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The Valatie Farmhouse of Jamie Cat Callan

A writer, a gentleman farmer, and their 19th-century farmhouse in Valatie

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Jamie Cat Callan and Bill Thompson on their Valatie farm. The 19th-century federalist house features the original clapboard siding, and gabled roof with cornices. The original brick chimney and plain window surrounds are also classic features of the period. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Jamie Cat Callan and Bill Thompson on their Valatie farm. The 19th-century federalist house features the original clapboard siding, and gabled roof with cornices. The original brick chimney and plain window surrounds are also classic features of the period.

Parisian Charm School author Jamie Cat Callan has cultivated charm in a historic home: a Valatie farmhouse.

There's a certain storyline that goes like this: A big city heroine, with a fast-paced career filled with wealth and success, feels her life has lost its charm. So she chucks it all away, and, in an attempt to recapture simplicity, pursues happiness in some bucolic, Old World setting. In some stories, the protagonist finds herself in Tuscany, in others on a Greek island, and in many it's a tiny French village where she goes to reclaim her joie de vivre. Whatever the setting, there's always a lovely old farmhouse, rich with history but often in need of restoration; there's a garden that needs tending; and there's a historic village where life is slow and the locals may be quirky, but always have something to teach. Somewhere in the course of the story the hero slows down. Somewhere along the way of restoring the old farmhouse, rediscovering the earth, and lingering over good meals shared with new friends, the hero gives up her endless pursuit of happiness, and pauses long enough to savor the moment.

The twist on this tale, for author Jamie Cat Callan and her husband Dr. Bill Thompson, was that the life of simple pleasures and the lovely, old farmhouse in the historic village with lots of character wasn't found abroad, but right in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Valatie. It wasn't just a garden that needed tending, but also an orchard, hay fields, and a barn. And instead of escaping to the Old World, they discovered some of the Old World's secrets and brought them back to the States—to share with friends, readers, and now neighbors who stop by their booth at the Valatie farmers' market.

Thompson began life as a musician and eventually became a geologist studying the effects of climate change on the oceans. The home didn’t need many improvements when the couple moved in three years ago. However, they added a geothermal heating system to help warm and cool the house. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Thompson began life as a musician and eventually became a geologist studying the effects of climate change on the oceans. The home didn’t need many improvements when the couple moved in three years ago. However, they added a geothermal heating system to help warm and cool the house.

American Sweethearts

Both Connecticut natives, Callan and Thompson left the countryside years ago to pursue their respective career paths. Thompson began as a musician and music store owner and then became a geologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. Callan, a graduate of Bard College, has enjoyed a successful writing and teaching career for over 35 years. She started out in Manhattan writing "color stories" for the ad world and then published her first young adult novel, Over the Hill at 14 (1982). It was a success she could build on, and, after publishing two more young adult novels, she made her way to Hollywood, where she worked as a script reader for Paramount Pictures and then became an assistant to Meg Ryan during the actress's reign as "America's Sweetheart." ("She is actually adorable and very, very kind," Callan reveals.)

It was the Northridge earthquake that sent Callan and her daughter back to the firmer shores of New England, where she began a job teaching creative writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. (It's also where she met Thompson—a romantic tale featured in a 2006 New York Times "Modern Love" column.) The relocation also spurred a deeper investigation into Callan's French heritage—particularly the feminine side of French culture and specifically the story—and style—of her French grandmother. "For a long time, I was very much an American and I was out of balance," Callan explains. "I would do everything to extreme—buy more stuff than I needed because it was cheap. I wanted more and more and more and it had to be fast, but it was never quite enough." Callan went searching for a simpler, more meaningful way of life. This quest led her to her grandmother's homeland, France where she returned on multiple occasions, exploring villages and cities and interviewing French women from all walks of life recording their take on French culture and social history.

Callan has written four books exploring and explaining French secrets for happiness. “We’ve lost the idea of charm in America. I think we could be a bit more old-fashioned and think about ‘What is polite?’ and ‘What is charming?’ when we interact. The well-received series has been translated into multiple languages. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Callan has written four books exploring and explaining French secrets for happiness. “We’ve lost the idea of charm in America. I think we could be a bit more old-fashioned and think about ‘What is polite?’ and ‘What is charming?’ when we interact. The well-received series has been translated into multiple languages. 

French Kisses

She found herself in the 11th-century French village of Auvillar, in the south of Bordeaux, where she was granted a month-long residency. The slower pace of Auvillar and the time to immerse herself in small town French life revealed an important value that Callan believes we in America have lost as a culture: savoring simple, ordinary moments. "We have this pursuit of happiness," Callan explains, "But the French don't have that. Why does someone have to go chase after happiness? It's right there in front of you." This revelation, and the friendships she'd made over her many travels, lead to the first in Callan's series of best-selling books exploring the French life-style, French Women Don't Sleep Alone (2009). It was so successful she went on to write three more books, the most recent—Parisian Charm School—was published in December. It's her deepest dive into French philosophy and culture yet. "I feel like I got to the core—it's really about knowing who you are, and that begins with reading and appreciation for the intellect, then being aware of the world you live in," Callan explains.

