Melissa Gilbert and Tim Busfield, on their upstate escape


Almost immediately after Melissa Gilbert and Tim Busfield married in 2013 — the third time for the two of them — they traded the glitz and bustle of Los Angeles for the low-key charms of small-town life in Mr. Busfield.

The experience was a tonic, certainly, but a dose of five years was enough. In 2018, Ms Gilbert, who became a household name aged 10 as the star of the long-running series ‘Little House on the Prairie’, and Mr Busfield, who is best known for his role in ‘ The West Wing” and its Emmy-winning turn on “Thirtysomething,” have moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Ms Gilbert, now 58, was quickly cast in ‘The Dead, 1904’, an immersive theatrical adaptation of James Joyce’s short story. Mr Busfield, now 64, who is also a director, has found work on TV shows like ‘Law & Order: SVU’.

A gainful job was all well and good, but Mr. Busfield, in particular, felt a lack in the fresh air department. As Ms. Gilbert writes in her new memoir, “Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, a Life Rediscovered”, “it became important to us to have a place where we could escape”.

A Zillow search led them to Highland Lake, NY, a point on the map in Sullivan County.

occupations: She is an actress and writer; he is an actor and director.

Big Leap of Faith on the Prairie: “It’s one of those places where most people would say, ‘Are you nuts?’ if you’ve expressed interest in buying it,” Ms. Gilbert said. But Tim and I are the best kind of lunatics. We are hopeful visionaries. We knew this house would shelter us well and serve us well.

What the couple found in their price range — a small structure with drab half-timbering, peeling stucco and an interior stuffed with the previous owner’s trash — wasn’t pretty. But despite the mice and mold and mildew (and that horrible smell), there was potential.

The drop ceiling in the kitchen hid a cathedral ceiling. The loft would prove to be an ideal music room. The living room had pine paneling and a fireplace. And the 14 wooded acres that came with the dilapidated house were lovely.

“As I stared at one of the rotting deer heads on the wall, a life of therapy began and I thought I could do something here,” Ms Gilbert wrote in ‘Back to the Prairie’. “I just had to look past the shit.”

The couple closed the property in January 2019, dubbed it “the cabbage,” an amalgamation of “cabin” and “cottage,” and began drawing up renovation and design plans.

Money was a problem. A dynamic spirit was – and is – the motto. “You see she’s wearing overalls,” Mr Busfield said with an affectionate look at his wife. “She’ll have a hammer hanging from one of those pockets in half an hour.”

Just one example (or maybe two): after a protracted search, the couple found a sofa that was perfect in every way except the color (an unfortunate shade of asphalt gray), so Ms Gilbert took a chance on burgundy slipcovers she found online, then added other fabrics and cushions to create a whole new piece of furniture. She refreshed a loveseat in the same way, in this case with a burgundy floral pattern and plaid ruffle. For the record, she also assembled a wind-powered ceiling fan and a table saw.

But the couple called in the pros when needed – like in the kitchen, where demolition, plumbing and rewiring were involved. They made a virtue of the tight budget, conjuring up a space that looks deliciously like a retro restaurant.

The floating shelves were constructed with recycled bowling wood and painted bright red, a look the couple loved. Ms. Gilbert added interest to the pre-made cabinets by cutting their sides with recipes from old magazines. A large slice of corrugated iron roofing has been sprayed with vinegar to give it a nicely crumpled look, then mounted on a wall to hold the couple’s collection of cast iron kitchen utensils. Chrome and red vinyl chairs ring the farmhouse table. Atop the cabinets are Donald Duck and Olive Oyl figurines, an old Lincoln Logs set, and a vintage Coca-Cola syrup bottle, among other knick-knacks.

It is the first time, Ms Gilbert said, that she has decorated a home with the full participation of a partner. Her default in previous homes and previous marriages was “to do everything myself and say ‘Ta-da!’ It’s here.'”

This did not sit well with Mr. Busfield: “I would come into the house where we were and start doing things, and he would say, ‘Wait a minute. Hi I’m here.'”

They were on the same page about creating and fitting out what they call the Woodstock Room – the house is a 20-minute drive from the site of the legendary 1969 rock concert. A lava lamp is on a desk in the corner, and the wall decor includes a 1960s-themed puzzle that the couple assembled, sealed and framed, as well as a poster advertising a The Who concert.

“The room was designed with Pete Townshend in mind,” Mr Busfield said, referring to the band’s co-founder. “We continue to hope that he will one day come and go.”

The couple also agreed on a photo wall of family and friends in the living room. “We have a Polaroid camera that we keep here, and when someone comes to visit or stays, we take pictures and add them to the wall,” Ms Gilbert said.

Seeing eye to eye is so satisfying. Marital harmony is such a beautiful thing. So maybe now is not the time to bring up the brown leather recliner. Mr. Busfield wanted it and got it. Ms Gilbert was horrified, she said, and didn’t mince words. She told her husband that the chair was awful, that it was “a grandfather’s chair”. The long and the short: she didn’t want a chair in the house.

So guess who won’t budge from the chair now?

“I fell in love with it,” Ms Gilbert said, ashamed. “I knit in it. I sleep in it.

“I’ve been on it maybe twice in the last year and a half,” Mr Busfield said.

Raised beds for a herb and vegetable garden and a chicken coop were added during the Covid lockdown in 2020. Seven hens are currently in residence.

Last summer, the couple installed new windows and painted the exterior of the house a soft yellow. Shutters were installed earlier this spring and climbing roses were planted. There are plans for homemade planters this summer.

A second bathroom would also be nice (although there is a functional outhouse and a few bathrooms in the RV the couple bought to house guests).

“In my opinion, a house is never finished,” Ms. Gilbert said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

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