Laney Sullivan and Jameson Price (Photo by Jay Paul)
Just off Bainbridge Street, a dirt driveway leads to another world.
Walk past the tangled garden, and there, tucked into a grove of trees, you’ll find a red-roofed farmhouse that’s more than two centuries old. The house smells of sage and simmering applesauce. A tortoiseshell cat patrols the porch. On the edge of the clearing, a dark-furred shape materializes, then vanishes into the brush. It’s a coydog, a coyote-dog cross, that has made this wild corner its home.
It’s a quiet, secret sort of place, the kind of place you might want to keep to yourself. Instead, owners Jameson Price and Laney Sullivan are inviting the community in.
Also known as world-folk fusion duo Lobo Marino, Price and Sullivan spend half the year touring the country. They’ve lived on various communes and farms, most recently in a cabin that was part of an artists' collective in Varina. Two years ago, they grew weary of the nomadic life. “We felt like we wanted to be home for a little bit,” Sullivan says. But a house in the 'burbs was not in the picture.
“I think we always knew we wanted some sort of intentional or creative living space,” Price says. These spaces, he says, “can sort of be incubators for different groups of people to be able to do the spiritual, the holistic, the political work that they need to do.”
When Sullivan received a $50,000 inheritance, they began looking for a home. Then they spotted the “For Sale By Owner” sign on Bainbridge, where an abandoned house sat on a narrow, 1-acre lot.
Owner Jimmy Giddings had lost the front door key. To see inside, they had to “prop the ladder up against the porch, which was collapsing in, and crawl in through the window upstairs that was broken, and look around in a house which was completely full of trash,” Sullivan says.
It wasn’t love at first sight. They decided to take their time, Price says, “and see if this house wants us.” It seemed to. Obstacles to the purchase fell away. The asking price was exactly what they could afford. Finally, in December 2014 they decided to buy it.
They lived with friends and neighbors, and sometimes camped out, as they embarked on the long slog of renovation. “This was our kitchen,” Sullivan says, showing a photo of a firepit in the front yard.
They discovered the original section had been built in 1780, according to historical records previous owners dropped off on their doorstep. “It is a really special piece of land, and a special house,” Price says. “And it tells a really interesting part of Richmond’s history.”
In the yard, they unearthed a collection of bottles from the 1800s, including one for Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, a “cure-all.” In the garage, they found a Mason jar of shark teeth and boxes of Giddings’ old love letters (which they returned).
Both environmental activists, Sullivan and Price try to live lightly on the land. The kitchen is warmed by a woodstove, and they’re hoping to install solar panels. They’ve named their tiny farm the Earth Folk Collective.
Photo by Melissa Scott Sinclair
“We want to nurture the community of people who want to focus their energy on sustainability and wellness,” Sullivan says. She and Price are the only permanent residents, but they have invited artists and others, including an organic farmer and a mycologist, to live there temporarily and lend their expertise to the community.
They’re working with the city to raise a public “food forest” of fruiting trees and perennials in Carter Jones Park, on the other side of Bainbridge. Their own garden is planted with blueberry bushes and fruit trees, okra and beans, sweet potatoes and collard greens. (The coydogs steal the tomatoes, as well as any stray shoes left on the porch.)
Local activists and educators use the space to host pay-what-you-can, donation-based workshops, with all money going to the instructors. This month’s events include a “Know Your Rights” workshop led by activist Mo Karn, a poetry workshop and a “Full Moon Song Gathering.”
Free Egunfemi, founder of Untold RVA, held an August workshop at the collective called “Bringing Back the Black Excellence of RVA's Bygone Era.” She displayed photographs of black Richmonders from years past and then, as each participant held a photo in turn, recounted that person’s life story.
The deep history of the place added emotional weight to the experience, she says. “Everyone cried, because they were all thankful for the opportunity to connect with Richmond’s honored ancestors.” (She’s offering a similar experience at the Shockoe Bottom Belongs to the People! event on Oct. 9.)
Photo by Melissa Scott Sinclair
There’s something beautiful about the process of entering the property from busy Bainbridge, Sullivan says. “It takes a while to arrive here. … I know it’s healing for a lot of people, just to be able to be here when they live in the city.”
“It’s almost like a home church right now,” Price says. “Except without the dogma. Catma, I guess.”