This article appears in its entirety in the October 2011 issue of Durham Magazine. To read the full story and see LOTS more pictures, purchase your copy by calling 688-8400.
Driving your children to school every day for 14 years can get really monotonous. Off to school and home, back to school and home again, thousands of trips on pretty much the same route, over and over again. For Alice Horton, her routine trip from Hillsborough to Durham Academy, begun in 1984, always had one consistent highlight: the sight of a majestic 200-year-old white oak tree perched on a hill of the old Couch farm.
The grand tree shaded a small 1850s farmhouse in the spring and summer, turned bright golden yellows and reds in the fall and stood, strong limbs stretch proudly out, through the winter. Even after Alice’s three children – Laura, Ward and Ashley – had long graduated and left home, Alice would still make her treks to Durham on this same route so she could look at the tree. In the 20 years of loving and admiring its beauty, Alice never thought that she would get to wake up right next to it every day.
THE TREE-LINED PATH
Alice and her husband, George, who nearly everyone knows as Trig, are partial to farms. Trig describes their newlywed life in suburban New Jersey as “farming fantasy.” Alice, always the great gardener, wanted to try keeping chickens too. Eventually the Hortons had two horses, two dogs, 30 rabbits, a bunch of ducks and 12 chickens, in addition to their three young children. “Our neighbors thought we should move to a real farm,” Trig says dryly.
So, in 1984, they moved to Hillsborough to live on Pleasant Green Farm. The 490-acre farm became a cattle ranch for Trig and a horse farm and vegetable garden for Alice. In 2000, they built a home on Bald Head Island, figuring they’d spend about half their time there. So they started looking for a smaller place in Durham. That took years until, in 2004, Alice happened past her favorite tree and saw that the Couch farm was for sale. “We bought it for the tree,” she says. “We thought we would take the small, run-down farm house apart and use the materials to build a new house in the same location.”
THE LITTLE HOUSE
Alice and Trig fell in love with the little house, so they decided to renovate and live in it. “How much could it cost?” Alice thought. “It was only 1,700 square feet.” Trig, a builder and developer by trade, knew better. But it was what Alice wanted.
It took Trig the better part of a year to tear off the termite-damaged 1920s kitchen addition, taking the house down to the bare foundation and rebuilding it using reclaimed wood and siding.
Trig says, “We were respectful of the history and we didn’t want to destroy the character of the little house.”
A new floorplan was overlaid on the same footprint. The Hortons now had a two-bedroom house, but not for long.
“When we hatched the plan to live in the little house, we only had two grandchildren,” Alice says.
“It was fine to have sleepovers with them. But our children started popping out grandchildren left and right; one every year for five years.”
Alice is a hands-on grandmother, Laura says. “She loves to have the grandchildren spend the night,” her daughter says. “She even carved out a secret fort in a big bush where they play together.” DM