to New York, would meet at the theater, and we would go out to dinner en masse afterward. We had several groups of people and hung out all the time. We also went to the theater and the museums. We were a fiftysomething and a sixtysomething hanging out with twenty- and thirtysomethings along with folks our own age.

It was very fun, but even in the best of circumstances the city closes in on you. There is always someone on the other side of the wall, up above, or down below. Sidewalks are crowded, subway cars can feel more like stuffy petri dishes for cultivating odd spores and germs, and everything is kind of dirty and difficult. Not that we mind or complain. Tim and I chose life in the Big Apple. We hearted New York—the good, the bad, and the parts that occasionally made us feel like we were lucky to escape with our lives.

But living there can get intense and claustrophobic, and… and loud. I have hypersensitive hearing. Actually, I have misophonia, a condition that causes certain sounds to drive me absolutely insane. Like chewing sounds, the crunching of popcorn or tortilla chips, a certain frequency of television sound coming through the wall, or the droning of voices in that same tone.

Sirens, barking dogs, vacuum cleaners—they don’t register. It’s the weird stuff that makes me want to murder or run away. I’m a freak.

Tim can’t hear too awfully well. He has hearing aids but never wears them because… because why would he want to listen to me complain about things that I hear?

But he does like to get outside in the fresh air.

And so it became important for us to have a place where we could escape.

“We need space,” Tim said.

Back in Los Angeles, where I grew up, space meant a gleaming, white, five-thousand-square-foot Cape Cod–style farmhouse with a kitchen full of stainless steel appliances, including the de rigueur Wolf range, a media room, a wine cellar, a gym, a primary suite with a lavish spa-equivalent bathroom, a pool, an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven, a massage pavilion, a tennis court, a dog-grooming station, and a two-bedroom guesthouse. Depending on the neighborhood, that kind of space could run anywhere between four and one hundred million dollars. In New York, space is shorthand for “let’s get a place in the country,” and the country is a euphemism for either “the Hamptons” or “upstate New York.” Billionaires helicopter out to Southampton, East Hampton, and Sag Harbor. Regular old millionaires look at places in the Hudson Valley, Woodstock, Beacon, or even areas as far north as Lake Placid.

Then there are the renters, like us—and that’s when Tim began scrolling on Zillow and I began aligning myself with reality. Because when we first talked about looking for a country place, I was like anyone else. I dreamed big. I pictured a beautifully furnished vintage farmhouse with carefully curated grounds including rolling green fields, orchards, gardens, and woods, ready for its Architectural Digest photo shoot. It would have a pool, a bar, and a corral for the horses. It would be move-in ready. And then I woke up.

Fortunately, when I did wake up, it was in a cozy little place called the Stickett Inn. Tim and I had searched much farther upstate, but we ended up in Barryville, an adorable country refuge named after President Andrew Jackson’s postmaster general, William T. Barry, who—thank you, Wikipedia—was the only person in the cabinet not to resign as a result of the Petticoat Affair, which was essentially a scandal about a young woman who scared the shit out of the DC establishment by speaking her mind.

I liked her a lot—and I liked this funky place with the funny name. It was owned and operated by two guys, Roswell Hamrick and Johnny Pizzolato, a set designer and an actor/fashion guru; they lived in an old refurbished church behind the inn. The Stickett had four lovely, tastefully decorated guest rooms with fun names—Soak, Eat, Drink, and Steam. They also boasted a cabin called the Rear and a cozy bar/restaurant they named the Bang Bang Bar. Apparently their arrival in the area had irked some of the more small-minded folks there. What quicker way to ruin a two-hundred-year tradition of discrimination than letting two gay guys move in, right?

It was Johnny’s mother who said, “Why don’t you name the place Stickett Inn?” Which they did—and it stuck!

By the time we stayed there, Roswell had become president of the chamber of commerce and both of them were entrenched in the community. They took us under their wings, told us where to go for dinner, where to shop, and which towns to explore, and have consequently become our closest friends up here. We went up to the Stickett regularly, and that pocket of Sullivan County felt right. When we found our Realtor, Jill Steingart, we told her where we wanted to look and the kind of place we were looking for.

