Rural living: cultivating a lifestyle

It's hard not to think of the 1960s classic television show Green Acres when you meet Cullen and Ashley Crisp. Cullen's like a modern-day Eddie Albert, an educated, accomplished businessman who has always longed for the farming life. And Ashley definitely has Eva Gabor's classic beauty and urban style. Like their fictional counterparts, the Crisps are clearly in love with each other and with the life that they have created on the 165-acre property near Granbury that they call Fall Creek Farms.

Both Crisps work full-time in Fort Worth at their family business, Crisp-LaDew Fire Protection, but Fall Creek is far from a hobby farm. It's a historically significant property where the Crisps harvest and sell peaches and strawberries, raise bees for honey, and operate a small bed-and-breakfast housed in a renovated century-old cottage. In short, they've established a burgeoning agricultural enterprise. Yet modern amenities, such as a showplace home that is impeccably decorated and outfitted for this well-traveled family of four, abound.

Cullen purchased the farm at auction 11 years ago. Ashley had long known of his passion for the rural life -- the two were high-school sweethearts in Mansfield -- but the purchase was a bit of a surprise. "She did not go with me to the auction," Cullen recalls. "I drove down and looked at the property, bought it, then came home and said, 'Well, we bought a farm.'" Ashley chimes in with a laugh: "I thought the 2 acres that we lived on in Mansfield was country living!"

At the time, the property included only one house -- a single-story clapboard farmhouse owned by the Massey family, where 16 children were born and 13 were raised. The home was in a state of disrepair, but Cullen decided to salvage it. Working from a photograph of the home taken in 1895 (with the Massey family posing stone-faced on the front porch), he began the slow process of renovation. "It took me one year to redo the house, working on weekends," he says. "The roof was so steep, I nearly fell off three times."

Inside, Cullen found a rich trove of artifacts from life in simpler times, such as Imperial Sugar sacks that had been stapled to the walls for insulation. Beneath the shag carpet, he discovered layers of decades-old magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal and Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogs from the 1930s through the 1950s, which had been used as padding. "I got down to the original wood flooring, where the traffic patterns of the home told the story of the family's daily lives," he says.

With input from Massey descendants, who often stopped by to see how the project was going, Cullen renovated the house in such a way that he was able to retain the cottage's country charm. "Out of respect for the Massey family, I wanted to refurbish their home to continue what they started," he says. The kitchen, for example, boasts modern appliances along with some of the original built-in cabinetry. The Crisps installed central air and heat yet kept as much of the original floorboards as they could. In fact, it's still possible to tell where the original home ended and another room was added years ago. Then, it was Ashley's turn. She used her eye for design and adorned the home with French-country decor and antiques.

Today, they've turned the Massey home into a bed-and-breakfast, naming it "The Carson House," after their son. They lived in the house for three years after the renovation, until their second child, Maddie, was born and their dream home was completed.

This dream home is the Crisps' primary residence. The two-story, porch-fronted home combines Cullen's innovative design sense and Ashley's flair for fine furnishings. Cullen handled the construction details. "I wanted to build a home that would withstand a tornado or a fire, so it was built with a steel frame, hand-welded together," he says. He also carefully monitored the exterior stonework to ensure a beautiful pattern that evokes a Texas Hill Country feeling.

The interior of the home was all Ashley's. The design motif is Western chic, and throughout the home are vignettes -- candles, frames, lamps, decorative items -- arranged just so to complement the pattern mixes of upholstery and window treatments. The kitchen, which opens to a combination family and dining room, has a pressed-tin ceiling, and two giant cream-colored glazed ceramic owls perch on either side of double doors.

Although Ashley has every room splendidly done, the home never seems fussy. That this is a family home with two active kids is obvious, especially upstairs, where Maddie's room is resplendent in purple and Carson's room is Lego heaven.

But there's also plenty for the kids to do outside, and the Crisps spend hours outdoors. Indeed, the land surrounding the main house is a child's ultimate backyard experience. There's a giant playhouse, a pond with an island and fields of wildflowers. There are animals -- a small herd of llamas, ducks, rabbits, cats and dogs -- plus swimming, swinging and picking strawberries in the spring and peaches in the summer.

Those strawberries and peaches are the most plentiful crops at Fall Creek Farms. Cullen, like many Texas landowners, tried his hand at cattle and hay. He changed directions, though, in part because "the kids started naming every cow, then didn't understand why I sold them." He decided instead to try bringing something to the area not normally grown here. "Why not get strawberries here instead of going to California?" he says. "I thought that would be a good challenge."

Active in the community (he is president of the Friends of the Acton Nature Center of Hood County), Cullen happily shares his knowledge with visitors and local organizations about the importance of locally grown fruits and vegetables. He is also mindful of the environment: He uses sustainable and organic farming techniques, requiring him to continuously monitor and maintain mandated organic requirements.

The farm also serves as a platform to express Cullen's appreciation for artwork. Visitors enjoy viewing artist Marc Rankin's Killer Armadillo, a 9,000-pound concrete-and-metal sculpture of a 47-foot-long armadillo. Originally commissioned for Six Flags Over Texas, this large piece of art, along with other Rankin creations like Dewey the Dung Beetle, have found permanent homes on Fall Creek Farms. This year, visitors will enjoy new pieces from Rankin, including a 5-foot-long horned frog and a 16-foot-high strawberry constructed from an old cement truck.

Cullen's green acres are already dotted with red as this year's crop of strawberries continues to ripen in the fields across the street from the Crisps' home. They open this area to the public every season, attracting hundreds of "u-pickers" who drive from all over the region to fill wire-handled cardboard baskets. "With a little luck, we will have some peaches this year, too," Cullen says. The Crisps clearly are looking forward to this bounty of summer, just as they look forward to returning home to the farm every day. Fall Creek Farms, Cullen says, "allows us to go home and grow."