A Dream Home Come True in Bernardston
By EVELINE MacDOUGALL, For the Recorder, March 30, 2021.
Gloria and Ervin Meluleni are living their dream.
“We live on land we love in a home we built ourselves.
We connect with friends and community members through the food we raise and harvest,” said Gloria Meluleni (pronounced Mel-yu-le-ni). “Originally, it was Ervin’s dream, but I love it. It’s a wonderful place and way to live.”
The couple’s Bernardston homestead on Martindale Road is the result of hard work, imagination and dogged perseverance. What began as 24 densely wooded acres now thrives as a small working farm. A majority of their land remains rocky woods, but the Melulenis’ long sloping driveway leads to a beautiful home, large greenhouse, several outbuildings, orchards, berry bushes, and extensive garden beds of organic vegetables and vibrant flowers. Creativity is evident throughout their home. An avid photographer, Gloria creates luscious floral images for handcrafted cards. “I used to make jewelry,” she said. “Now I focus on photography. I’ve always enjoyed making things.”
Making things, tending, crafting, harvesting things …
the couple is a collective powerhouse of industry, energy and skill. At ages 72 and 74, respectively, Gloria and Ervin Meluleni display the endurance of people half their ages or even younger. Ervin Meluleni bought their land in 1979, the year his son, Sacha, was born.
“When my first marriage ended, I guess some of the wind went out of my sails,” he said. “Projects just went on a back burner, or happened more slowly than I’d planned.” He built the foundation in the early 1980s, and “kept bags of leaves around it to protect it from heaving,” he said. “I’d come out here and camp. I had a little garden. But when I married Gloria in 1991, I got new energy. I was powered by love.”
The couple met in 1989 while working for Harvard Medical School labs. Ervin was a histology technician for 25 years, preparing animal tissues for slides. Gloria did research at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, working to unlock the mysteries of cystic fibrosis.
In order to live their double life — weekdays in the Boston area and long weekends in Bernardston — they worked four 10-hour days for many years.
“We came out here pretty much every weekend, three seasons of each year,” Gloria said.
“I’d been saving money and putting everything into my dream of a farm, and also with an eye toward putting Sacha through college.” said Ervin.
“I was such a tightwad, never spending money on anything, always eating cheap — potatoes, rice, cabbage. But Gloria mellowed me out. She’s the one who helped me see it’s OK to enjoy life, an occasional movie, eating in a restaurant. I started having fun while continuing to work hard.”
The couple shared many interests and philosophies, yet their childhoods were quite different.
Gloria grew up in Peabody in a family steeped in the appreciation of nature, the arts and many forms of creativity.
The Meluleni family was from Lithuania, but fled that country during World War II.
Ervin was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany and his family came to the United States in 1951, when he was 4 years old.
“The Episcopal Church in the U.S. sponsored a few dozen families. That’s how we were able to emigrate,” said Ervin. “I remember that the boat we came over on had bunks stacked four or five high.”
One moment about the journey is burned into Ervin’s mind: “When we came into New York Harbor, we saw the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “I stood next to my mom on the deck of the boat, and she started crying when the statue came into view.”
His mother’s family had been farmers, but were displaced when Lithuania became a political football. “The Russians came in 1939 and took land, horses, cows. Then the Germans came in 1941 and weren’t much better.
In 1944, it was the Russians again.”
As a young adult, Ervin worked on a farm in Monterey. More than anything, though, he credits two books with fueling the dream of creating his own farm. While traveling through Nepal in his early 20s, he read John Seymour’s “The Fat of the Land: The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency,” an international best-seller that inspired many people to down-shift to a new way of life.
The other book was “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing.
“In fact, our home is modeled after their house in Maine,” said Ervin, pointing to a beautiful interior stone wall. “We made forms to shape the walls, and used the forms level by level, in stages, reusing them as we went.”
Technical aspects of the Melulenis’ home are fascinating and ingenious. The forms were 2 feet high and wired together inside and out, allowing Ervin and Gloria to throw stones in.
Gloria noted, “All of these stones are from right here, with the exception of a few special ones thrown in from places that meant a lot to us. We moved them stone by stone with our pick-up truck.”
Using their tractor, the Melulenis removed stones from the land. “We threw stones in the tractor bucket and dumped them in a huge pile in the woods. We could clear an area 100-feet-long and 1-foot-wide in one day. So we did that, day after day,” said Ervin.
When it came time to create the first walls, “We started with end walls, then did the knee wall,” said Ervin, “pointing the walls with mortar as we went.”
In 1996, the couple took a month off from their day jobs to allow for a quantum leap — building the frame of the Bernardston house and installing the radiant floor.
“It was all DIY,” said Ervin. “We got occasional help from friends and family, but mostly did it ourselves. We read books, talked to people, and just felt our way.” Ervin had a bit of building experience from having put up an 8-by-12-foot cabin on land he’d briefly owned in Worthington, and worked on a construction crew during one summer while in college.
