Fee Fi Faux Farm
Preserving Bedford history with a wink
Jean-Paul Vallès has restored Little Half House and its outbuildings, interspersing ornamental farm animals among them to add a touch of whimsy.
Photos by Sally Semonite Green
Jean-Paul Vallès is a protector of leaning barns, root cellars with no roofs, crumbling stone walls, and any other original structures in his neighborhood. The 78-year-old Frenchman is a grandfather of 11 and has a special interest in preserving the historic Mianus River Road that meanders through both Bedford and New Castle. “It is not fair to describe me as anti-McMansions per se, but it is absolutely fair to call me strongly anti-McMansions when they are out of character with the neighborhood,” Vallès says.
“If people want to build more McMansions on North Street in Greenwich, as they are doing, so be it.”
By putting his own money where his mouth is, he’s a driving force in helping to draft and then pass supplemental zoning ordinances. Vallès purchased several land parcels with the specific intention of donating easements to the adjacent Mianus River Gorge Preserve to “collapse” the real estate values.
The protected stretch, including East Middle Patent Road, Mianus River Road, and St. Mary’s Church, is a route he walks in winter when it is too cold to swim 50 laps a day. While strolling awhile back, he noticed a For Sale sign at a historic cottage built in 1772. The
Daniel Smith House—or Little Half House—was just a few miles from the retired corporate executive’s address on East Middle Patent Road. In 2008, Vallès meticulously restored the 600 square-foot cottage, once home to 13 children. “Two of them are buried in the back,” he says. “The house was a disaster! People built terribly in the old days primarily because they were poor.” It now serves as a guest house.
Vallès deferred French military draft orders (and fighting in Algeria) by studying in America. Born and raised in a small town near Normandy, he “met and married a little girl from New Jersey.” The two had their wedding reception at the top of the Eiffel Tower. “My father was a POW who escaped twice. Both my parents earned the top decoration in World War II for assisting in the French underground,” he says.
Vallès’s mother went on to become the first female mayor in their town.
“My dissertation was a major contribution to a very minor field,” Vallès jokes. “It was titled ‘The Economic Outlook for Bananas.’”
The yard of Little Half House is now dotted with raised gardens of catnip, iris, and boxwoods. A landscape of low rolling hillocks is augmented by a restored barn, two sheds that were repaired a foot or two shy of the originals in order to comply with building codes, and a working stone well which Vallès has now covered with an iron cap that has a fleur de lis on top. “In our French village, men committed suicide by hanging, but the women threw themselves down the wells,” he explains sadly.
Covering the well makes him feel safer, he says.
A collection of ornamental, life-size farm animals graze around the yard. Most have been presented as gifts to his wife, Carol Ann, over the years, commemorating anniversaries or holidays. Each animal bears a plaque describing the year of each gift and the animal’s name. Vallès is clearly amused as he wanders among them and considers his next restoration challenge. Pointing across the road, he says, “I had a verbal deal with the owner to buy a few feet of his land in order to acquire that old root cellar. But the zoning for the town says that it has to be four acres.” Vallès glances fondly at the falling-down structure, as though he can already see what it could be in the future, and soon he is lost in thought.
A true-to-life, faux German shepherd stands at attention by the barn, keeping an eye on Gigi the cow, Wilbur the pig, and assorted ducks, sheep, hens, and roosters. While there are many more projects for Vallès to consider along his favorite stretch of scenic road, there are still openings for future animals to graze in his yard. Reluctant to reveal his next anniversary animal surprise for Carol Ann, Vallès whispers, “It’s a secret. Hee-haw.”