Ohio’s Winding Road Stories: Milk House Cottage & Gardens

Milk House Cottage & Garden: A Land and Structure Reborn

BY GRANT JOY

The agrarian lifestyle is a big part of the culture in Morgan County. So much so that roughly 37% of the total acreage in the county is devoted toward agricultural use and the county is home to roughly 537 farms according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. As a result, the local populace has a rooted connection to the land. In the village of Chesterhill, the link to the agrarian way of life can still be seen. The village plays host to the Chesterhill Produce Auction and is surrounded by rustic hill country. Karen and Ken Peters, owners of the Milk House Cottage and Gardens in Chesterhill, quickly came to understand the local connection to land and place. In December of 1999, the Peters family purchased what was once known as Town & Country, Chesterhill’s last remaining dairy farm, which had been sitting vacant for a number of years.

The Peters quickly learned of the importance of property to the local elders of Chesterhill and the memories the land provoked. “In times past, the dairy farm once supplied the village with fresh unpasteurized milk each day,” remarked Karen. She continued, “As we slowly integrated ourselves into the community and many of the local elders talked with us reminiscing working at the farm in their youth milking and delivering to the local community before they headed off to school in the morning.” Karen alludes to the strong sense of place and deep connection to the land that is prevalent for many Appalachian Ohioans. Moreover, the farm provided a service to the community by providing residents fresh, healthy milk. This notion of the community youth helping out on the farm isn’t novel, but it illustrates the close-knit fabric that comprises many rural communities along Ohio’s Winding Road. Because southeast Ohio is extremely rural, many communities rely upon one another to succeed and grow; this creates an intrinsic sense of togetherness among residents of rural communities. 

But how does a property with dilapidated structures and an old burnt out milk house become an idyllic cottage destination centered around picturesque rolling hills, vibrant trees, and flower gardens? The obvious answer is: a lot of sweat equity. But that’s not the whole story. It is also an ethos where a community is connected to place and to one another, which helps further explain this remarkable transformation.

As the Peter’s were initially inspired by the idea of creating a weekend getaway, the community itself provided more inspiration for the project. “People have said, ‘you must have had a vision,’ and they were partially correct,” Karen recalled. “The inspiration may have started as a weekend getaway but morphed when we found that this property, local people, the Amish community, and the region had a spirit and a story that needed to be told. We were hooked on small-town America living and southeast Ohio.” 

The Peters invested over twenty years into bringing life back into the property. They cleaned up the land and removed the barn, and rebuilt the Milk House, tree, and flower gardens from scratch. They operated from a blank slate to completely transform the property. Taking inspiration from the Milk House’s original structure, Ken designed and built a small house on the original foundation. “Our inspiration continued throughout the property and love for the land kept us engaged,” Karen reflected. The cottage design features 32 windows, allowing for what Karen referred to as “an inviting and intriguing view of the outdoor gardens, sky, scenic views of the surrounding landscape, and secluded private patio and silo.” Further amplifying the connection to place and the natural environment, Karen mentioned that the “private well-shaded outside patio area connecting the aged silo and Milk House is surrounded with interesting plants, [a] collection of historic wrought iron, large foundation stones from the original farmhouse flanked with thyme, and herb and flower gardens each having its own story. The gardens surrounding the building started with seeds, herbs, small trees, and seedlings, and evolved in time moving from full sun to shade gardens.”  

The design and layout of the flower and tree gardens surrounding the cottage allows guests to immerse themselves in an environment that helps better connect to the outdoors. Coupled with a quilted patchwork of rolling hills on the twelve-acre property, the landscape allows visitors to enjoy themselves in southeast Ohio’s scenic natural beauty and wildlife. Guests are also able to experience a less hurried and chaotic way of life while having ample sources of catharsis, tranquility, and solitude.

The intrinsic connection between the cottage and the surrounding landscape was all done purposefully. “The natural slope of the gardens towards the scenic valley view was a natural,” stated Karen. “[This] culminated in striking views. They were then enhanced through the garden evolution providing a different view for every season.” Guests will also have a chance to experience the village of Chesterhill. “We have made some wonderful friendships in town,” recalled Karen. “We have a close relationship with the owners at the Triple Nickel Diner, and it was natural for us to refer our guests to dine there. The same goes for Ron’s Auto & Convenience Store. Both businesses offer referrals back to us with no formal agreement.” 

This idea of communal spirit and elevating the authentic assets that exist within a given community is at the heart of Ohio’s Winding Road, and Chesterhill’s small business community strongly evokes this idea of a network of neighbors. When businesses are connected with one another, they help spread the word about services that guests may not be aware of. In the end, this is mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

This informal agreement is commonplace among rural communities, further solidifying the interconnected nature that exists in rural spaces. Vickie Ball-Seiter, owner of Journey with Horses, reached out to the Peters to see if they would be interested in being included in her brochure. “She had received a seed grant from OWR,” stated Karen. “The Triple Nickel Diner and Dutch Creek Winery are also highlighted, with the diner providing lunch for her coaching activities. We are honored and delighted to be part of her local business venture.” Again, Karen touches on the power of a network collaboration and how rural communities can benefit by working together as opposed to operating in individual silos.  

When asked about how COVID-19 has impacted the Milk House Cottage & Gardens, Karen said “We felt that it was very important to stay closed and to heed on the side of safety. This would provide informed decisions for us to integrate all the new safety and cleaning recommendations, not only from the CDC/WHO, but also Airbnb into our business. This would allow us to consistently maintain our reputation as being the ‘Sparkling Clean’ stay for our future guests,” stated Karen. 

As COVID-19 continues to impact everyone, and as we all look to navigate a new normal, this could benefit vacation rentals throughout southeastern Ohio. The solitude and isolation Milk House Cottage & Gardens provides, coupled with its tranquil and bucolic location, could help visitation rise as individuals look to more socially-distant experiences. Given the Cottage’s close proximity to Burr Oak and Strouds Run State Parks, Wayne National Forest, and AEP Recreation Lands, this could have added benefits to the Milk House Cottage & Gardens and surrounding vacation rentals. 

The Milk House was Chesterhill’s last remaining dairy farm and part of a landscape many community residents have cultivated a deep connection to overtime. Town & Country gave back to the community and served as a repository for many fond memories. The landscape illustrated a spirit of hard work, community pride, and togetherness that is embodied throughout Ohio’s Hill Country. Karen and Ken Peters have displayed this same character of hard work, community pride, and togetherness. They have reimagined and restored the Milk House, and are ready to give back to a new group of people in the same way that Town & Country once did. They are part of a renewed hope and reverence for the land, which in turn will cultivate new memories and experiences for those who walk its rolling hills. 

To learn more about the Milk House Cottage & Gardens or to book your stay, visit their website on Airbnb here.

Note: all photos are courtesy of Karen Peters.


About the author: Grant Joy is the 2019-20 AmeriCorps member serving this year for Ohio’s Winding Road. This is his third AmeriCorps service year. He spent the past two years serving in Colorado and Vermont before deciding to come back closer to home in southern Ohio. He is looking forward to sharing stories of the people and places that make Ohio’s Rising Appalachia a unique and vibrant region.