Mind Your Manors

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Photography by Alec Hemer

Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge were not entirely naïve when they spent more than they could afford to buy Beekman Mansion, a large and storied country house in 60 acres of farmland near Sharon Springs, a down-at-heel spa town 190 miles north of New York City. They knew it was a risky investment, but this was the summer of 2007, and plenty of smart people were throwing around wild sums of money to realize their dreams without anticipating how soon the sky would come crashing down. A little more than a year later, Kilmer-Purcell’s advertising agency was in freefall, and Ridge’s department at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was axed as the economy nosedived into recession. All of a sudden, the prospect of weekends milking goats and tending rhubarb lost much of its charm.

“We could have walked away at any time and declared bankruptcy,” says Kilmer-Purcell, a one-time drag queen by the name of Aqua, whose 2006 memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days, is a master class of confessional storytelling. But the couple persevered, in part because they’d grown close to the local community, which improbably enough reciprocated. Early on, the two men had forged links with local blacksmiths, woodworkers, even a weaver who operated an antique loom. As the recession kicked in, they were busy helping the community find customers by reinventing Beekman as an heirloom brand that epitomized the best of American craftsmanship.

“Sharon Springs pulled us in the very first time we drove through,” says Ridge, who spent much of the recession toiling away at the farm while Kilmer-Purcell helped pay the bills by accepting an advertising job back in New York. “We decided that whichever one of us got a job first would go back to the city, but the other would commit to making this farm pay for itself,” recalls Kilmer-Purcell. “We’d practically grown up together, and all of a sudden we were living apart. And of course, in my mind, Brent was living the dream that belonged to both of us before everything went wrong.”

SLIDESHOW: See the Beekman Mansion Up Close

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For the two men, who have been together 13 years and plan to marry this summer, it was a grueling period, but also a baptism of fire. Faced with no alternative, they had to make the farm work. When TV production company World of Wonder approached them to pitch a reality show charting their experience, the couple agreed, with one caveat. “We said, ‘You can make Brent and I look bad, but you can’t make fun of the town,’ ” recalls Kilmer-Purcell. “And that turned out to be a perfect recipe because what the viewers loved was seeing a small town working together, getting over differences, and saving itself. And I don’t think that’s what the network planned -- what the network planned was two gay guys falling over in manure.”

For Ridge, the show was also a way to connect their experience to the broader community. “What made our story so compelling and timely,” he says, “was that so many people were finding themselves in the same situation, having to re-evaluate and reinvent themselves, and so people tapped into what we were going through because they were living it themselves.” The message of their show, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, which aired on Planet Green and later the Cooking Channel, was that salvation could be found in hard work and creativity. (The duo received much wider exposure after competing in -- and ultimately winning -- CBS’s The Amazing Race last December, another example of perseverance under fire.) The apprentice farmers realized they’d made a breakthrough when they began to receive mail from other farmers asking for advice. “It was like the circle was complete,” says Kilmer-Purcell. “We researched so many websites to learn how to raise pigs and chickens, so to have real farmers come to us and say, ‘I need to save my farm. What do I do?’ was when we knew we had cracked it.”

SLIDESHOW: See the Beekman Mansion Up Close

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The Beekman Mansion in Winter

Today, Beekman 1802 is a kind of umbrella brand for regional craftsmanship -- 22 local artisans are represented on their website and at their Sharon Springs mercantile store (purchased with their Amazing Race winnings). A key part of their philosophy is that in a throwaway society there’s infinite reward in creating things that are sustainable and built to last -- much like their home. “This house has been here for 212 years, for 60 years of which it was completely abandoned -- and it’s still standing,” says Ridge. “I think about houses that are built today that would never stand for 200 years, and aren’t even designed with that in mind.” This respect for the history of their home has influenced their design philosophy. Or, as Kilmer-Purcell puts it, “When someone gives you a wooden bowl that they hand-carved from a tree that was on your property, it becomes the centerpiece of your room.”

For Ridge, the key is to avoid turning their home into a museum. “One of the things we always love about going into old homes is seeing a detail or a piece of furniture that was created just for that house,” he says. “So we’ve designed a lot of fixtures ourselves with the hope they’ll still be in the house a hundred years from now.”

Although this model of fine country living may not appear, at first glance, to have a broader political subtext, there is something empowering about the example Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge provide of two gay men not simply engaged in their rural community, but standing at the very center of it. “Just by being ourselves and being visible without taking any sort of stance publicly is a much better form of activism for us than to position ourselves as America’s gay couple,” says Kilmer-Purcell, who believes it’s time to rethink our perception of the American heartland as a bastion of prejudice. “Of course homophobia exists, but there’s another side -- we were just in Nebraska [as headliners at the Omaha Home & Garden Expo], and the number 1 question we got asked was, ‘When are you getting married?’ ”

Just one more question the fabulous Beekman Boys are now qualified to answer.

SLIDESHOW: See the Beekman Mansion Up Close

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