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Photo by Barry Fitzgerald
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The three-story Greek Revival house, built in 1850, offers a sweeping view of the James River. Photo by Barry Fitzgerald
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Riverview’s dramatic center hall offers an impressive vista of the James River and Turkey Island through the front door. Photo by Barry Fitzgerald
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The 40-by-20 salon combines a dining room with a sitting and music area. The comfortably formal room is furnished with a variety of antiques that the Nordts have collected from shops and auctions in Richmond and on the East Coast. Photo by Barry Fitzgerald
You can't help but feel like you are entering another era when you leave the city and drive east toward Williamsburg on scenic State Route 5 through a rural landscape that seems to have changed little since it was first settled by the English in the early 1600s. It's this feeling, and the lifestyle that goes with it, that lured Dianne and Bill Nordt in 2000 into leaving behind a home in the Fan for life at Riverview, a 400-acre Charles City County farm on the north bank of the James River.
Though at first the farm seemed too far from Richmond where Bill is an orthopedic surgeon and where Nordt, at the time, owned City Shoes in Carytown, the property was too spectacular to pass up. "It was a leap to make this move," Nordt admits, "but this kind of place does not come available often."
In fact, the Nordts are just the fifth family to own the farm, built in 1850 by John Pleasants Royall, whose family lived on the neighboring Dogham Plantation. Riverview — now called Nordt Family Farm — was built on part of the original tract of 1,100 acres granted by the crown to Joseph Royall in the 1600s. The three-story Greek Revival house is aptly named, as it faces the James River, offering an excellent view of Turkey Island, home to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and its bald eagles. The farm is rich with all the history and lore one would expect of a home of its provenance: Charles Gillette designed the formal boxwood gardens with serpentine walls and quatrefoil reflecting pool — now a shallow swimming pool — in the 1920s. (The original Gillette site plan hangs in the home's center hall.) In another claim to fame, what is believed to be the largest boxwood in Virginia grows on the property. During the Civil War, Union soldiers set up camp on the property, where they speared the turkeys with bayonets. "It was an adjustment when we first moved out here," Nordt admits of the lifestyle change. "At first, being out here with little kids I sometimes felt isolated. But, I feel like you can create your own culture and the lifestyle you want. You are not always looking around at what everyone else has and is doing." After four years spent commuting to her Carytown shop, while simultaneously caring for three preschool-aged children, her ailing mother and the farm, Nordt had an epiphany when her mom died from breast cancer in 2004. "It was a reality check for me," she says. "I didn't want to live that lifestyle anymore. I didn't want to be going all the time." She sold City Shoes and fully committed to the slower pace of life on the farm. The change allowed her to recommit to her love of weaving, an art she learned at Virginia Commonwealth University where she majored in fashion design and minored in crafts. Upon graduation, her father wanted to give her a car. She asked for a loom instead, imagining that one day, she might live on a farm with her family where she would spend her time weaving and raising sheep for their wool. In 2005, she moved closer to that dream when she began raising Merino sheep on the farm, starting with a small flock of three ewes and a rudimentary knowledge of sheep husbandry learned at a weekend course at Virginia Tech. "I was way out of my element," Nordt recalls with a laugh. Today, the flock numbers 22 sheep, with one lamb born recently. After Carrie MacDougall of Colonial Williamsburg shears the sheep each spring, the wool is sent to a mill to be spun into yarn that Nordt uses to weave blankets. In 2011, she began selling her Nordt Family Farm blankets on Etsy. Blankets range from $110 for a baby blanket to $195 for a 72- by 50-inch blanket. "I was so excited that anyone wanted to buy what I was making," she says. "Every sale was celebrated." Nordt works each day while her children are in school, enjoying the slow, contemplative craft. "This is why I love weaving," she says. "It is complex handwork, open to my creative input and designed to be relevant in the modern marketplace. And raising my own wool from my own flock on my own land makes it pure and personal." Nordt's blankets are woven from naturally colored wool — the sheep produce hues in white, brown and gray — with accents from hand-dyed yarn. In December 2012, Nordt Family Farm blankets were chosen by Garden & Gun magazine as a finalist in its third annual Made in the South awards . Orders poured in, and have been steady since. Currently, blankets ordered in May will be ready to ship by January. Nordt's sharp eye for timeless design is evident not only in her weaving, but in the interior of her home. Furnished with a mix of fine antiques and flea market finds, the home speaks equally to good taste and to the comfort of family. As with any home, the kitchen is the center of the action, and this one delivers with a cozy fireplace (there are 11 throughout the house), an octagonal English oak table, and a soothing palette of cream, beige and blue. "I wanted it more than anything to have the feel that you were in your grandmother's kitchen," she explains. The salon, a grand 40-by-20 room on the opposite side of the center hall, combines a formal dining room with a sitting and music area. Her daughter's hot-pink acoustic guitar punctuates the room's muted color palette. When not working at the loom or tending to her flock (both literally and figuratively), the Nordts keep close ties to Richmond, where Bill continues to work and where the kids attend school. "We're still very tied to town and feel like part of the energy of the city," Nordt says. "We're lucky — I couldn't live without that culture. You can take as much as you want, and leave the rest and come home."