The 1915 Sealy House, one of many rental properties in Fayette County owned by Blackbird Farm. 
Photo Jerry Herring.
Lots of people dream of ditching the big city, moving to the country and starting fresh, but few have done it as well— or on such a grand scale — as Joan and Jerry Herring. The Houston couple decided to get the heck out of dodge in 2008, when a Super Target opened next door to their property near downtown Houston, where they had lived and worked for five years. Both visual artists and photographers, Joan had a successful framing business, while Jerry owned a graphics design firm. Their search for a new place eventually pushed them an hour and a half west into Fayette County, where they purchased 38 secluded acres of rolling hills, pecan trees, a large pond and a few broken-down buildings. “The plan was to build a big house on it and live out there,” says Joan. But when the process took too long, the Herrings hired a barn-builder instead and converted the finished-out structure into a tiny 36’ by 48’ two-story farm house. They turned the sleepy property, which they named Blackbird Farm, into a working ranch with cattle and egg-laying hens. 

Custom-made cedar cabins outside Fayetteville, TX. Photo Jerry Herring.
After a year of commuting to Houston, Joan relocated her framing company to the farm, and Jerry sold his graphic design company to his son. “We never built our big house,” says Joan, without a hint of regret — and why should there be any? During the past eight years, the Herrings have bought a prime chunk of Fayette County — carefully renovating historic 19th- and early-20th-century structures and thoughtfully building new ones, which they rent to visitors from Houston, Austin and beyond. But their bread-and-butter is the dealers, designers and shoppers that frequent the twice-yearly Round Top Antiques Fair. “When we moved here, we didn’t even know what Round Top was,” says Joan. Now, their rental properties are fully booked months in advance of the shows. “Our business has grown along with the antiques fair,” she says. The Herrings’ current rental holdings include nine properties — many of them in the historic town of Fayetteville (15 minutes from Round Top) — such as the 1850 House, a home built around a mid-19th-century log cabin; the 1915 Sealy House, which is on 47 acres; and the 1835 Red & White Inn, a former commercial building on the old square in Fayetteville that once housed a movie theater. Guest rooms are upstairs, with the Red & White Gallery located downstairs, which launched in 2012 with a show by the Herrings’ friend, the respected sculptor Jesús Morales, who died last year. A subsequent exhibit by well-known photographer Laura Wilson (and mother of actors Luke, Andrew and Owen Wilson) attracted more than 250 people (most of Wilson’s work sold out during the event). The couple also built cabins and a multi-use event center, Herring Hall, on Blackbird Farm. But their crown jewel is the elegantly renovated 1898 Market Street Inn, located one block off Fayetteville’s historic main square, which is jointly owned by local Mary Quiros, a walking buddy of Joan’s. “We’d walk around town and get an hour’s worth of exercise every day, and we’d pass by this grand, beautiful old house with its shutters falling off and a For Sale sign out front,” Joan remembers. “‘Mary said, ‘If I was younger, I’d buy it and fix it up.’ So I said, ‘Let’s do it!’” 

Victorian-era Market Street Inn, Fayetteville, TX. Photo Jerry Herring.
The acquisition was a coup — beautiful Victorian-era houses like Market Street Inn have helped put the town of Fayetteville on theNational Register of Historic Places, Joan says. They closed on the property in January 2014 and opened it for guests arriving that spring for Round Top. “We modernized it with updated plumbing and electrical and air conditioning, but we were careful to keep the original old feel of the place,” says Joan. Private baths with six-foot soaking tubs were added to each of the five bedrooms, and the house’s original bead board walls, hardwood floors, carved moldings and doors were retained. The rooms are decorated with furniture and accessories found at Round Top. Quiros donated a stained-glass window that had belonged to her grandmother for one of the bedrooms, and her husband, Evan, a woodworker, built a cedar farmhouse table that seats 10 for the communal kitchen. A pair of original French parlor doors became the new back door, allowing for picturesque views, and custom leaded-glass doors were installed in the front, to give the entry a grand feel, says Joan. A large-scale photograph by Laura Wilson, Dapple Gray, hangs in the foyer. While the Market Street Inn is their most elegant property, all of their rentals are full of luxury and charm, including plush white spa towels, robes, slippers, and fine linens (garment-dyed, eco-friendly Bella Notte bedding in the 1850 House), and vintage and antique quilts and crewel coverlets. Kitchens are stocked regularly with fresh brown eggs from the Herring’s own Barred Rock Hens, along with butter, cream, fresh bread and kolaches from local Czech bakeries. To pay homage to the Red & White Inn’s movie theater heritage, they frequently show old black-and-white films and invite the townspeople; the inaugural show, appropriately enough, was Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House. The Herrings can barely keep up with the demand for rooms, which Joan says is driven by the popularity of such HGTV treasure-hunting shows as Junk Gypsies, featuring sisters Amie and Jolie Sikes, who have a store in Round Top. “We get from 30 to 100 requests each day for lodging before and during the antiques fair,” says Joan. “We had no idea all this would happen.” To meet the increasing demand, the Herrings have just put a contract on a 600-square-foot property near Market Street Inn. “We fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s a cute little country cottage that looks out onto a beautiful pasture.”

Detail inside the Sealy House. Photo Jerry Herring.

My story on Blackbird Farm originally appeared in PaperCity. To see all of Blackbird Farm's properties and rooms, go here.