After the series' success, Callan decided to stop just writing about the Francophile philosophy of happiness and actually live it, here in the States. Thompson was all in—they both wanted a return to the simpler country lifestyle they'd enjoyed as children in Connecticut, but the Connecticut they'd loved as children had become too suburban. They began searching the wider East Coast for a rustic farmhouse with some land, but both were attracted to the Hudson Valley, which Callan knew well from her days at Bard. They loved the area's bucolic landscape and its strong ties to arts and culture. They came across the farm in Valatie in 2015. Like many charming farmhouses, the home had a long, rich history. The Federalist-style main house first appeared in public records in 1856, but the couple suspects the property actually dates back to the 1820s. Once part of the much larger estate, the 50 acres include barns, a hay loft, corn crib, a granary, and a smoke house, as well as a Greek Revival carriage house across the road. At one time the 3,200-square-foot home had even been split for two families, with an extra kitchen added in the rear, southeast wing of the house. The farm's most recent incarnation was as the center of a large homeschooling consortium with small classes and learning spaces throughout the house and barns. "We could feel the joy when we walked in," recalls Callan. "The floors quivered."

A high back chair is a favorite of the couple’s two cats. After teaching writing for over thirty years, Callan published The Writer’s Toolkit. “Our personality comes out in the pen,” she explains. “The right word or the right phrase can bring order to the chaos.” - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • A high back chair is a favorite of the couple’s two cats. After teaching writing for over thirty years, Callan published The Writer’s Toolkit. “Our personality comes out in the pen,” she explains. “The right word or the right phrase can bring order to the chaos.”

La Belle Farm

Although the farmhouse was romantic and rambling, it didn't need too much restoration. The three-bedroom, three-bath home had been well preserved by previous owners. Eight foot ceilings throughout the house featured ornate crown molding and wainscoted walls. It also retained the original wide-plank heart pine floors, which stretch through both stories. "The floors are really what made us fall in love with the place," says Callan. "You can't get floors like this anymore."

Downstairs, the original entrance leads to a long hallway with doors on either side; one leads to a cheery parlor and the other to a formal dining room, both with working fireplaces. However, the couple and their guests more often enter the home through the kitchen door—it's become the heart of their newly cultivated farm-to-table lives. Updated in the 1980s, the space includes a large, V-shaped island and the appropriate accoutrement for a modern chef. Another fireplace, this one closed, is hung with drying garlic and herbs. At the back of the house, a covered porch was converted into a solarium and the former second kitchen is now Callan's office, filled with books, a long desk, and notes, as well as prototypes for her upcoming projects.

Upstairs, the master bedroom includes a fireplace and an en suite bathroom. The two additional bedrooms are saved for guests, with one room especially outfitted for the couple's grandchildren. It's also an homage to Callan's French grandmother, who worked in the family vaudeville act, playing music and sewing costumes. A rack of colorful clothing hangs along one wall, and Callan converted her grandmother's original sewing table into a desk for her grandchildren.

The home’s living room features an original working fireplace with an ornately carved mantle. The room’s paneled walls and detailed crown molding add further appeal. “The house has a lot of charm but no level surfaces,” says Thompson. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • The home’s living room features an original working fireplace with an ornately carved mantle. The room’s paneled walls and detailed crown molding add further appeal. “The house has a lot of charm but no level surfaces,” says Thompson.

It's the surrounding 50 acres of gardens, orchards, and fields that have really given both Callan and Thompson the chance at that life of simple happiness espoused in her books. "It's the classic New England, three barn set-up," explains Thompson, describing the large red barns at the edge of the property where the couple keep chickens and turkeys and have an adjacent fenced garden for vegetables and herbs. As a "gentleman farmer," Thompson has enjoyed working with the seasons and says the slow process of nurturing seedlings has reconnected him with the cycles of nature. He begins with planting seeds in early spring in the solarium and then hardens the seedlings right outside on the porch. By summer, the garden is in full bloom and the couple sell part of their harvest at the Valatie farmers market on Saturdays. (Thompson also ferments his own hard cider from their apple orchards.)

However, plenty of the farm's bounty is set aside for Callan and Thompson to enjoy themselves or share with friends. This, more than anything, Callan discovered, is the crucial ingredient for a life well-lived. "There's an old French saying," she explains, "'The sweetest happiness is the one that we share.'"

“It’s a wonderful kitchen for entertaining,” explains Callan. “Bill is an amazing cook and it’s enjoyable to watch him when he cooks, he’s a little theatrical.” - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • “It’s a wonderful kitchen for entertaining,” explains Callan. “Bill is an amazing cook and it’s enjoyable to watch him when he cooks, he’s a little theatrical.”
The property’s three red barns are the center of the farm’s operations. The couple keep turkeys and chickens and grow a variety of herbs and vegetables as well as fruit in an adjacent orchard. “You are more attached to your food if it’s coming from your own efforts,” Thompson explains. “You really appreciate it. You can’t gobble anything down because you know how much work went into it.” - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • The property’s three red barns are the center of the farm’s operations. The couple keep turkeys and chickens and grow a variety of herbs and vegetables as well as fruit in an adjacent orchard. “You are more attached to your food if it’s coming from your own efforts,” Thompson explains. “You really appreciate it. You can’t gobble anything down because you know how much work went into it.”
The home’s decor is influenced by Callan’s time in France. Paint by number pictures of Parisian street scenes line one wall. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • The home’s decor is influenced by Callan’s time in France. Paint by number pictures of Parisian street scenes line one wall.

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