This was going to be the first home that Tim and I had owned together, and the financial reality, we explained, was nonnegotiable. We were going to have to do most of any work that needed to be done ourselves. If it was beyond our pay grade or dangerous, we would, of course, hire people. Otherwise, we were strictly DIY. Jill understood, and soon we made an offer on a tiny farmhouse in Barryville.

The first place we saw was a white clapboard farmhouse dating back to the 1800s, very Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Rocky Ridge Farm, on multiple acres and next to a national forest, so no development would ever take place next to us. And the price was right—116,000 dollars.

It was supposed to be a short sale.

After months of radio silence, it turned out to be a no sale.

Jill took us around and showed us more places that she liked and we didn’t. They were always too—too expensive, too together, or too new.

“You could bring people in with chains and they can age the wood paneling,” she said. “You can make new look old.”

I scratched my head.

“Why would I want to age a new house when I can restore an old one?” I said.

“We have to find the old one,” she said.

“I think we already did,” I said, and I gave her the details of the place Tim had found on Zillow.

From the pictures he showed me, I thought it looked interesting. That’s a horribly nondescript word, a cop-out in most cases, but I meant it in the truest sense. I was interested. The place was somewhere between a house and a camp in the woods, a mishmash of styles with a stucco exterior and a shake roof. It was sort of cute. When I shuttled through the photos, I got the sense that it needed a hug as much as it did a remodel. The most attractive feature was the land. It was on fourteen wooded acres, and from what I could tell, the neighbors were far enough away that the place struck us as a hidden gem, a frog that was waiting to turn into a princess if only the right people gave it a kiss.

It was October 2017, and we called Jill, reserved a room at the Stickett Inn, and drove to the property. The leaves were a sumptuous canvas of oranges, reds, and yellows. We drove deep into the countryside, which was dense with woods. It was like diving into a brochure inviting people to escape their humdrum everyday lives into the fiery exhilaration of the fall colors. Then we found the address and turned into the little circular driveway. My first impression was better than Jill’s. Our Realtor simply said, “Huh, this is the house you like?”

I think she meant it as a statement, but it came out as a question.

I said, “I like the property a lot.”

I might as well have said it had a good personality.

“Next door is thirty-five acres,” said Jill, who had done her homework. “The owner just hunts there. Across the street is a summer camp that at this point seems mostly unused other than the occasional caretaker.”

“So we won’t see anyone unless we want to,” I said.

“Exactly.”

The property was spectacular. Both Tim and I smiled at each other as we looked in all directions and took in the space that had inspired this endeavor. The woods were thick and full of life and nourishment for the soul. There was a fairly extensive lawn and wild hydrangeas everywhere. The air was chilled and clean. It was quiet. Birds squawked, telling each other there were newbies in the driveway. I remembered once reading in Thoreau’s journal that he came to the woods like “a hungry man to a crust of bread.” I saw that in Tim’s eyes. I was more like a woman arriving at a restorative yoga class.

The house was less impressive.

“The plants look like they do in the picture,” I said gamely as we stared at the exterior.

A lot of it was falling apart. The roof looked bad, and the stucco walls were chipped and peeling off in places. Jill waited silently, reminding me of a gallery owner who can’t believe two people like the worst painting on display but doesn’t want to interrupt a potential sale.

“It’s not dilapidated,” I said.

“It needs work,” Tim said.

“Love and care,” I added.

“It’s not without charm,” Tim said. “Let’s look inside.”

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Melissa Gilbert starred as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the hit NBC television show Little House on the Prairie. She has starred in numerous movies and plays and served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. She is the author of Prairie TaleDaisy and JosephineMy Prairie Cookbook, and Back to the Prairie. She resides in the Catskills and New York City with her husband, Timothy Busfield.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (June 6, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982177195

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