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HUSTLE, VA. —On his first Halloween at Rock Spring Farm, Randy Silvers sat in the bed of his blue Chevrolet pickup, surveying the open pastures. Suddenly, he noticed a yellow light twinkling in the night sky.
Faint at first, the blip grew brighter. When it began moving in tight circles amid the constellations, Silvers grew tense.
“I thought, ‘Oh wow,’ ” he said.
It turned out to be a distant helicopter. But in the eerie solitude of a farm “in the middle of nowhere,” the mind can start racing.
Silvers has called the 35-acre horse farm, a two-hour drive south of Washington, home for nearly 20 years. It dates to the 18th century, and it was nearly barren when he took it over. Now it boasts a three-story, four-bedroom home, a two-bedroom cottage, a five-stall barn and an air-conditioned woodworking shop. That is in addition to more than two miles of horse trails, acres upon acres of loamy soil and an endless patchwork of mature hardwood trees bordered by natural streams.
And Silvers and his wife, Carolyn Berry, have decided to give it up.
“It’s his dream,” Berry said of the property. “It’s like he’s living his dream. And it’s sad, but his dream needs to morph into another dream.”
Silvers, 64, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last year, which has made upkeep of the farm difficult at times. A few minutes of weeding on a recent Saturday evening left him sore the next morning. And lately, he said, he is unable to swing a hammer for more than five minutes.
Silvers and Berry have day jobs — he is a construction foreman; she is a director of a tutoring facility. And they cherish their life of solitude on the farm. It’s where they like to drive their horses — Byron, Belle and Eeyore — through miles of trails in one of the many antique carriages Silvers has restored. So they want to find someone who will cherish it just as much. But instead of selling the farm, they are looking for people who can show them what they could bring to it.
And all anyone needs is a thousand words and $200 to convince them.
Treasure trove of memories
It would be easy to miss the town of Hustle, about 35 miles southeast of Fredericksburg. There’s a country store and a day-care center, the only businesses in town, the couple said. To get to Rock Spring Farm, visitors — of which there are almost none — need to head a little more than a mile down narrow, tree-lined, Pilkington Road and look for a mailbox shaped like a horse, with eyes and ears and two stubby legs kicking out toward the road.
“One night a car pulled up in the driveway and I thought we had company,” Silvers said. “And I got all excited because we never have company, but then it turned around and went the other way.”
Silvers grew up on a 50-acre farm in York County, Va., and he cherished it. But when he was 16, his father suffered a fatal heart attack and his mother was forced to sell. Later he would settle in Gloucester County with his first wife, Margie. They lived there about 10 years.
The couple moved to the farm in 1995. Silvers spent two decades shaping it. Now it is a treasure trove of memories. Margie died of breast cancer in 2008, and her ashes are buried on the land. A set of ceramic pigs she placed throughout the yard remains.
“This is exactly what I’ve always wanted,” Silvers said of the farm.
Farm life, however, is not easy. The daily and weekly log of chores — weeding, cutting the 10 acres of grass, and every so often reattaching boards to a wooden fence on which one of their three horses, Belle, 30, likes to scratch her behind — have become too much.
But persuading Silvers to leave was a tall order, Berry said. Why leave behind an idyllic home on a vast tract of land, with horses and miles of trails and barns built up from rubble?
“He was adamant that he was not going to sell,” she said.
So, she researched other options, eventually landing on an essay contest.
“At first, he dismissed it,” she said. “I don’t know if he even read my e-mail.”
But she kept pushing the idea, and he began warming up to retirement — and leaving the farm.
“I immediately launched the site so he couldn’t change his mind,” Berry said of the Web site she created to receive applications.
Berry said she was inspired by an essay contest for the Center Lovell Inn in Maine, a bed and breakfast that was won for $100 in 1993 by a woman named Janice Sage. Sage wrote a 250-word essay that demonstrated her culinary and hospitality savvy, and her ability to care for the inn. She recently decided to retire and give the inn away by holding another essay contest. She netted $906,875.
A few people have raised questions about the legality of giving away homes through a raffle — especially when the owners can pull in a significant amount of money. Under Virginia law, the essay contest for Rock Spring Farm, details of which can be found at rockspringfarm.org, doesn’t qualify as charitable gaming, said Michael Menefee, program manager of the state Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs. Essex County Commonwealth’s Attorney Vince Donoghue said this past week that “the matter is under review.”
But, he added, he isn’t treating the issue as if the family has malicious intentions.
“This is a nice family just trying to give away a house and pay off the mortgage,” Donoghue said.
Essays for the farm must be postmarked by Oct. 1. After reviewing them, the couple will select 25 finalists and pass the essays along to a panel of three judges — an educator, a hobby farmer and a horse enthusiast — who will select a winner Nov. 26. They’re hoping to receive 5,000 essays, for a total of $1 million.
“The opening paragraph has to grab you,” Berry said. “It has to say ‘read me.’ No spelling, writing, grammar mistakes. And they have to spell out how they’ll take care of the farm.”
If the couple doesn’t receive the anticipated number of essays (or something close to it), the couple will list the property, valued at $600,000.
“In that case, we would return all the money,” Berry said.
‘That’s the white noise’
During a recent Sunday stroll along one of the farm’s hilly trails, Berry paused in her tracks.
“Listen to the wind.”
A light breeze rustles the leaves, and a melody of pecking and chirping becomes audible. At dusk, the crickets join the woodpeckers and whip-poor-wills. During spring, baby frogs known as peepers add their tune to the soundtrack of the forest.
“You know how people have these sound machines of white noise?” Berry said. “That’s the white noise.”
She and Silvers, both widowed, married six years ago. It’s clear she has as much affection for the place as her husband. She’ll miss hosting her students on the farm for summer fun days — complete with sack races, horse riding and bubble blowing. He’ll miss the cool confines and seclusion of his air-conditioned woodworking shop. But they have other dreams, too.
They will more than likely move to the Eastern Shore, they said, somewhere that feels more like retirement.
But first they have to find someone who will take care of their farm. So far, the dreams their entrants have for the property span a wide range: an alpaca farm, an organic garden, a wedding venue, a therapeutic horse-riding center for people with mental health issues.
Sitting at their kitchen table, the couple each drink a cool glass of water as they reminisce on their time at Rock Spring Farm. They’ll miss evenings spent sipping wine together on the front porch.
“I used to have hummingbird feeders on the front porch,” Silvers said. “Occasionally you’ll hear one just ‘bzzz’ right through, and he’s just checking to see if something’s still here.”
But they know it’s time to move on from Rock Spring.
“It’s to a point where I don’t want to end up selling the farm 10 years from now, when I’m totally unable to take care of it, and it’s run down,” Silvers said. “Now’s the time, when it’s still a happy place, to let someone else start enjoying it.”