That same year, they put in two stoves, “a wood stove and a cook stove,” Gloria said. “We’d been poking along with our project, but 1996 was a banner year.”
Ervin added, “It’s also the year we put in windows, but still had no insulation. Some mornings, we’d wake up and it was 22 degrees inside the house.”
The following year, in 1997, they put in water and electricity. In 2001, they got their occupancy permit, and attended to interior walls, sheetrock and insulation.
“The only things we didn’t do ourselves were the stairs, cupboards and framing the windows,” said Ervin.
The couple took early retirement in 2003 while they were in their 50s, said Ervin, “so we’d have some youth left.” They’d tended a small garden over the years, but in 2001 started clearing gardening space in earnest, felling trees, burning brush and hiring a bulldozer operator to remove stumps.
They started farming commercially in 2004 when their first halfacre of garden space was ready.
“It took us another five years to clear our second half-acre,” said Gloria. “Now we have about an acre in fruit trees and another in berries and paw-paws.”
Construction of their large greenhouse began in 2002; it became fully functional in 2004. ”The greenhouse was always in the plan,” said Ervin. Half of the building — approximately 80-by-25-feet — is actual greenhouse space, kept warm almost entirely by passive solar gain.
“The key is water barrels,” said Ervin, pointing to 92 black 55-gallon drums lining one wall, stacked to the ceiling. “I scored those barrels from work. They originally contained soap. When they were empty, they were mine. We painted them black, and they retain an amazing amount of heat.”
An additional innovation of Ervin’s helps in this regard: panels of insulation lining the back wall, with silver exteriors reflecting sunlight throughout the space.
The greenhouse enables the Melulenis to start spinach, lettuce, tomato, and other plants.
“Some of the more fragile plants, like peppers and eggplants, begin life inside the house where it’s warmer at night,” Ervin explained.
The other half of the greenhouse building includes storage space, a garage, refrigerators and coolers, a sink, and ample work space. Down the hill stands their large hoop house, built in 2012, providing covered space for raspberry bushes, tomatoes, and flowers. “Together, the greenhouse and hoop house enable us to earn about a third of our income.”
The Melulenis named their place Coyote Hill Farm and began their marketing venture by selling vegetables from a roadside stand on Route 10, just down the road from their place. “We made $4,000 that first year,” Ervin said.
They settled into a three-pronged marketing strategy, with about about 40 percent of their farming income from farmers markets, another 40 percent from their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture — customers pay in advance and pick up weekly at the farm — and the remaining 20 percent involving wholesale accounts.
During their second year of fulltime farming, the Melulenis joined the Northfield Farmers Market.
“Our farming income doubled or tripled in 2005,” said Ervin, “and in 2006, Gloria started the Bernardston Farmers Market, and our income doubled or tripled again.”
Gloria was on the Bernardston Agricultural Commission and participated in the town’s “Right to Farm” campaign.
For many years, their three-season farmers market routine was Saturdays in Bernardston (from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the United Church of Bernardston’s parking lot) and Thursdays in Northfield (3 to 6 p.m. in front of 105 Main St.).
They’ve also participated in Greenfield’s once-monthly Winter Market held at the Four Corners Elementary School. “Of course, the pandemic lockdown affected farmers markets,” said Gloria, “but in truth, other than having to wear masks when we’re out in public, COVID has hardly changed our lives. We see less of our friends but we continue on with our rhythms here.”
The couple started keeping bees about five years ago; two hives produced 100 pounds of honey last year. Their dozen chickens produce eggs for sale and for the Melulenis’ own use.
“It’s a beautiful life,” said Ervin. “We grow and eat good food, get plenty of exercise and have no stress. Of course, it’s far more possible due to our pensions from decades of work in the Boston area. Without that, it would be a whole different story.”
Referring to their annual cycles, Ervin said, “We actively farm from, say, March through October, working about six hours a day. Technically, we have winters off, and that’s when we do a lot of reading and hanging around with the dogs.”
Ozzie and Koko, the Melulenis’ German shepherds, are two large personalities on the homestead.
The winter season also finds the Melulenis pruning orchards, cleaning and putting away equipment and getting firewood in for the following year.
“We spend December getting the wood in,” said Ervin. “We harvest 5 cords each year from our land.”
A log splitter makes that job possible.
“Our wintertime activities are based on snowfall, but in general, I spend the month of January on what I call my ‘garbage vacation,’” said Ervin with a laugh, “reading a whole lot of science fiction. Once that’s out of my system, I turn to educational books for the rest of the winter, stuff about gardening, beekeeping and the like.”
Noting how 2020 was different, Gloria said, “Usually, during winters, we go out and enjoy ourselves, but with the pandemic, we skipped movies and restaurants. It’s OK. We like being home, too.”
“There’s always something to do to keep this operation poking along,” Ervin added. “Always something to do.” Eveline MacDougall is a local author and garden enthusiast. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.