By Mary Esch, Associated Press
SHARON SPRINGS, N.Y. – It sounds like the breathless plot of a zany sitcom: Manhattan adman who moonlights as a drag queen trades high heels for barn boots to raise goats and purple tomatoes with his life partner, a doctor who moved from geriatric practice to “The Martha Stewart Show” before chucking the city life for a new career on the farm.
The story of Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge is chronicled in a cable TV show, “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” on Planet Green. But it’s a reality show rather than a gay “Green Acres.” The men also share their exurbanite adventures in a blog and in Kilmer-Purcell’s hilarious book, “The Bucolic Plague,” a follow-up to his memoir about his nightclub career as Aqua, a drag queen who used live goldfish in the glass-globe breasts of her costumes.
The cast of characters includes other residents of tiny Sharon Springs, a former spa in farm country 43 miles west of Albany. There’s Doug Plummer, described by Kilmer-Purcell as “Paul Bunyan in a kilt,” proprietor of the restored American Hotel along with his partner Garth. And Farmer John, who raises goats with some help from his partner, Jason, who builds nursery pens for the kids and wooden milking stands for the dairy. And there are the local weaver, soapmaker, blacksmith and woodworker whose wares are sold by the company launched by the fledgling farmers.
It all started in October 2006 when Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell, together since 2000, rented a car in New York City and drove off for their annual apple-picking weekend. They ended up in Sharon Springs, 195 miles north of the city, and were charmed.
Watch a Sneak Peek of “The Fabulous Beekman Boys:”
“We thought this was the greatest place, this ghost town that refuses to die,” said Kilmer-Purcell, 41.
Outside the village, they happened upon a white Georgian-Federal style mansion with Palladian windows, a wraparound porch and a state historical marker saying it had been built in 1802 by William Beekman, a judge and businessman. They thought it was a museum, so they pulled in the gravel drive. There were a red barn, overgrown gardens, towering oak trees — and a “for sale” sign.
Thus began Beekman 1802, the farm and lifestyle business launched by the partners after they scraped together $950,000 to buy the mansion, which had been restored to its original grandeur in a multimillion-dollar makeover by the last owners in the mid-1990s. The business includes a website designed by Kilmer-Purcell, where the men blog about life on the 60-acre farm, communicate with fans and sell soap, cheese and caramel sauce made from the farm’s goat milk and fine handicrafts made by local artisans.
The farm was originally intended to be a weekend getaway, but that changed after Wall Street tanked.
“Like a lot of people, we both lost our jobs in 2008,” said the trim, bearded and bespectacled Kilmer-Purcell, leaning on the massive brick hearth in the farm’s kitchen. “We made a pact: Whoever found a new job first would take it, and the other would move to the farm and try to make it into a profitable business.” He was hired by a Manhattan ad agency, Ridge moved north, and the two have spent weekends together at the farm ever since.
Sharon Springs, population about 550, was a fashionable spa in the 19th century where the Vanderbilts and other high-society folks came to “take the waters” at mineral springs and Oscar Wilde gave porch-side readings at the American Hotel.
The village, nestled in gently rolling countryside that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, faded as a spa but enjoyed a rebirth as a vacation spot for Jewish families during the heyday of the nearby Catskills Borscht Belt. Its latest resurgence is fueled by affluent second-homers and Manhattanites who left the city after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Lauren Michalchyshyn, president of Discovery Channel’s Planet Green network, signed up for emails on the Beekman 1802 website and was moved to suggest a reality show following the farm’s progress. “The Fabulous Beekman Boys” is currently in its second season, airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
Episodes have featured Ridge planning out a raised-bed vegetable garden, goats giving birth, Kilmer-Purcell grumbling because Ridge missed his book-signing in Manhattan and Ridge painting the walls of the tiny shop they opened in town.
“People who watch the show send us emails and say we can’t possibly do everything we’re doing. They think we have a legion of helpers behind the scenes, like Martha Stewart,” Ridge said. “We don’t. The truth is that we’re working 18- to 20-hour days. I’m hand-wrapping the soaps at the shop and trying to get things done around the farm.”
Ridge, 37, slender and boyish with a soft North Carolina accent, graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in his home state, did postgraduate training in geriatrics at Columbia, then got an MBA from New York University and went to work for Martha Stewart as vice president for healthy living for four years. He tried medical practice but soon realized the emotional toll was too draining for him.
His eloquent blog on Beekman1802.com suggests that Ridge has found his calling among the goats, chickens, pigs and vegetables.
The farm produces 80 percent of what is consumed there, Ridge said. He built the organic garden, which has 110 varieties of heirloom vegetables in 52, 4-by-6-foot raised beds surrounded by a hand-stacked stone wall crafted by a local stonemason. The vegetables include purple carrots, snowball tomatoes and pale yellow cucumbers.
New York City, with its restaurants, celebrity chefs and upscale groceries, provides an avid marketplace for the farm’s products. Ridge loads two big picnic coolers with goat cheese and takes it by Amtrak to Manhattan, then rolls it down the city sidewalks to customers that include Fairway, Whole Foods and Zabar’s.
Ridge said 22 people in the community derive income from the farm business.
John Hall, aka Farmer John, owns the herd of 127 goats in the Beekman barn, where there were 100 kids on a recent weekend and more on the way.
“The philosophy of the company has always been, We will only be successful if we can make as many people in the community successful as well. We’re really committed to that,” Ridge said. “That’s why we’ve worked to start these festivals in the village.”
Town of Sharon Supervisor Sandra Manko said the farmers and their TV show have given a boost to local shops, galleries, restaurants and lodgings and have attracted new businesses and residents. “What’s amazed me is that even through the poor economy, these businesses have done well.”
“The two real estate businesses in town have been extremely busy,” Manko said. “People see the TV show and are inspired to do the same thing. They’re looking for small farms to buy.”
About 500 people showed up for the village’s annual harvest festival three years ago. Last year, more than 5,000 came after seeing the previous festival on the TV show, Manko said.
“People say Sharon Springs is so lucky we came here, we changed the town,” Kilmer-Purcell said. “But we came here because there were already people working to refurbish the old hotels and get businesses going. That’s what attracted us here.”
There are economically depressed small towns all across the countryside where people are mired in the sense that nothing’s ever going to change, Ridge said. “What we brought, if anything, was just someone to point out, ‘Wow, look what you’ve got here. It’s beautiful. What can we make of it?’”
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