EXETER, N.H. — Like a lot of New England farm keepers, Ben and Sarah Anderson put out fresh eggs and jars of honey for passersby to purchase. What they’re really providing their neighbors, though, isn’t just produce, but a sense of community.
The Andersons raise pigs, chickens, and bees on their five acres here on the country road headed out of town. It’s a “hobby farm,” says Ben, whose main gig is the management of the Prescott Park Arts Festival each summer in Portsmouth.
Sarah, a poet, has taught English for years, at Phillips Exeter Academy and other local institutions. When she, her husband, and their two young children moved into the old farmhouse about five years ago, the big selling point for her was the adjacent former horse stable, which had been razed and rebuilt by a previous owner as a kind of personal arts center. Framed with timber salvaged from the old stable, it had a classroom-size loft, a gallery space on the main level and a darkroom in the basement. Setting up shop to host literary events and workshops, Sarah christened the cozy room the Word Barn.
Soon Ben began scheduling live music in the barn as well. He’d grown up helping his father run the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival in his native Nova Scotia.
“That’s how I got into this crazy business,” he says. In addition to his work at Prescott Park, he presents concerts at various venues, including the Stone Church in Newmarket and the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, as half of the promotion team Bright and Lyon, with his friend Chris Hislop.
At the Word Barn, writers both published and hopeful can attend Sarah’s twice-monthly workshops or one of the events in her ongoing Silo Series of literary readings and spoken-word performance. Since expanding to include music, the Barn has featured folk singer Anais Mitchell, the acoustic trio Stray Birds, country artist Tyler Childers and many other acts that could sell out much larger rooms. (The Word Barn has a capacity just south of 100.) And the Andersons organize occasional county-fair-style happenings, such as an annual autumn pumpkin toss across the street at the Vernon Family Farm and, upcoming in February, a fermentation workshop.
“It really is a passion project,” says Ben. “We wanted to celebrate what we love and have an artistic gathering place to raise our kids in.” In July, Exeter’s zoning board granted the Andersons a variance to run a commercial enterprise – ticketed events – in a residential area.
Besides the Word Barn sign high up on the side of the barn that faces the road, you could drive by without realizing the Andersons’ farm is a gathering place. Visitors drive up an inclined path that loops around the barn, where the hidden driveway opens up to accommodate several vehicles. The Andersons’ 11-year-old son, Aengus, often helps direct cars to more parking spots on the lawn behind the farmhouse.
Hanging overhead just inside the front door of the barn are dozens of porcelain mugs dedicated to the friends who helped “Save the Word Barn,” as they called the campaign for the zoning board’s approval. At music events, volunteers serve draft microbrews from a tiny bar, for a suggested donation.
A string of Christmas lights dangles over the raised platform in the corner that serves as the stage.
When the barn is full, as it was for one standout show in October, patrons squeeze past each other to wedge themselves into rows of folding chairs. More of them crowd the railing up in the loft, angling for a better view.
They’re all grinning. The intimacy of the venue makes attendees feel as though they’ve been let in on a well-kept secret.
“We want to be subtle,” says Sarah.
Even the performers typically come away pleased with the experience. Ben describes the shows as “glorified house concerts.” (He and Hislop named their promotion agency “Bright and Lyon” after the traditional term for a team of oxen, Bright being the one yoked on the right, Lion the one on the left: Lyon is a family name.)
At most shows, the Andersons’ next-door neighbor, Joe Stevens, wanders over and sits on the wooden bench on the porch, chatting with the customers. A transplanted New Yorker, Stevens made a career as a photographer, shooting stars such as David Bowie. Several of his framed prints hang on the walls of the Word Barn, including one of Johnny Cash backstage at Carnegie Hall.
On a chilly recent weekday afternoon, Stevens stops by to say hello. He calls the Andersons “Bennie and the Jets,” he jokes: “That’s an Elton John song.”
Someday, Sarah says, she’d love to expand the mission of the Word Barn. “I have this dream of opening a writing retreat,” she says, where folks could spend a few days or weeks in residence on the property, cultivating the next great American novel. For now, they’ll keep the words in the barn.