Almost immediately after Melissa Gilbert and Tim Busfield married in 2013 — the third time for both of them — they swapped the glitter and hustle of Los Angeles for the low-key charms of small-town life in Mr. Busfield’s native Michigan.
The experience was a tonic, for sure, but a five-year dose was sufficient. In 2018, Ms. Gilbert, who became a household name at the age of 10 as a star of the long-running series “Little House on the Prairie,” and Mr. Busfield, who is best known for his role on “The West Wing” and his Emmy-winning turn on “Thirtysomething,” relocated to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Ms. Gilbert, now 58, was quickly cast in “The Dead, 1904,” an immersive theater adaptation of the James Joyce novella. Mr. Busfield, now 64, who is also a director, found work on TV shows like “Law & Order: SVU.”
Gainful employment was all well and good, but Mr. Busfield, in particular, felt a lack in the fresh-air department. As Ms. Gilbert writes in her new memoir, “Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered,” “It became important for us to have a place where we could escape.”
A Zillow search led them to Highland Lake, N.Y., a dot on the map in Sullivan County.
Melissa Gilbert, 58, and Tim Busfield, 64
Occupations: She is an actor and writer; he is an actor and director.
Big leap of faith on the prairie: “This is one of those places that most people would say, ‘Are you nuts?’ if you expressed interest in buying it,” Ms. Gilbert said. “But Tim and I are the best kind of nuts. We’re hopeful visionaries. We knew this house would shelter us well and serve us well.”
What the couple found in their price range — a small structure with halfhearted half-timbering, peeling stucco and an interior crammed with the detritus of the previous owner — wasn’t pretty. But despite the mice and the mold and the mildew (and that awful smell), there was potential.
The dropped ceiling in the kitchen hid a cathedral ceiling. The loft would prove to be an ideal music room. The living room had pine paneling and a fireplace. And the 14 bosky acres that came with the ramshackle house were ravishing.
“As I stared up at one of the rotting deer heads on the wall, a lifetime of therapy kicked in and I thought I could do something here,” Ms. Gilbert writes in “Back to the Prairie.” “I just had to look past the crap.”
The couple closed on the property in January of 2019, dubbed it “the cabbage,” an amalgam of “cabin” and “cottage,” and began mapping out plans for renovation and design.
Money was an issue. A can-do spirit was — and is — the currency. “You see that she has overalls on,” Mr. Busfield said with an affectionate look at his wife. “She’ll have a hammer hanging out of one of those pockets in half an hour.”
Just one example (or maybe two): After a protracted search, the couple found a sofa that was perfect in every way except color (an unfortunate shade of asphalt gray), so Ms. Gilbert took a chance on some burgundy slipcovers that she found online and then added other fabrics and cushions to create a whole new piece of furniture. She refreshed a love seat in similar fashion, in that case with a burgundy floral pattern and a checkered dust ruffle. For the record, she has also assembled a windmill ceiling fan and a table saw.
But the couple called in the pros when necessary — as in the kitchen, where demolition, plumbing and rewiring were involved. They made a virtue out of the tight budget, conjuring a space that looks, delightfully, like a retro diner.
The floating shelves were built with recycled bowling-alley wood and painted bright red, a look the couple loved. Ms. Gilbert added interest to the prefab cabinets by decoupaging their sides with recipes from old magazines. A large slice of corrugated tin roofing was sprayed with vinegar to give it a nicely raddled look, then mounted on a wall to hold the couple’s collection of cast-iron cookware. Chrome-and-red-vinyl chairs ring the farm table. Atop the cabinetry are Donald Duck and Olive Oyl figurines, an old set of Lincoln Logs and a vintage Coca-Cola syrup bottle, among other knickknacks.
This is the first time, Ms. Gilbert said, that she has decorated a house with full partner participation. Her default in previous houses and previous marriages was “to do everything myself and go, ‘Ta-da! Here it is.’”
That didn’t sit well with Mr. Busfield: “I would just go into whatever house we were in and start to do things, and he would go, ‘Wait a minute. Hello, I’m here.’”
They were on the same page about the creation and outfitting of what they call the Woodstock bedroom — the house is a 20-minute drive from the site of the legendary 1969 rock concert. A lava lamp sits on a bureau in the corner, and the wall décor includes a 1960s-themed jigsaw puzzle that the couple assembled, sealed and framed, as well as a poster heralding a concert by The Who.
“The room was designed with Pete Townshend in mind,” Mr. Busfield said, referring to the group’s co-founder. “We keep hoping he’ll come by one day and hang out.”
The couple were also in agreement about a photo wall of family and friends in the living room. “We have a Polaroid camera that we keep here, and when someone comes to visit or stays over, we take pictures and add them to the wall,” Ms. Gilbert said.
Seeing eye to eye is so very satisfying. Marital harmony is such a fine thing. So maybe now isn’t the time to bring up the brown-pleather recliner. Mr. Busfield wanted it and got it. Ms. Gilbert was horrified, she said, and didn’t mince words. She told her husband the chair was horrible, that it was “a grandpa chair.” The long and the short of it: She didn’t want the chair in the house.
So guess who won’t budge from the chair now?
“I fell in love with it,” Ms. Gilbert said, shamefacedly. “I knit in it. I sleep in it.”
“I’ve sat in it maybe twice in the last year and a half,” Mr. Busfield said.
Raised beds for an herb-and-vegetable garden and a chicken coop were added during the Covid lockdown in 2020. Seven hens are currently in residence.
Last summer, the couple put in new windows and painted the exterior of the house a soft yellow. Shutters were installed earlier this spring, and climbing roses were planted. There are plans for homemade window boxes this summer.
A second bathroom would also be nice (although there is a functioning outhouse, and a couple of bathrooms in the RV that the couple bought to billet guests).
“In my opinion, a house is never finished,” Ms. Gilbert said. “It’s always a work in progress.”