Time for history

In retirement, Mike and Doris Bartell can finally embrace the craziness and peacefulness of restoring "Sycamore Spring," their Bucks piece of the past.

Posted: July 06, 2007

On this muggy morning, when the landscape fades like an old photo in the sun, Mike and Doris Bartell are gamely hiking through their woods, on the banks of Watson Creek.

Mike points to the left, to three brown trout gliding underwater. Doris gestures to the right, to a young sapling with dark green leaves and cinnamon bark. It's a native river birch they planted to help fortify the bank, which is fast slipping away.

"Someday, there'll be a grove of river birch here," Doris says.

It's a perfect day to visit "Sycamore Spring," the circa 1839 house and three acres the Bartells have been restoring since 1983. Now retired from their ophthalmology-products business, the couple live on Mill Road, in the historically certified village of Spring Valley.

This pastoral pocket of Buckingham Township is just outside Doylestown, but beyond these silent woods the 21st century intrudes. It's the buzz of impatient drivers on Route 202, sealed inside their air-conditioned SUVs, disconnected from heavy heat and sylvan reverie.

We reduce them to mental wallpaper. We're far too busy traveling back in time to worry about its advancement.

Back when the Bartells bought this place, they were intrigued by its pedigree, but they had no idea what they were getting into.

"I think we were crazy," Doris says now.

She's laughing, because both she and Mike, who met on a hayride in 10th grade, grew up poor in Grand Rapids, Mich. They'd never lived in an old house, let alone a historic one with five bedrooms, five baths and five fireplaces. And they knew little about gardening and restoration. No time, really, with work, three children and, eventually, six grandchildren.

Now, working on the house and grounds gives the Bartells the time and space so lacking during the crazy years.

"It's meditative and solitary," Doris says.

"Pretty and peaceful," adds Mike, who Zens out on the manual labor.

He spent an entire summer, "a little here, a little there," building a dry stone wall along the creek using rocks from a retaining wall knocked out by a hurricane in the 1950s. One by one, he flipped and rolled those rocks down the creek bed, then hoisted them up the bank and into the yard.

"I had a book on stone walls," he says, as if he'd just baked cookies from a recipe.

The plan was to do about eight feet of wall, but that stretched into 120. "The Great Wall of Mike," they call it.

He built a 24-foot bridge over the creek - "strong enough to support an RV," he says - using free online instructions and $400 worth of lumber.

"You can do anything one piece at a time," says Mike, who never leaves the house without scissors and shears in his back pockets.

He's also creating a "woods walk," using logs and rocks to line a path covered in ground-up branches and sticks. Along the way are "stopping points," where Doris and Mike pause with Bumble and Cricket, their two Pembroke Welsh corgis, or the grandchildren.

They have tables and seats carved from tree stumps, great for an evening's wine bar. There's a wicker loveseat swinging between two trees and a campfire setting for tall tales and s'mores.

And around every corner are the black holes and clearings that double as caves, castles and movie sets when the grandkids visit.

"We have more fun," says Mike.

Doris Bartell, who took occasional gardening classes before becoming a master gardener four years ago, primarily tends the fruit trees and the flower and vegetable gardens. She also oversees the planting of native trees in the woods.

"They're what should be here, what grows best," she says.

The trees' ancestors undoubtedly were growing here in 1733, the date on the oldest deed the Bartells have for the property, which was part of a larger land grant from the family of William Penn. Bucks County's Heritage Conservancy believes the house, though not original, dates to 1839. It has the era's characteristic low ceilings, wide "pumpkin pine" floorboards, and small, boxy rooms.

For the time traveler, "Sycamore Spring" has the remains of a small stone springhouse, built atop a still-living spring, covered in moss and full of frogs. You can just imagine the butter and eggs, and the occasional kid, chilling in there on a day just like today.

There's a gnarly old apple tree, all that's left of long-ago orchards, a hand-dug artesian well, and a century-old, creek-loving sycamore that, so the story goes, was what the early settlers planted to let travelers know water was near.

In the last few years, the Bartells, both 63 and married for 43 years, have added a greenhouse and a three-story cedar-shake barn to house Mike's collection of antique British racing cars and other vehicles.

He's got a tomato-red 1950 Ford pickup with fuzzy dice on the dash, a couple of vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and a slew of cute little roadsters, including a 1956 black Porsche Speedster, a 1948 red MG TC, and a 1956 red Austin Healey 100M.

Doris confides that Mike gets "a little obsessive about things," whether cars, bridges or stone walls. But around here, that's probably a good thing.

As the sign on the barn porch says, "Never Enough Thyme."

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Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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