It was early afternoon, but the bleak winter sun, already low in the sky, was casting long shadows over the brown hills, giving a chill to the air. There was a mystery about the place. I had never driven on this road, and yet I felt I had been here before.
Sturdy square Quaker farm buildings studded the rolling countryside. The sign I had just passed said, "Chadds Ford, two miles." I drove slowly through the quiet town. An old brick two-story house close to the highway seemed oddly familiar. Wondering what lay beyond the highway, I turned off Route 1 and drove up into the farm country.
After a mile or so, against the gray horizon, I saw a white stucco farmhouse with curiously placed windows. Suddenly I recognized the farm. Even before I read the name on the mailbox I knew it was Karl Kuerner's place, and I was in "Wyeth Country."
If you know Andrew Wyeth's paintings, you know Chadds Ford -- the tiny, prerevolutionary town nestled in the hip pocket of Pennsylvania -- the town that Wyeth documented on canvas. The house by the road had been the subject of "Tenant Farmer," The texure, the browns and grays of the landscape, the way the light skipped across a stubbly field -- it was all right out of an Andrew wyeth painting.
The Kuerner farmhouse was the inspiration for dozens of Wyeth's paintings, like "Brown Swiss," "Young Bull," and "First Snow." I stood there a long time. Of course the scene was familiar. I knew it through his eyes.
Chadds Ford is in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, halfway between New York and Washington. Chester County is scattered with covered bridges and country inns left over from the 18th century. N. C. Wyeth, Andrew's father, first came to Chadds Ford in 1903 to study under Howard Pyle, known as the father of American illustration. The senior Wyeth went on to become one of America's most prolific and greatest children's illustrators.
But it was Andrew Wyeth who put Chadds Ford on the map of the modern art world. He and his wife, Betsy, spend half of their time in Cushing, Maine. But each fall they return to Chadds Ford for the winter.
During the cold winter months the artist, a bundled figure, can be seen bounding across open fields, making sketches and capturing moods. He is excited by the interaction of sun and shadow, and by surface textures. He can find unexpected beauty in the commonplace.
I decided to see more of Chadds Ford. There are about five motels in the area and a few country inns such as Mendenhall, the Red Fox Inn, and, a few miles north, Coventry Forge Inn has limited but comfortable rooms, and is renowned for its superb French cuisine. Although it was fairly expensive, the trout was fresh, the veal excellent, and I was not disappointed.
Another year-round attraction in Chadds Ford is the Brandywine River Museum. The building, which overlooks the Brandywine, is a former gristmill. Today it is an attractive modern museum with an impressive collection. A huge glass tower adds light and contrasts pleasantly with the more traditional interior, where paintings hang on the original white plastered walls. All the Wyeth family is represented, along with the works of local artists such as Howard Pyle , Maxfield Parrish, Harvey Dunn, and Frank Schoonover.
The Pennsylvania Dutch culture is reflected in the many fairs and festivals here throughout the year. Local crafts are featured, as well as tours, races, entertainment, and home-cooked food. There is fresh apple butter and the traditional funnel cakes -- large, lacy cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar that taste like donuts.
Even the skiing is good in Chadds Ford. The Chadds Peak Ski Area on Route 1 has lifts, snowmaking equipment, a ski school that teachers the GLM (graduated length method), and a cafeteria.
I made one more stop before leaving. The chadds Ford Barn Shops offer a fine selection of local crafts, such as handmade wooden toys, candles, jewelry, and quilts. After buying a few gifts I drove past the Kuerner farm once again. The haunting quality was still there. Somehow I had the feeling that if I looked carefully at my Wyeth prints at home, I might find footprints in the painting of that farmyard.